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Unique in Germany: the Institute of Cognitive Science of the University of Osnabrück

By Claudia Sarrazin

Interdisciplinary, international and innovative: when it comes to the PhD programme of the Cognitive Science Institute at the University of Osnabrück, these are more than just buzzwords - the terms are filled with new life here every day.

Unique in Germany: the Institute of Cognitive Science of the University of Osnabrück© mpabild - iStockphoto.com
"Before I started studying here, I only knew Osnabrück from a short stopover on my Interrail travels", reminisces Marcus Eronen. But having previously spent a semester abroad in northern Germany, the young man from Finland wanted to complete his doctorate there. Then he was thrilled to discover that the Institute of Cognitive Science at the University of Osnabrück works in precisely the field in which he wanted to earn his doctoral degree. "In addition, the institute's working language is English, that's very good for me", says Eronen. Not only is English mandatory in all lectures and papers, the students also rarely communicate with each other in German. "That's because the proportion of doctoral candidates from abroad is very high", explains German PhD candidate Miriam Kyselo, who is completing her doctorate together with the young man from Finland. "We also have people for example from Italy, Russia or Turkey working here at the institute."

It is not only the nationalities that are diverse at the Institute of Cognitive Science; so are the research areas: they include aspects of the disciplines of anthropology, (neuro-)biology, computer science, artificial intelligence, (computer) linguistics, mathematics, neurosciences, neuro informatics, philosophy and (cognitive) psychology.

Open to graduates from other disciplines

The institute's main focus is on scientific research into the mind and the brain, explaining human linguistic and nonlinguistic behaviour, and the development of artificial intelligent systems, while its PhD projects are centred around the subject area of "Adaptivity in Hybrid Cognitive Systems". Last year however, Osnabrück's "CogScies" - as the students call themselves - came to the attention of the media in a somewhat different context: at the RoboCop Championships their team of research assistants and students beat the international competition to win the world championship. They have been working on this project, the aim of which is to advance research in the fields of "artificial intelligence" and "autonomous mobile robots", since 1998.

Prerequisites for admission to the PhD programme are a good knowledge of English and a Master's degree in the cognitive sciences or one of the listed subdisciplines. The institute is thus open to those who wish to change direction: Kyselo for example studied philosophy, sociology, psychology and philosophy of the cognitive sciences in Berlin and Potsdam, and completed her Master's degree in Sussex.

Room for ideas

"I think the opportunities we have here are pretty unique. There is a lot of room to make one's ideas come true", is how the young woman who now regards Osnabrück as her home describes the doctoral programme of the Institute of Cognitive Science. The philosophy graduate for example took advantage of the opportunity to hold projects and seminars of her own in collaboration with her professor: "You are expected to gain teaching experience anyway. Only a few hours are mandatory, but I was able to do much more." Kyselo believes that not only the professors, but also her fellow students are very open to new ideas: in addition to other seminars, colloquia and reading groups there are weekly meetings attended by PhD candidates of all disciplines where everyone presents the latest results of their work, initiates debates and can discuss questions relating to their subject with other students. "Because a wide range of people with sometimes very different experiences, focuses of work and academic disciplines come together, it's always very interesting", reports Kyselo. Eronen adds: "In my opinion, our institute is a very inspiring place where many different and interesting people work together." That, he says, is certainly unique.

Relaxed atmosphere at the University

Other than that, the young man from Finland loves the relaxed atmosphere at the university, the friendliness of the people and the fact that from his point of view everything is very unbureaucratic. One reason for this may be that both the city and the university are fairly small. Osnabrück has 160,000 inhabitants, good transport connections and is nonetheless surrounded by open countryside. Among other things the city boasts several theatres, numerous cinemas, the MediaArtFestival, and a large number of cafés, bars and restaurants. In addition, the municipal cultural and communication centres offer a wealth of concerts, cabaret evenings, workshops and readings.

The Osnabrück student union also has a lot to offer. In the heart of the city, but still in a world of its own: just a few hundred metres from the city centre at Jahnplatz, a redeveloped former gas meter factory houses one of the student halls of residence. At the edge of the old town is Germany's smallest hall of residence: a tiny half-timbered tower, part of the city's mediaeval fortifications, offers comfortable living for one on three floors. That's a bit too cosy for Kyselo. She chose a room at Bauernhof Luhrmann, an old farm built in 1797, which has been converted to a hall of residence and offers lots of greenery, a total of 58 rooms and its own chicken run. The doctoral candidate shares a flat at the farm with a couple of other "CogScies": "It's great here. I really like being in Osnabrück and rarely go to Berlin any more."

DAAD» :: June 2009

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