DAAD Research Ambassadors are scholars at Canadian universities who have conducted advanced long-term research projects in Germany and are interested in promoting research in Germany at their home institutions and among their peers and students.

Dr. John Corrigan, DAAD Research Ambassador, Western University (London, Canada).

In recent months, DAAD Canada has been interviewing these scholars in an effort to raise their profiles, both as scholars and on our behalf. The next in this series focuses on Dr. John Corrigan, a DAAD Research Ambassador since 2011 and Professor of Chemistry at Western University in London, Ontario.

If you are a faculty member at a Canadian university interested in contacting John Corrigan with your questions about researching in Germany, he can be reached by email at: corrigan@uwo.ca.


DAAD Canada: What is your current position?

John Corrigan: Right now, I’m a Professor of Chemistry at Western University and I have an appointment between teaching and research. That includes undergraduate and graduate level teaching and a research program including both undergraduate and graduate students.  Our research involves synthetic inorganic chemistry, specifically the assembly of atomically precise semiconductor and metallic architectures that are but a nanometer or two in size.

DAAD Canada:  How did your initial connection to Germany come about?

JC: Towards the end of my PhD studies, in the mid-90s, I was deciding where to do my next stage of research. There were three areas of research of interest to me and one of them happened to be in Germany. Ultimately, I decided to do a postdoctoral fellowship at what was then the Technical University of Karlsruhe. (ed. note – the TU Karlsruhe merged with the federally-funded Karlsruhe Research Center in 2009 to form the Karlsruhe Institute of Technology, an institution which has been awarded Excellence Status in both the 2006 and 2019 rounds of the German Universities Excellence Initiative)

DAAD Canada: How long did you end up being there on that occasion?

JC: I was there for two and a half years.

View from tower of Karlsruhe Castle

DAAD Canada: What was that experience like, both as a scholar and away from the lab?

JC: This was more or less at the dawn of the internet/webpage usage, so information was harder to come by beyond personal experiences, maybe someone you knew had spent time visiting the university, etc. But my expectations were exceeded. By that I mean, at the time, the working group I was in at the Institute had over thirty people, the infrastructure was absolutely top drawer for that area of science; it was fantastic. And not just in terms of the laboratory facilities, but also the mobility of people. There was a regular seminar series with scholars from across Europe, and international or regional meetings with collaborators and conferences were easily accessed, so it was fantastic. There is not one negative thing to say about that research experience.

DAAD Canada: What was it like on the level of everyday life?

JC: Well, I was with my spouse and we arrived at the very beginning of January and the Rhine Valley at that time of year can be very dark and gloomy. So, the first weeks and months were a bit challenging on a personal level. We spoke very little of the language, I think I could count to five in German when I touched down in Frankfurt. We were well out of our comfort zone. There were no smart phones, so we were wandering around with our English-German lexicons trying to do our best to sort things out. It was a challenge.

On top of that, having to meet new people, having to create new relationships, having to build a new foundation, those things take time and there’s no doubt it was a challenge. But it all worked out in the end, and then some.

DAAD Canada: Did the host institute help you get settled or was that something you had to navigate on your own?

JC: A little bit of both, that is to say, my post-doctoral supervisor had reached out to some of his graduate students because I needed a place to land. The first few days were in a hotel, but the first five or six months were actually in a student residence that was coinhabited by Protestant nuns, which was very interesting. On the one hand it was very enriching, as the nuns took us under their wing. There was not one word of English from them, they were probably capable, but they refused to use it, probably for the betterment of us. We had our first Raclette dinner in Germany with two elderly nuns who explained to us how it worked and what we were supposed to do with the potatoes and everything, so it was great (ed. Note – a dish popular in that region of Germany which involves melting cheese, potatoes, dried or cured meats accompanied by white wine). That said, it wasn’t exactly an independent lifestyle, I mean, we were cohabiting with nuns in the various corners of the building, so after six months, we moved out and found our own place.

DAAD Canada:  What was the working language for you at the Institute?

JC: I was the only international member of that research team of about thirty people. One-on-one with the individual doctoral students or with my advisor, that was in English, but the other 95% of the discussions, the group meetings, etc., were all done in German. The technical support staff spoke only German, so that made things a bit slower than I might’ve liked, but that was just part of the experience.

DAAD Canada: Were you able to develop a good command of German by the end of your time there?

JC: Probably not the extent I could have or should have. At the time, as a postdoctoral fellow, you’re concerned with landing, setting up your research and then thinking, ‘OK, where am I going to have my next position?’ I certainly became more fluent and that arose largely out of the fact that I worked with a Chemical Technician who spoke no English. The only way I could communicate with her at the beginning was using hand and feet (laughs), but slowly I learned from her, she was very patient. Vocabulary was not a problem, but the mystery of German grammar was still that when I left: a mystery! (laughs)

Years later when I had started my position at Western, a colleague in the Department of Modern Languages was kind enough to allow me to sit in on her 100 level German course as long as I did all the assignments. I spent a year doing that and so, after a few years of speaking the language, there was a little bit of enlightenment as to where the rules of German grammar actually come from.

