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Faculty of Science

Attracting the Best Researchers

Specialists in science, technology, engineering and mathematics are in high demand. A good thing then that these so-called STEM subjects are a popular choice among young people. And yet, this positive development presents the Faculty of Science of UZH with a number of challenges, as MNF Dean Roland Sigel explains in an interview.
Interview: Kurt Bodenmüller
"We’re very happy about the growing interest in STEM subjects. It’s in line with a trend in today’s society," says Dean Roland Sigel. (Picture: Marc Latzel)


For the past three months, the coronavirus pandemic has cast a shadow over most of the university’s activities. It is all the more important to report the good news: In the most recent Shanghai Ranking, UZH again achieved excellent marks in several subjects offered at the Faculty of Science (MNF). A welcome development?
Being among the best is always an excellent feeling – even if such rankings have to be taken with a grain of salt. The University of Zurich ranks among the best 20 universities in the world in the fields of human biology, ecology and remote sensing, and we’re in the top 50 universities in medical technology, geography, life sciences, biomedical engineering and mathematics.

Is there a formula for UZH’s success?
These results reflect the outstanding circumstances at UZH, which enable us to attract top-notch researchers. But we’re operating in a highly competitive international environment. We must now make sure we can maintain this excellent level. If the number of students increases, we must also invest in our teaching staff, infrastructure and all other aspects that are relevant for research and teaching. This is the only way we can maintain our status at the top and attract the best researchers.

Which factors are most important?
A huge advantage of Irchel Campus is that it brings together researchers from different fields, such as basic medical research, pre-clinical studies, veterinary medicine, mathematics as well as the natural and social sciences. Good infrastructure and academic freedom are also crucial.

The Faculty of Science is a popular choice for studies: The number of students has increased by 70% over the past 15 years.
That’s great! We’re very happy about the growing interest in STEM subjects. It’s in line with a trend in today’s society, but also because many young people know that this expertise is urgently needed in Switzerland.

What makes studying at the MNF so attractive?
Degree programs at the MNF put a strong emphasis on the life sciences and aren’t as technical or mathematical as those at ETH Zurich. Plus, they’re flexible. There are many compulsory modules at the beginning, but the further along in their studies students are, the more they can choose their own mix of modules. At the Bachelor’s level, students can invest 60 out of 180 credits in a minor subject of their choosing, even if it’s at a different faculty. This freedom is greatly appreciated by our students, and it also encourages research across disciplines, which for us is crucial.

STEM subjects are often perceived as male domains. Can you confirm this view?
No. Just over half of our students are women, which is great – and that number is rising. There are, however, major differences depending on the subject. For example, 83 percent of students studying biomedicine are women. In biology, 64 percent of students are women and in geography it’s 49 percent, while 44 percent of maths, 42 percent of chemistry and biochemistry and 27 percent of physics students are women.

Around 4,600 students are currently matriculated at the Faculty of Science. How do these growing numbers impact teaching?
The Faculty of Science is the fastest growing faculty at UZH. And yet, the number of professorships and non-professorial academic positions hasn’t increased in line with this growth. In other words, the student-to-instructor ratio has steadily got worse. In 2010, there were 39 students per professor, whereas today there are 42 students per professorship.

What is the MNF doing about this?
We’ve managed to mitigate some of the effects of this development by acquiring third-party funds – mainly from the Swiss National Science Foundation and the European Research Council. Excluding dual professorships, 17 out of 115 professorships at our faculty are paid for through external funding. But these professors are mainly concerned with research and aren’t supposed to improve the teaching situation. At some stage, we’ll reach the limit when it comes to third-party funds.

Indexed development of student numbers at UZH by faculty 2000-2019


What other options are there?
We are planning to make the appointment procedure for new professorships more flexible. The idea is that when a professor retires, their professorial chair will no longer automatically be filled. Instead, all the money for this chair will be pooled and then used to create new professorships. This would enable us to support our own up-and-coming researchers and bring forward certain new appointments. This solution would afford us more flexibility to invest our means where they’re needed. For example, a full professorship with a major teaching load could be turned into two assistant professorships with smaller teaching loads.

Are the increasing student numbers impacting teaching?
That’s something we must avoid at all costs. Our goal is to maintain our high level, but with the available resources our options will soon be exhausted. The situation is further aggravated by the uncertainty of the coronavirus pandemic, especially since we expect a disproportionately large number of first-year students in the fall semester of 2020.

Do you have enough money to ensure the high level can be maintained?
Given the situation at the MNF, the Executive Board of the University has requested an increase in cost contributions from the Board of the University to support STEM subjects. In the past 10 years, there has been a shift among UZH students, away from the arts and social sciences towards the natural sciences and medicine. In medicine, 72 additional places were created, co-funded by the canton through higher contributions. No additional funds have so far been made available to the MNF to deal with the increase in students. But we hope that the canton will take into account the developments at UZH and invest additional funds.

Studying STEM subjects requires a great deal of infrastructure. Are buildings and facilities kept up to par?
No, we don’t have enough space under normal operations. We have a lot of catching up to do, especially when it comes to our buildings. This is where policy-makers come in, who are called upon to systematically support the building measures we require, i.e. renovating old buildings and building new ones on additional spaces.

How do you normally deal with the limited space?
We often use podcasts, live-stream lectures in other lecture halls, and have to hold certain lectures twice. The recent shift to online formats caused by the coronavirus pandemic has taught us a lot about these kinds of things. But normally our lecture halls are almost always in use from Monday to Friday. Some basic practical training has had to be moved to the second semester. So you can only take the practical courses if you’ve successfully passed the first semester. These measures have brought some relief, but we’ve reached the limit of what’s possible.

Will the problem also be made worse by the high school students who will be on Irchel Campus between 2024 and 2033?
I don’t think so. This interim use of two buildings by three high schools has enabled certain other building plans to be moved forward, and replacement buildings to be added, especially temporary office spaces. I believe this interim usage is a win-win situation for all involved parties. It brings us closer together with high school students and enables us to show them the natural sciences and our research while they’re still in school. We’re looking forward to this opportunity.

How does society benefit from the investments made in UZH?
Education, research and Innovation are Switzerland’s main strengths. Every franc that is invested in UZH results in added value of four francs across the entire value chain – that’s remarkable. Over the past 20 years, more than 100 spin-offs were established at UZH that use UZH technologies to develop new products, services and thus jobs. The majority of these spin-offs – especially in the fields of biotech and medtech – were co-founded by former MNF researchers.

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