All roads lead back to RWTH: Welcome, Prof. Wagner!


Dear Mr. Wagner,

  Prof. Wagner in the Alps Copyright: © Florian Wagner

congratulations! On February 1, 2023, you will take over the teaching and research area "Geophysical Imaging and Monitoring" (formerly "Computational Geoscience and Reservoir Engineering") as successor to Prof. Wellmann. What exactly is your new professorship about and what challenges do you expect?

Thank you, the pleasure is all mine. Geophysical imaging describes the excitation and measurement of physical fields at the Earth's surface or in boreholes in order to estimate from them the distribution of physical subsurface parameters with the highest possible spatial resolution. Basically, this works quite analogously to medical imaging, only with a much more exciting object of investigation. Repeated measurements over time also allow monitoring, i.e., observation of dynamic subsurface processes. Historically, these methods were developed primarily for the exploration of raw materials. Today's challenges in research result mainly from the methodological demand to map process-relevant subsurface parameters quantitatively (e.g., to estimate porosity distribution), the integration of novel measurement data (e.g., drone-based geophysical measurements), and numerous new, challenging, and environmentally relevant applications. These include, for example, the search for repositories and the monitoring of melting alpine permafrost. In addition, of course, many challenges in (post-pandemic) teaching await.

  Geophysical measurements at the beach Copyright: © Florian Wagner

You have already turned your back on RWTH two times when you changed to the Joint Master "Applied Geophysics" (2009-2011) after your Bachelor in "Georesource Management" (2006-2009) to do your PhD at GFZ Potsdam and ETH Zurich (2012-2016). Afterwards, you went as a PostDoc to the University of Bonn (2016-2019) including a research stay at Berkeley Lab in California (2018), before you started your deputy professorship in Aachen in 2019 from October 2019 - March 2022. Do all roads lead back to Aachen? What is it like for you to return to your alma mater now as a full professor?

Yes, all roads lead to Rome and quite obviously back to Aachen at some point. That's how it can be summarized in retrospect, but an academic career, especially in geosciences, often requires a lot of mobility and can only be planned to a limited extent. Especially if you are aiming for a university professorship in a small subject like applied geophysics, the possible university locations and time windows for an application are manageable. It is therefore all the more gratifying that this exciting journey has now taken me back to where it all once began. To be able to call many of the people who sparked and fueled my enthusiasm for geosciences some 15 years ago my colleagues today fills me with great joy, pride and also a little humility. I would not want to miss any of my previous stations, but it also feels very good to arrive now and to be able to plan more long-term in research and teaching, but of course also privately. RWTH Aachen University and its application-oriented and versatile geoscientific competences as well as its strong partners, e.g. in the ABC/J Geoverbund and the IDEA League, offer an ideal environment to build up my research group.

  Copyright: © Florian Wagner

From October 2019 until the end of March 2022, you have already represented the Chair of Applied Geophysics in Aachen. What will you bring to the new professorship from your time as a substitute professor? What will students expect in teaching and what will be the focus of your research?

In many respects, the substitute professorship was a challenge for which I am grateful and on which I have grown a lot. I can take with me, for example, the knowledge of many work processes at the RWTH, the faculty and within the department, some existing courses, two externally funded projects acquired during this time and the associated research assistants, as well as experience in personnel management, academic self-administration and digitally supported teaching. Students can expect me to use and further develop especially hybrid teaching concepts and interactive teaching content even after the pandemic. I would also like to expand geophysical terrain education, which unfortunately was only possible to a limited extent during the summer semesters of my professorship replacement (2020 and 2021).
In research, our group will be dedicated to the development and broad application of multi-physics and process-based imaging techniques. This refers to the integration of various geophysical and non-geophysical measurement techniques, rock-physical relations, and numerical process simulations, which will enable the answering of many environmentally relevant questions. This integrative and process-based approach implies close collaboration with other disciplines, and this is what makes the research so exciting and varied. The applications that can benefit from these techniques are numerous and include, for example, quantitative monitoring of fluid migration in the near-surface environment as well as at the reservoir scale (e.g., geological storage for carbon dioxide or hydrogen) and characterization of climate-induced subsurface changes and associated geohazards.

  Copyright: © Florian Wagner

The students, through the GeoRes student council and the Faculty of Georesources and Materials Engineering, awarded you the teaching prize twice in 2021 for your outstanding commitment to teaching. What special challenges did the Corona years in particular present for you in terms of teaching?

Yes, the positive feedback from the students really made me extremely happy and gave me additional motivation. All colleagues and, of course, the students were exposed to enormous challenges during this time. We all had the same questions: How do you motivate the students (and yourself) after X semesters of online teaching? How do you take as many as possible with you? How do you compensate for the lack of social interaction? How do you find the right pace when all you do is look at mostly black zoom tiles for 90 minutes? I didn't have the right answers to all of these questions, but perhaps I had the advantage of starting from scratch in most courses anyway as a new professorial substitute. So it was relatively easy for me to convert all events to a suitable online format after a few months and to find suitable materials since I had to search for and produce new teaching content week by week anyway. I am now looking forward to interacting with students in the lecture hall as well as in the field and will try to keep as much of the "Corona dynamic" as possible.

  Letter to Prof. Wagners office Copyright: © Kathrin Heinzmann

You were appointed to a W3 professorship after only three years as a PostDoc. To what extent has this experience encouraged you in your career? Would you advise young scientists to apply early for a deputy professorship?

Absolutely. The substitute professorship gave me the unique opportunity to gain insight and practical experience with regard to the diverse tasks of university teachers. While the classic path via a habilitation primarily evaluates the teaching and research performance of the candidate, professorships (and of course tenure-track professorships) have the special attraction that you can act completely on your own responsibility and also try and prove yourself in a chair. I would do it again at any time and I also think it's great when universities use these positions specifically to promote young academics.

  Prof. Kukla and Bachelor graduates Copyright: © Florian Wagner

When you look back on your scientific career and especially on the years at RWTH Aachen University, what is your fondest memory?

At all stations, and of course especially in Aachen, I met inspiring and grounded colleagues, mentors and students. Being able to work with such great people every day is a great privilege and I have many fond memories of this collaboration. If I have to pick one memory, I guess it would be the Joint Master's program in "Applied Geophysics". Traveling around Europe for two years with about 20 like-minded people from all over the world to learn about the wonderful world of geophysics from very different perspectives at three renowned technical universities is indescribable. In addition to the technical input, you inevitably learn English, to be mobile and adaptable, to be self-organized, and to meet people from all over the world. Looking back, I have made the biggest personal development leap in the two years and I'm incredibly happy that I can continue to be a part of this unique program.

Thank you very much for the interview!

Always a pleasure.