Two married couples from Colombia and Nepal report on their (shared) experiences as DAAD and Humboldt scholarship holders, what was challenging, and how the funding has impacted their careers.
‘A scholarship? That’s the sort of thing that other people get, but not me’ – Dr Mónica Quintero from Bogotá saw herself as a family doctor and university lecturer, but not as a researcher. Because Edgar Prieto kept on enthusing to his wife about his scholarship from the (Deutscher Akademischer Austauschdienst – DAAD) to such an extent, she also applied for one. She was accepted. Her year at the University of Freiburg, which she completed with a master's thesis in Global Urban Health, ended in September 2023. ‘It has completely changed my life’, said the committed doctor who now quite naturally sees herself as a researcher as well.
This couple now also share the experience of being DAAD alumni. Prieto enthusiastically portrays what that means: ‘I’ve now participated in three alumni seminars in Germany and Costa Rica at the DAAD’s invitation, and I use the annual financial support relating to specialist literature as intensively as I can.’ The basis for this was a DAAD scholarship that the former veterinary surgeon used to reorientate his career. From 2008 to 2010 he completed his master's degree in International Agribusiness at the University of Göttingen. After that, he initially worked for the Colombian Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development and since 2012 has been working for the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), a non-aligned US international development agency.
Scholarships awarded by the DAAD and the enable stays at German education and research institutions. ‘Its amazing that they give people from other nations the opportunity to continue learning and to grow‘, says Dr Quintero, ‘I’m very grateful for that’. Her partner adds: ‘The DAAD pays for flight tickets, covers the costof health insurance and pays a monthly income that easily covers rent and living expenses.’
The Humboldt Foundation also supports scholarship holders with families. If a fellow brings his or her family or partner with them, a family supplement is paid. There is no special programme for couples who want to do research together. However, the partner can apply for a simultaneous study or research stay in Germany. This is what Dr Babita Paudel and her husband Prof. Hari Datta Bhattarai did. ‘However, you have to apply individually,’ says the Nepalese biologist, ‘the only thing that matters is academic excellence.’
It worked in the case of the by now repeatedly distinguished researcher and her equally renown husband. They both conducted research at the University of Göttingen from the beginning of 2009 until the end of 2010. The current Professor of Botany at Kathmandu University received a two-year post doctoral scholarship from the Humboldt-Foundation. This was officially valid from 2007, but he requested a postponement because his wife had yet to complete her master’s degree course and they wanted to conduct joint research in Germany. And this was accepted. When they then arrived in Göttingen, Dr Paudel successfully applied for the Georg Forster Research Fellowship: ‘That’s where our Humboldt journey began.’ Dr Paudel is managing research director of the Center for Natural and Applied Science that she founded in the Nepalese capital. A few kilometres away from her husband's workplace, they are both active in a joint research group and various research projects that are attempting to identify and isolate aspects including medicinally valuable ingredients in soil bacteria or wild fruits. This is significant in light of the increasing resistance of bacterial pathogens to known antibiotics. Numerous patents and academic publications can be traced back to their work.
‘Our Humboldt scholarships have had a major impact on our careers’, says Dr Paudel. ‘They have been very relevant beyond the time of our stay’, she adds. ‘My experiences have enabled me to start a new research group in Kathmandu, and to establish techniques that I learned during my time in Germany, adds Professor Bhattarai. ‘This attracts students and we’re usually successful when we develop research projects and apply for funding. The capacity of his laboratory and of the research team is growing, ‘which is fantastic.’
What is also continuing to grow is their global academic network involving colleagues: ‘Our many contacts are perhaps even the key aspect’. In 2022, Dr Paudel and Professor Bhattarai even helped with the organisation of a meeting in Kathmandu, which exclusively involved Humboldtian colleagues and was financed by the Humboldt-Foundation. ‘Once a Humboldtian, always a Humboldtian’, says Dr Paudel. Dr Paudel and Professor Bhattarai met researchers from different countries in the laboratory during their time in Göttingen and Tübingen; they are still collaborating with them and conducting joint research. Dr Paudel is currently campaigning in her home country Nepal for the funding of female researchers who work in the science, technology, engineering, mathematics (STEM) fields. This commitment was recognised when the Alexander von Humboldt-Foundation presented her with a in 2022 and nominated her as Humboldt Ambassador Scientist for Nepal in the period from 2023 to 2025.
Both couples encountered few challenges in their academic environment. Numerous international companions and having English as a common research language had an inspiring effect. Dr. Quintero emphasises, for example, how much her stay in Freiburg taught her not only to visit patients and plan various activities with them, but also to subsequently evaluate everything from a scientific perspective: ‘What were the impacts of these activities? Could I perhaps do something better for the same money? I’ll take this knowledge back to Colombia with me’. Together with greater awareness of how important intact biodiversity is to people's physical and mental health – ‘often in Colombia this is simply taken for granted’. Her true challenge lay in the fact that she was suddenly no longer a doctor and ‘wife of...’, but a student again. ‘That initially hit me like a loss of identity’, she recalls. And at first the German winter with its unaccustomed low temperatures didn’t make it any easier for her either, instead it was the warm-hearted German neighbours in the apartment block where she moved into a room in a shared flat – and found friends for life.
When Dr Paudel and Professor Bhattarai arrived in Germany on a cold Saturday in January 2009, they were surprised that hardly anyone was out and about – and that the supermarket was closed on a Sunday. ‘Other countries, different customs’. Both of them can laugh about it now. In 2018, Dr Bhattarai received a three-month alumni scholarship at the University of Tübingen and brought along his family, Dr Paudel and their two sons. They settled in well during this time and became used to German idiosyncrasies. A year later, Dr Paudel came back alone for six months. And these will probably not be her last research stay in Germany.