DAAD Canada: You have returned to Germany several times since then, correct?

JC: Yes, I have been back for stays several times since the year 2000 or thereabouts. Most years I have gone back for a month-long research visit and I have also spent two sabbaticals there in that time. I have had the opportunity to go back to the original institute where I had my first stay, but also other institutes or universities as well.

Returning so often has helped make things easier. A little bit of knowledge as to how things work helps to open more doors, not needed at the universities of course, but off campus certainly.

DAAD Canada: Do you have any favourite memories of Germany or your experiences there?

JC: That is a difficult question as there are so many things! I’ve spent probably in total four years in Germany, so it’s hard to narrow it down, but thinking about it, I’d have to say that the best experiences were the many friends we made, life long friendships that we maintain to this day. We are mobile in terms of hosting them and they hosting us. They have hosted our oldest son, we have hosted their children, so these are very, very life changing relationships which have developed.

I remember leaving Canada for the first time, not knowing what was coming next, heading abroad for two years. There was obviously lots of sadness leaving family and friends behind, but then two and a half years later, you pick up and leave friendships which you’ve developed in Germany, that was incredibly difficult as well.

But without a doubt, at the end of the day, the best experiences we had were the relationships we created.

Alb River, Ettlingen

DAAD Canada: Shifting gears a bit, when you speak to your colleagues or students, are there any misconceptions which you find that they have about Germany and conducting research there?

JC: In terms of my chemistry colleagues, I don’t think there is any misconception, by that I mean that there is a respect and understanding of the position of the natural sciences, including chemistry, in Germany. They recognize the amount of investment done by the various levels of government in Germany into research in chemistry and more generally in the natural sciences, so I don’t think there are any misconceptions. Germany is actually looked upon as a favourable destination or a favourable place to have interactions, collaborations or partnerships in terms of chemistry or the natural sciences.

DAAD Canada:  When you encounter scholars interested in making connections to Germany, or who are perhaps planning a stay, do you have any advice for them?

JC: My first one is to just do it. It is relatively straightforward whatever type of visit you want to organize; a research stay, lecture tour or what have you. Planning ahead is required. I mean, there is paperwork. It is Germany we’re talking about (laughs).

And I would also suggest that they not do what I did and arrive without any spoken German. A little bit goes a long way. Again, not in the university setting where it’s typically not required, but if you’re looking to get off the beaten path, get out of your comfort zone, a few words of German can go a long way to opening those doors to whatever it is you’re looking to experience outside of the university setting.

DAAD Canada: Do you encourage your students to spend time studying or researching in Germany? If so, why?

JC: I do. I’ve sent several Master’s and Doctoral students for research stays in Germany. As for why, there are several reasons. First, they’re going to a facility, institute or research group where they have the infrastructure or the know-how they need for expanding upon the research that they’re doing here. Just as important is that the colleagues of mine whom they go and work with are very kind and accommodating in terms of mentoring. The students go there and they learn more, they benefit from the mentorship they receive and that’s far better than just sending a sample off and receiving data in return.

The last reason is not in any way scientifically focused, but to be able to offer an opportunity for graduate students to go and spend a part of their studies in a different part of the world to go and get different cultural experiences, I mean, why not? These experiences help to make the world a smaller and better place ultimately.

DAAD Canada: Where did you get help and support before leaving for Germany and then after you arrived?

JC: My first stay there was a bit of an outlier, that was some time ago and pretty much pre-Internet. The electronic resources weren’t really set up, so I was doing that on my own.

During my first sabbatical stay, which wasn’t that long ago, the host institution was fantastic. By that I mean, they have an International Office which supports incoming students and faculty. The arrangements for my apartment were all taken care of for me, I just had to sign the lease. This was at a larger university, the Karlsruhe Institute of Technology (KIT) and there were all kinds of support on the ground.

That was a dramatic change from when I first went in the mid-90s when there was more or less nothing like that. So, things have changed and it’s seamless to visit now, very well orchestrated.

The other area where there has been a huge change between the time of my initial visit and now is in terms of the backgrounds of the scholars I find when I go to Germany. That has changed dramatically. The component of the doctoral students, postdoctoral fellows at institutes in general now includes people from many different backgrounds and countries. It is night and day different.

DAAD Canada: Why did you want to become a DAAD Research Ambassador?

JC: Without wanting to sound too sappy, I wanted to be able to give something back. My times in Germany advanced my career and my personal growth. My research stays have advanced my research program, so I thought that I could help show what these experiences can offer both in terms of science and in regards to life changing moments. So, it’s as simple as that really, I do it for others. That sounds totally sappy, I realize, but it’s true.