We meet with Elisabeth Stark early one morning via MS Teams. She joins the call from her home in Dübendorf, where she shares bandwidth with her husband, who also works remotely. Speaking quickly, frankly and engagingly, Elisabeth Stark explains that she is looking forward to taking on her new role of Vice President Research. “I’ve already been able to sit in on several Executive Board meetings as a guest,” she says. “The Board is a good mix of very different kinds of personalities.” In addition to research, Stark is also responsible for academic career development and innovation.
Language in the spotlight
Stark, a 51-year-old professor of Romance linguistics, has been teaching and conducting research at UZH since 2008. Her accomplishments since then have been many: She took the lead in establishing a new Master’s program, oversaw the cross-university education of linguistics doctoral candidates in Zurich for many years, and served as the co-head of the URPP Language and Space for several years.
She is also a project manager currently working on building up a research infrastructure for linguistics at UZH. The LiRI (Linguistic Research Infrastructure) technology platform – part of Switzerland's national research infrastructure – provides linguistics researchers in a variety of disciplines with the tools and resources they need to generate, process and analyze enormous data sets. “Over the past few years I’ve taken on more and more responsibility for various larger-scale projects at UZH, and in the process, I realized that I have a lot of fun working on research strategy and policy,” says Stark, explaining why she applied for the Vice President Research role.
The Governance 2020+ project saw the Office of the Vice President Research change its strategic direction. One of the main duties of the officeholder used to be representing the Vetsuisse Faculty and the Faculty of Science on the Executive Board. Today, the main focus of the role is research as a matter of concern for all faculties throughout the university. Elisabeth Stark’s appointment as Vice President Research is a first in two respects: She is the first woman and the first representative of the humanities to hold the post. She is no stranger to the scientific mindset, however. “I apply scientific methods in my work as a linguist and am definitely tech-savvy,” says the linguistics expert, whose research combines empirical, quantitative approaches with theoretical modeling.
Influential role models
Elisabeth Stark completed her undergraduate and doctoral studies at Ludwig Maximilian University of Munich (LMU), where she also gained her habilitation. She did not spend much time abroad during her time as a student. “I more or less stayed put when I was younger,” she says. “But Munich is a very international city and a very exciting place to be for academics.” Her first professorial appointment was as chair of Romance linguistics at Free University of Berlin from 2004–2008. She then moved abroad after receiving an appointment at UZH.
Stark stumbled into her passion for Romance languages. “I immediately took a liking to French at school,” she says. “It just sort of came to me, even though I didn't have any sort of family connections to France, with the exception of an Alsatian great-grandmother.” Studying Romance languages in Munich was therefore an obvious step for Stark, who was born in Northern Bavaria, and she says that her intense contact with Romance cultures has contributed to shaping her identity.
She had two role models at LMU who influenced her academic interests and approach to tackling issues in her field: her thesis supervisor, Wolf-Dieter Stempel, a classic humanities scholar who embodied French culture and savoir vivre, including being a red wine aficionado, and his successor Wulf Oesterreicher, an industrious Romance scholar with tireless research ambitions. “I learned a lot from him, including how to develop a thick skin,” recalls Stark.
Her readings of scholarly papers led her to female role models such as Liliane Haegeman, with whom she currently conducts joint research projects; the two are also friends. Over the course of her academic career, Stark has honed her interests to focus on modern empirical linguistic, also involving the use of experimental approaches – one of her interests is the typical syntactic structures used in digital communications, for instance.
Promoting first-class research
What does she hope to achieve as the new Vice President Research? “The research landscape at UZH is incredibly varied,” she says. To maximize the potential of the university’s wealth of top-notch research, Stark would like to promote collaboration across disciplines and to boost the reputation of UZH as a research hub. “The University of Zurich is an excellent and highly diversified comprehensive university, but people outside of the UZH community sometimes don’t really know what we stand for,” explains Stark. “Life sciences and business and economics at UZH are among the world’s best, and fields like communication studies are very highly ranked. But there are a lot of other areas of research that should be more well known, and more particularly, there are research issues that UZH should be known for on a global level. This is definitely possible, as we have first-class researchers in all seven of our faculties.”
Two ongoing projects stand out as examples for Stark: the URPPs in Healthy Aging and Human Reproduction Reloaded. They are inter- and transdisciplinary in nature and therefore especially relevant and deserving of support in Stark's view. She is not a fan of the scattershot approach when it comes to research. “To raise our profile, we need to set priorities,” she says. Academic career development is an issue that is also close to Stark’s heart. She believes that more permanent positions need to be created for young researchers and that there should be alternative career paths to traditional professorships.
Stark is excited, energized and full of expectation for the challenges that await her. However, she also knows that the workload will be considerable. Outside of her academic duties, Stark is the mother of an 11-year-old son and a racing bike fan who seeks balance in the great outdoors. “Once spring comes, I’m hopping on my bike and racing around the Greifensee.”
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