Peer Story

The Importance of
Support Systems
and Funding on
Research Success

Jingyuan Xu is a Klaus Tschira Boost fellow. She shares her journey from aspiring scientist to group leader and provides inspiring insights into navigating academia and personal life.

Dr. Jingyuan Xu is the head of the “ZEco Thermal Lab” at the Karlsruhe Institute of Technology  and a Klaus Thschira Boost Fund fellow. She has made significant advances in the field of sustainable cooling technologies, transforming how we think about energy efficiency and environmental impact in cooling systems.

In addition to learning about her innovative approach to developing cooling methods—how it could change traditional cooling technologies and its global impact—we wanted to know more about her journey from an aspiring scientist to a group leader and a prize-winning researcher. We also asked her about her experiences with the challenges and successes of balancing an academic career with personal life. We found her story motivating!

If you had to explain your research to someone who isn’t in the field, for example someone who is following GSO on Instagram or LinkedIn, how would you describe it?

In my research, I focus on developing sustainable, solid-state elastocaloric cooling technologies as an alternative to traditional vapor compression systems, which predominantly use gaseous refrigerants. These conventional refrigerants pose environmental risks, often leaking into the atmosphere and contributing to global warming due to their high global warming potential (GWP).

To address this issue, my work centers on utilizing solid-state materials, specifically shape memory alloys, for cooling purposes. Unlike gases, these solid materials don’t leak into the environment, thereby eliminating the risk of atmospheric release and GWP. Shape memory alloys are particularly intriguing because they change temperature under mechanical stress, similar to how a stretched rubber band heats up and cools down upon release. This principle is applied in my research to create cooling effects through a cyclical process of loading and unloading stress on the alloy.

Additionally, this approach has the dual capability of heating, making it akin to a heat pump. This dual functionality allows for simultaneous heating and cooling in different applications, broadening the potential utility of our technology. By shifting to solid-state refrigerants, we’re not only mitigating the environmental hazards posed by traditional gaseous refrigerants but also advancing towards a more sustainable and efficient cooling and heating solution.

Can you share how you initially prepared for grant applications and any lessons learned?

When I first started writing proposals, my skills were not fully developed. I would draft my proposal, then have it reviewed by a professor who would provide feedback. This iterative process of revision and feedback was important for improving my proposals over time. I’ve learned it’s important not to rush and to use each application as a learning opportunity.

Five take-aways from the interview:

1. Learn from feedback: When applying for grants, get feedback on your proposals and use each application as a learning opportunity.

2. Be strategic: Apply for awards and grants that closely match your research to increase your chances of success.

3. Network actively: Attend conferences and join academic associations to build connections and collaborate with other researchers.

4. Develop leadership skills: Take courses on team management and conflict resolution to effectively lead and support your research group.

5. Balance work and life: Maintain a strong support system, seek flexible work arrangements, and manage your time well to balance professional and personal responsibilities.

You have received numerous grants in the last years. How has getting grants and awards changed your professional development?

I started by trying to get my research out there, and honestly, winning awards helped with that. Every time I received an award, it put a spotlight on my work. People could read about it, get interested, and reach out. It’s been great for attracting bright students to my lab and getting journalists to talk about what we do, which is important for raising awareness about sustainable cooling technologies.

»Funding has been a game changer for me.«

It’s important because my field needs a lot of hands-on work, like building prototypes. With the right funding, I can buy the necessary equipment and materials, and also support a team. You know, there’s only so much you can do on your own, but with a good team, you can really increase your efforts. Plus, it opens up opportunities for collaborations, which is great for growth in any specialized field.

How did you start getting recognized with awards and grants? Is it all through self-nomination, or do others recommend you?

Well, it’s a changing process. A lot of the time, I’m recommended for awards through nominations made by colleagues or institutions. But for certain things like fellowships—for example, the Humboldt Research FellowshipI had to be more proactive. I found the information in a guidebook, reviewed what was required, and applied on my own.

»It’s a combination of keeping an eye out for opportunities and being recommended by others.«

Any tips on navigating this process?

One critical piece of advice I can offer is to pay close attention to the guidelines of each award. It’s important to understand if an award is a good match for your specific area of research. While some awards may look like they are appealing, they might not match with your work, and applying for them could end up being a waste of time.

On the other hand, when an award fits well with your research, you should prepare your application precisely, as this greatly increases your chances of success. It is important to be selective and strategic about which awards to apply for and invest your time can make a significant difference.

It sounds like being strategic and selective is key. How important has networking and affiliations with academic associations been in your career?

Networking and building affiliations have always been important. Joining groups like the Global Young Academy has opened many doors. These associations provide a platform not just for meeting new people but for exchanges of ideas, which can lead to collaborative projects. They put you in contact with peers who are at similar stages in their careers, making an exchange of fresh ideas and new perspectives easier that can help your own research.

