Janet G. Hering | July 30, 2007 Issue - Vol. 85 Issue 31 | Chemical & Engineering News
Volume 85 Issue 31 | p. 57 | C&EN Talks With
Issue Date: July 30, 2007

Janet G. Hering

Caltech professor is first woman, and one of the few foreigners, to lead a Swiss federal research institute
Department: Science & Technology
Credit: Courtesy of Janet Hering
Credit: Courtesy of Janet Hering

IN SWITZERLAND, postdoctoral fellows contribute to pension funds. So when Janet G. Hering finished her postdoc at the Swiss Federal Institute of Aquatic Science & Technology (Eawag) and was asked whether she wanted to leave her pension in Switzerland in case she returned, she replied firmly. "No. I'm going to live in the U.S." She could not have known that she would be back about 15 years later.

In January, Hering took up residence in Switzerland as a professor of environmental biogeochemistry at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology (ETH), Zurich, and director of Eawag. The ETH Domain, the only federal organization for research and education in Switzerland, consists of two universities (ETH and EPF Lausanne) and four research institutes, including Eawag. Hering is the first woman and one of the few non-Swiss to lead one of these institutions. Eawag (pronounced EH-vhaag) is in D??bendorf, near Zurich.

"Switzerland is a very small country that is determined to be internationally competitive," Hering says. "I have been quite pleasantly surprised at how easily I have been accepted in this position, both as a foreigner and as a woman."

Chatting from her home after a full day at the office, Hering reflects on differences in public attitudes about science and education. "I have a great deal of admiration for the Swiss science community, which is thinking about the future opportunities for the country and economy and targeting the knowledge-based society as an opportunity," she says. She thinks Swiss society's willingness to make solid investments in education and research in science and technology will pay off for the nation. "I think that type of investment is something that we could really use in the U.S. as well."

Hering, who laughs often, grew up in New York City without the regional accent. She has always liked science, "which was a little bit of a mystery to my parents," she says.

Undergraduate chemistry classes at Cornell University initially caught her attention, but environmental sciences soon became her passion. She switched from doing graduate work in synthetic organic chemistry at Harvard University to a Ph.D. program in oceanography at Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Her first "serendipitous" encounter with Eawag occurred at MIT, when Werner Stumm, who was then the director of Eawag, visited Hering's adviser. Hering gave Stumm a brief synopsis of her research, and he immediately offered her a postdoc.

During her three-year postdoc, Hering studied chemical processes that occur at the mineral-water interface. She says she benefited from exposure to excellent facilities at Eawag and collaborations with scientists with a wide range of expertise.

Hering returned to the U.S. to become an assistant professor at the University of California, Los Angeles, in the civil and environmental engineering department. A few years later, she moved to the environmental science and engineering department at California Institute of Technology, where she was most recently a professor and the executive officer of the Keck Laboratories for Bioengineering, Environmental Science & Engineering & Materials Science.

Through the years, Hering maintained connections to Eawag through research collaborations, conferences, and personal friendships. She became an associate editor for the American Chemical Society journal Environmental Science & Technology, which has strong ties to Eawag, and served as a member of Eawag's visiting committee in 2003. When the director's position opened up the following year, she was asked to apply.

"I didn't really think that the job would go to someone who was not Swiss" because the institutes have a strong national service mandate, Hering says. Nevertheless, she welcomed the prospect of leading Eawag because of its world-class research reputation and the opportunity to continue working with students.

"Eawag has a very close connection with education even though Eawag itself is not an educational institution," she explains. Eawag has a staff of 300 (including postdocs) and 100 Ph.D. students, primarily from ETH. "We have a well-defined mission that is focused on water research and aquatic science and technology."

The Swiss institutes have elements similar to Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory and Germany's Max Planck Institutes, says Hering, who oversees Eawag's annual budget of approximately $48 million. Roughly 80% comes directly from the Swiss government. The European Union, the Swiss National Science Foundation, and the Swiss Federal Office of the Environment supply additional funding.

HERING'S PROJECTS as director include strengthening Eawag's presence in the global water policy scene and promoting commercialization of its technology. Building international connections to advance those goals requires her to travel extensively. In the past few weeks, for example, she had a dizzying schedule of meetings in Europe and Asia.

In her professorial role, she plans to coadvise graduate students and continue research. Her previous research projects included engineered and natural water systems primarily in the U.S. She looks forward to helping solve significant water problems that face developing countries. She says Eawag is a better home base from which to do that than California, because Eawag is geographically closer to South and Southeast Asia and already has a considerable portfolio of work in those regions.

In her own community, she organized a team to participate in Switzerland's annual Bike to Work Month in June. She is also steadily learning German. (Switzerland has four official languages: German, French, Italian, and Romansh.) This time, Hering intends to stay in Switzerland to collect her pension.

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