"The openness of the Ilmenau scientists convinced me".

Choosing Ilmenau as a place to work when you have the whole world to choose from seems unusual at first glance. That's exactly what Dr. Sukhdeep Singh did in 2008 and has been a satisfied resident of Ilmenau ever since. In an interview with Anna Simo Genao, a student of Applied Media and Communication Studies, Dr. Singh, research group leader at the Institute of Chemistry and Bioengineering at TU Ilmenau, tells us what motivated his move from the Indian metropolis of Amritsar to a small town in eastern Germany and what has changed in his life as a result of this decision.

TU Ilmenau/Michael Reichel
Dr. Singh is the head of a research group at the Institute of Chemistry and Bioengineering at TU Ilmenau.

Hello Dr. Singh, you completed your entire academic career up to the doctorate in India. Shortly afterwards, you decided to move to Ilmenau. How did that come about?

To be honest, Germany was not my first choice when I thought about where I wanted to go. Especially as a young person. It was more about seeing a different part of the world in general. And Germany became it in the end through Professor Andreas Schober's research group. The group was working on a biological topic with a technical perspective. I personally come from organic and fundamental chemistry, which means I didn't have much to do with it thematically, but I wanted to implement my accumulated knowledge into the field of the technical side. I asked myself, "How can fundamental chemistry be extended by the technical point of view?". And there I would say the openness in Germany is great. You notice how open scientists are here to combine ideas that may have nothing to do with each other. And Professor Schober had a very innovative mindset in his approach, in his research. So then I thought, why not go there and try to combine my chemistry with his biology? And that's how I ended up here.

Now I have a family and children who go to school here. In my opinion, Ilmenau is also really a perfect location for this. There are schools, the university, leisure activities - everything is close by, you feel safe, and because of the university there is also an international environment. I am completely satisfied with my decision.

My parents are both migrants and have often told me about their culture shock when they arrived in Germany. Did you also have this experience or was your acclimation to the German way of life smooth?

I definitely had a temperature shock at first. The fact that it can get so cold here and also that the city is not so flat surprised me. My legs hurt a lot the first few weeks. But at work, I didn't feel any difference on a personal level. It doesn't matter where you travel and work, the professional interaction doesn't change. Of course, you miss your friends and family. But I think that's unavoidable and a consequence of your own decision to leave your home country.

Another thing that comes to mind is why I wear a turban. I am a religious and traditional person and in my religion, if you are a man, you wear a turban. In India, this is common knowledge and part of the culture. However, here I am often asked and it is difficult to answer in one sentence. It is a cultural and religious thing and to explain it quickly to someone on the street is complicated. It is simply an expression and identity of the Sikh culture I belong to. I have thought for a long time about how to deal with this issue openly. In the meantime, I'd say I'm coping well with inquiries.

You said that you find Ilmenau very international because of the university. Do you have contact with international students from India? Do you take part in cultural celebrations within associations like KuKo e.V.?

Unfortunately, due to my job and family commitments, there is usually not enough time for that. Every now and then I participate in a social event, but mostly the students have contact with each other. But if there is a need, I am there.

Ilmenau has been your home for 15 years now. Can you imagine moving back to India at some point?

I have already settled here. Ilmenau is my second home. But I'm still open, you only live once. And if there is an opportunity to learn more, to apply one's own knowledge, and if this knowledge is also needed, then I am open to moving to India or even to another country. But not for personal or financial reasons.

Have you noticed a difference in your everyday work since you moved to Ilmenau?

Yes, there is a very big difference between working in India and working in Germany. However, I only count the time from my doctorate onwards, because until then the time as a student is similar everywhere. Responsibility only comes with the doctorate. According to my observations, the hierarchy in Germany is very flat. In India, it is very strict and you have to be able to work under pressure. There is a lot of that there. Pressure is generally good, but too much pressure is counterproductive. I've had the experience that people have made less progress as a result. And that's what I think is great about Ilmenau. You only have pressure when it's necessary. With the final papers, for example.

My roommate has ruled out working abroad for herself because the technical language in chemistry in English is completely different from that in German. How do you feel about chemical names? Did you also have a problem with that when you first came here?

It's a complicated subject. I actually still have trouble with it. Your roommate definitely has a valid thought with that. The technical language is actually very different in German. For example, you say sulfur to "sulfuric." When I first had the opportunity to teach here, it was uncomfortable because good communication skills were required and I also honestly didn't know what to do at first. I then gave my first lectures in English and half of the students were not there the next time. That's why I had pressure to learn the terms in German. And that's what I meant earlier about the pressure, but then it's only where it's necessary. But what's so beautiful about chemistry is that structurally it speaks the same language. I don't know your roommate, but I would say don't let language stop her from working in other countries. It's automatic and if you put a little effort into it, you'll be fine. Working abroad is very interesting, so that shouldn't be the reason why she rules it out for herself.

About the person

PD Dr. Sukhdeep Singh was born and raised in Banga, Nawanshahr in India. He studied organic chemistry at Guru Nanak Dev University Amritsarzu from 2003 and subsequently acted as a research assistant there till 2007. He received his Ph.D. from the Faculty of Applied Chemical Sciences and Technology in 2008 on "Synthesis and Regioselective Scaffold Decoration of Biginelli Dihydropyrimidinones". Since 2019, Dr. Singh has been the head of the Bioorganic Chemistry of Bioactive Surfaces Research Group at the Institute of Chemistry and Bioengineering and is involved in the development of materials, sensors, and chemical systems that have applications in biotechnology and environmental protection. He habilitated on the topic "Chemical toolbox for designing small bioactive molecules and fragments in search of tunable bioactive surfaces". His research interests also include chemical methods for developing chemosensors and post-processing methods for polymers to reduce environmental waste.

Background of the interviews

As part of the seminar "Berufsfeldorientierung Journalismus", students of the TU Ilmenau interviewed members of the university. The interviews deal with topics that TU Ilmenau is strongly concerned with - including sustainability, e-learning or internationality. In conversation with the students, lecturers, researchers and employees also reveal very personal insights and tell what drives them, how they cope with professional and private challenges and what their everyday working life at TU Ilmenau is like.


PD Dr. Sukhdeep Singh

Head of the Research Group Bioorganic Chemistry of Bioactive Surfaces