My involvement with the Global Young Academy began with my keen interest in its initiatives. I regularly checked the KIT website, where they posted calls for applications, and when I saw one from the Global Academy, it aroused my interest.

So it’s a bit of a balancing act between personal effort and using your network. Can you recall how you first started networking?

My first steps into networking began with attending conferences. These events are very important because they offer a platform to present your own research and learn about others. Engaging with other researchers’ work and sharing your findings helps build a professional relationship that could lead to future collaborations. Starting these relationships can be as simple as a conversation during a coffee break. Over time, these connections grow stronger, and as your work gains more recognition through publications and presentations, your network naturally expands. This growth in connections is gradual but so important to building a successful career in research.

You’re a group leader, which is a significant career milestone. Can you share how you transitioned to this role and the challenges and milestones you encountered along the way?

Becoming a group leader felt like a natural progression in my career, though it certainly involved challenges and strategic planning. After completing my PhD, I moved on to postdoctoral positions in the UK and Germany. Initially, my research funding was modest—I started with smaller grants like a fellowship or a combo research fellow grant. These early grants were just enough for my own research expenses without the possibility of hiring others.

As my career developed, I applied for and secured more funding from sources like the Klaus Thschira Boost Fund. Each grant was a step up from the last, starting with smaller awards and progressively reaching larger ones, like the Carl Zeiss Nexus grants, which were so important. These grants enabled me to establish a junior research group.

The process was gradual, each grant building on the previous one, providing not just financial stability but also the credibility and track record to get to larger projects.

It sounds like securing grants was important for advancing your career and establishing your research group.

Absolutely, securing funding is so valuable to the growth in academic research. Each successful grant application was a stepping stone for becoming a group leader.

»It’s not just about the money—each grant is a boost of confidence in your research agenda, which brings more opportunities and talents to your group.«

You have to be proactive about seeking opportunities and you have to be ready to take the responsibility of guiding a team when you have the resources – so every step was significant.

How was it to become a group leader? Is there any personal or professional advice you would have liked to have received on your journey to becoming a group leader?

Yes, definitely. Transitioning to a group leader was a significant shift for me, especially coming from a postdoctoral position where I was primarily focused on my own research. Suddenly, I found myself responsible for managing a team, which is a whole different way of working. I was in new territory, learning how to overseeing the group’s direction.

To improve my management skills, I took several courses on team management. Learning from others’ experiences and applying it to the dynamics of my group was very helpful. We established a routine of weekly group meetings where everyone could share their progress and discuss any challenges. This open communication helps to build up a supportive environment where team members feel comfortable offering their own solutions.

In terms of advice, I think it’s important to see leadership more as a mentor than an authority figure. It’s about guiding and encouraging. Although I don’t spend all my time in the lab, I ensure that those who do are prepared to answer questions and be part of discussions.

And regarding the courses you’ve taken, what are you still learning?

One area I’m focusing on is conflict management. Although we haven’t had major conflicts in our group, I believe it’s important to be prepared. When I saw a course on managing team conflicts, it hadn’t crossed my mind as something I’d need. But taking it has showed me with tools to handle potential disagreements and ensure our team works in a collaborative atmosphere. Learning how to deal with conflicts before they escalate is an important skill for any leader.

That’s great advice. Speaking of balance and leading in your career, how do you manage the demands of your professional and personal life, especially as a female scientist?

Balancing both is definitely challenging. It requires a strong support system, particularly from family. For female scientists, this balance can be even more demanding due to traditional expectations about family responsibilities. Having a supportive partner who understands the demands of my job is very important.

During busy periods, work might take more time, but it’s important to compensate by spending more quality time with family afterward. But this is only for the period, not for the whole life. I mean, just for this short time, we pay more attention to the work because maybe there’s a deadline or something, but it’s fine. This balance is essential, not just for maintaining personal relationships but also for mental health.

And there’s been progress. The academic community and society in general are becoming more supportive of female scientists. This includes encouraging paternity leave, which helps find balance in family responsibilities. This shift allows both parents to share the load of childcare more in equality, which is a big step forward compared to past expectations where mothers would often pause their careers.

And re-entering the field after a break remains challenging because of the fast-paced nature of research. However, with changing attitudes and more supportive structures, it’s becoming easier. The academic community is recognizing the need to find ways for easier transitions back into research for those who have taken breaks for family reasons.

And having a supportive partner and a flexible work environment makes a huge difference. It’s about finding what works for you and making sure you have the support needed to manage both roles effectively.

»Leadership and visibility have definitely shaped my career. It’s about constant learning and adapting, seeking feedback, and being proactive about networking and collaboration opportunities. Also, balancing the demanding nature of our jobs with personal life is crucial, and finding that balance is an ongoing process.«

Thank you, Jingyuan!