ETH+: Five further initiatives selected

In the second round of ETH+, the Executive Board’s funding instrument for new research ideas and exchange between disciplines and departments, five new initiatives were selected. These address a range of topics, from living materials to quantum science.

Interest in ETH+, which saw the launch of nine initiatives last year, is as great as ever: the second round attracted a total of 241 applicants from departments and areas right across ETH, with 25 outline ideas submitted to the second call for applications. Of these, four will now be implemented as part of ETH+; another idea relating to teaching will launch as a pilot project under ETH Rector Sarah Springman. ETH Zurich is making a total of 41.8 million Swiss francs in funding available to these initiatives, with most of this sum coming from reserves.

’I think it’s fantastic that so many members of ETH see ETH+ as an opportunity to develop unconventional ideas. The latest batch of projects to have been selected are just as original as last year’s, and they open up fresh approaches to collaboration,’ says ETH President Jol Mesot. Two of the selected initiatives feature PSI involvement; after all, ETH+ is also meant to promote interdisciplinary collaboration throughout the ETH Domain. For the next round, the idea is to further broaden the eligibility criteria to enable Swiss universities, industry and public administration to take part. Here is an overview of this round’s successful projects:

Bringing materials to life

In the future, the significance of living materials will only grow. But for now, many questions remain unanswered ’ for instance how material properties and intracellular characteristics affect the functionality or the plasticity of cells. Chemists, physicists, materials scientists and biologists are keen to work more closely together at ETH Zurich to build up a network of experts and develop new biological materials. A new professorship will be established to this end.

Filming electrons in action

This initiative is aiming high: it wants to create a leading global centre for research into and control of electron-driven processes. The idea is to gain a better understanding of the high-speed movements of electrons over very short distances, as these can trigger changes in a wide variety of systems from nanocrystals to biomolecules. A combination of the latest advances in ultrafast lasers with XFEL technology will make it possible to ’film’ the electrons’ dynamics across several timescales. This is why PSI’s involvement will be vital: its SwissFEL facility is a key piece of infrastructure for this endeavour. In this area, too, there are plans to establish a new professorship for the electronic and structural dynamics of proteins and enzymes.

AI for architecture and construction

Anyone looking to build in a more sustainable manner in the future will need new digital design tools and calculation methods. This interdisciplinary initiative aims to deliver major advances in design processes for architecture and construction with the help of machine learning, artificial intelligence and virtual reality. It will draw on experience of NCCR Digital Fabrication, ETH expertise in a wide variety of areas such as structural engineering and structural mechanics, and the latest information technology research. A new laboratory for immersive reality and data visualisation will be set up, enabling researchers to interact directly with virtual environments and even experience the acoustics of buildings before they are built. In the future, this unique lab could play a part in the planning of major new buildings. A new professorship will be established for augmented computational design, further strengthening this field.

ETH Centre for Quantum Science and Technology

Intensive research into many aspects of the quantum sciences is already under way at ETH. The planned centre will pool the quantum research activities across the engineering and natural sciences at ETH as well as the Paul Scherrer Institute PSI to strengthen this field at the national level. By establishing the next generation of quantum technologies, the hope is to seize this opportunity for Switzerland. The new ETH centre will also generate international visibility above and beyond the recognition that individual researchers earn when they receive awards. There are also plans to establish a joint professorship with PSI for experimental quantum technology as well as a professorship for quantum information at the Department of Computer Science.

Tomorrow’s engineers

The fifth initiative, which was submitted by students as part of ETH+, is something quite special. Switzerland and the world need engineers who are even better prepared to tackle complex challenges. A new interdisciplinary degree programme will be set up to round out engineering students’ knowledge, empower them to collaborate more effectively on an interdisciplinary basis, and show them how to draw on insights gained in economics, social science and the humanities: It will also prepare them for the requirements of the jobs market. From the outset, the curriculum will offer a wide range of optional modules as well as interdisciplinary lecture content. The Executive Board is excited about this idea and Rector Sarah Springman would like to implement the proposal as a pilot project. This why the teaching area, for which she is responsible, will support the process of content development for this initiative in close collaboration with the departments.

ETH+ enters a new round

ETH+ was launched in 2017 by the Executive Board of ETH Zurich. This instrument supports the university’s efforts to develop new strategic topics on an interdisciplinary and interdepartmental basis under its own steam. In this way, ETH Zurich will build up the additional capacity it needs to pursue unconventional approaches in research and teaching as well as in knowledge and technology transfer, while also strengthening collaboration across the ETH Domain. Anyone who has new suggestions or ideas won’t have to wait much longer: the third round of ETH+ will open at the start of October 2019; the deadline for submissions of outline ideas is 19 December 2019.

Norbert Staub

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