Mahmoud Hussein is a PhD candidate at the department for active materials and interfaces for stable perovskite solar cells. In this interview he talks about his experiences working in international teams and how different cultures can contribute to scientific progress by encouraging creative thinking.
What is important to you about diversity?
The most important aspect in diversity, for me, is having people from different cultures and from different backgrounds – and different science perspectives. That’s very important because this is one of the main driving forces of science. Why? Because when you take people. from different backgrounds, from different educational systems, different academic sub fields, and then you put them together in one research group, you fuse all their knowledge, perspectives, and experiences. And then, the product will be completely different from having a monotonous research group. That’s it.
At what points in your work does diversity play a role?
In my work, I enjoy working with people from different cultures. There is room to get to know each other. And talk about each other. Ask each other about what did you study in your undergraduate studies? What did you specify in? Would you classify, for example, material science as an engineering science or chemistry or physics or whatever it is. And there is open room for people to come to know each other. To talk about their experiences, and what did they learn in their previous workplaces, or their previous learning environments.
So, having an opportunity to talk to people and come to know your colleagues and talk about each other, exchanging ideas and perspectives about things, leads to very fruitful inspirations and also fuels your imagination and leads to better science and scientific advancements.
Do you have some examples when it really helped you to have different opinions and different perspectives?
Last summer, I visited a university in Japan. There I worked with a research group that is doing the same as we are doing here at HZB. And we exchanged different perspectives of making the same type of solar cells. And I learned a lot of from them because they take care of very small details that we didn’t take care of in Germany. On the other hand, in Japan, they organized their labs in a different way from us. And I could give them very useful insights about how to organize their instruments and the lab to make their research more efficient.
Dou you also have an example where there has been friction?
Of course, you cannot in all cases guarantee that you will always have the positive side of diversity. People are different. But friction happens even if you don’t have diversity. I would even say that the possibility for a negative form of friction is even higher when you have a homogenic group of people than with a diverse one. True, the collision probabilities are higher in a diverse team. But when you have diverse people, there is a lot to exchange. And you will have a much better, constructive form of friction because everyone has a lot to exchange with and learn from the others.
How do you think could HZB help to encourage diversity further?
I think it would be nice if we had some exchange programs to especially sub-Saharan countries, or to invite young researchers and students to visit us more frequently. We are one of the world’s top leading research institutes and in that position, we have a global social responsibility, especially to less developed countries, and we all can only benefit from more exchange. Diversity motivates creative thinking. Bringing people from different backgrounds together really leads to genius ideas.
This interview was conducted by Ribal Zeitouni.
Diversity, Creative Thinking, and Innovation – Struggles in Science
Diversity encourages innovation. And innovation leads to better science. That is already known. Recent studies even suggest that demographically underrepresented academics produce more innovative work than their peers from more privileged groups. And yet, although their work is more innovative and contributes greatly to the scientific progress, people from marginalised groups are still underrepresented in scientific functions. In the study linked above, you can find more information about the discriminatory structures in science, which we, as the scientific community, must combat. Not only for equality but also for a better science.
Written by Ribal Zeitouni.
Bas Hofstra et al. (2020): The Diversity–Innovation Paradox in Science. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.117/17: 9284-9291. https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1915378117