Frontiers of Science is a series of prestigious international meetings for outstanding early career scientists, organised by the Royal Society in conjunction with national academies and scientific organisations around the world. The Alexander von Humboldt Foundation and Die Junge Akademie partnered the Royal Society in this fourth UK-German Frontiers of Science meeting.  Two young scientists, one from the UK and one from Germany, offer their perspectives on the meeting.

A morning walk through the centre of Potsdam

Ruža Ivanović , NERC Independent Research Fellow in the School of Earth and Environment , University of Leeds

I sat down to dinner and was immediately plunged into a lively discussion on the neurological processes involved in decision making. I’m a climatologist, and this is not a subject area I know much about; not in a scientific sense anyway. Or so I thought, until it quickly emerged that some ways in which the brain works (‘model based learning’) are not so dissimilar from the logic-encoded climate models that I use in my day-to-day research. When I accepted my invitation to attend the 4th British-German Frontiers of Science (BRIGFOS) symposium in Potsdam, I did so largely out of curiosity and my enthusiasm for learning about cool stuff. I had not expected to find so much common ground.

Clearly, I was not the only participant to find the common ground; this was the first meeting of symposium delegates and at every table, scientists were engaged in rapt conversation. In simply trying to understand each other’s research, the overlapping themes jumped out at us. As the symposium unfolded, these connections continued to grow in talks that sparked heated debate, discussions that will take many years to conclude, and ideas that we all need to go away and work on a little bit before we really know where they’re leading.

But that was the point, wasn’t it? We are scientists because we love the very essence of scientific endeavour; because we want to understand this world we live in; because we want to know the how, why, and when.  That motivation transcends subject boundaries, which in many cases are arbitrarily defined anyway. We are trained critical thinkers. So a multidisciplinary audience of scientists is surely the ideal forum for the forefront of innovation. Where else do we remember to ask the fundamental questions that underpin our work? Here, we can overturn defunct and outdated assumptions, build new methodologies from unfamiliar cutting-edge technologies, and apply a joined-up approach to the big picture questions.

Over the last three days, I have been challenged, educated and inspired. I may be departing BRIGFOS with more questions than I have answers, but as I sit in Potsdam’s tranquil Park Sanssouci, writing this, so many possibilities stretch before me.

The frontier of science is an exciting place to be.

An eclectic group of scientists; BRIGFOS 2014 participants outside the conference centre

Jens Baumgartner, Max Planck Institute of Colloids and Interfaces, Science Park Golm, Postdam

Last weekend I had the honour to be invited as a speaker to the 4th British-German Frontiers of Science. Scientists, mostly young academics, from both countries and a large variety of fields were gathering in Potsdam to present and discuss their research. Such occasions are surprisingly rare in academia. Most of our time we spend solving detailed problems, which we consider relevant only to our respective fields. Hardly ever do we get the chance to show them to experts from another ivory tower. And this is not because we are not interested.

By default, we are very curious people, otherwise we would have chosen the wrong profession. The limiting factors are the time and energy required to make it happen. The organizers did a great job in providing the means and time to break this unnatural barrier. Given the rarity of such events I was pleasantly surprised how quickly we can learn from each other. I got acquainted with things about ecology, catalysis, optics, materials and decision-making, I had never even heard of before.  And while at first sight this appears to be a random choice of topics, they are eventually intertwined in the way we see and change the world.

Our global society could face severe challenges in the future as pointed out by some of the attending ecologists, which in turn require decisions by brains still barely understood. Yet other disciplines might have to provide the technologies and methods   to tackle such problems. The more we know from and of each other the more likely we will be able to succeed. The most intense discussions were spurred by talks about our brain. And from what I understand (I am not a neuroscientist), links between our neurons are the basis to our curiosity and creativity. The more the merrier. I believe this holds true for links between people and scientific disciplines as well.