Science and Technology
“Then I’ll show you”

Climate change, the pandemic, digitalization: for tackling the problems of our time, science and technology are more important than ever – and talent from abroad is much wanted. But what does an intercultural STEM career such as that of BioNTech founder Uğur Şahin look like? Science presenter Ranga Yogeschwar about the pitfalls on the road to success.

Quarks, Wissen vor 8, Die große Show der Naturwunder: Today, Ranga Yogeshwar is one of the most recognized faces in television. Before that, he was a graduated physicist with a migration background who wanted to get a foot into the German media world. Given the ease and grace with which he hosts the science programs, you’d think it has fallen into his lap. But when you talk with Ranga Yogeshwar, things sound different. When asked whether he had to contend with resentments along the way, he responds matter-of-factly: “Of course.”

It all began in the 1980s when Yogeshwar, the son of an Indian engineer and a Luxembourg artist, started his television career – first behind, then in front of the camera. “At the time, there were no dark-skinned moderators,” he says. For his first appearance at the WDR studio in Cologne, he was supposed to wear a tie. “But I did not want to look so professorial.” What nobody realized when he stepped in front of the camera was that the mics were still live. One of the staffers who disagreed with his rejection of the tie supposedly said: “He looks like a n*****, nobody will believe him.” Yogeshwar was not discouraged. “I said, okay, then I’ll show you what the n***** can do.” And he did. One advantage of the STEM subjects is that there’s a lot of right and wrong. Yogeshwar has done a lot of things right. But he has never worn a tie.

By now, Ranga Yogeshwar, whose full name is Ranganathan Gregoire Yogeshwar, can wallpaper entire rooms with names he has been given, such as “yogurt” and the like. He has put up some of them in the editorial office. Humor as a survival strategy? He thinks so, considering that he has spent decades presenting complex phenomena in an entertaining manner, proving that STEM subjects are not boring. In the end, his optimism has made it possible for others with a migration background to follow him as science program hosts or on German TV in general – think of Galileo presenter Aiman Abdallah. “I was the icebreaker, so to speak,” says Yogeshwar.

He believes that science journalists such as Mai Thi Nguyen-Kim probably do not have the sort of problems that existed back then. The 34-year-old chemist born to Vietnamese parents was his successor at Quarks until 2021; she is a member of the Senate of the Max Planck Society and an activist for Scientists for Future. During the Covid pandemic, she became known to a wider audience through her YouTube channel maiLab.

Yogeshwar believes that global change, the changing work world, and intercultural relations will make international STEM careers a given. But “we finally need to let go of the belief that all people are single-origin.” By that he means that integration is not a one-way street and that nobody needs to conform to certain ideas about a culture. Interculturalism, he says, is an enrichment and an opportunity. Yogeshwar cites BioNTtech founder Uğur Şahin and his wife Özlem Türeci as among the most important examples of intercultural careers in science.

Millions of people have received the BioNTech vaccine. Today Şahin is said to be among the 500 richest people in the world. BioNTech is in demand all over the world – according to an automated email reply from the company. When spokeswoman Jasmina Alatovic promptly follows up with a brief message, she writes in response to questions about how Şahin and Türeci deal with racist pitfalls: “They both focus on the positive sides of their job and of research.” Yogeshwar and Asifa Akhtar, the first international Vice President of the Max Planck Society, have made similar statements: it is only with optimism and perseverance that things can move forward. But the answer also implies that there are, of course, downsides. Şahin’s path, which is documented on the website, began with resentments or at least a massive error of judgment: his teachers wanted him to go to a Hauptschule – regardless of his talents. According to a 2016 study published by the Bonn-based Institute of Labor Economics (IZA), migrants, for example from Turkey, continue to be discriminated against in job applications – even if they have perfect German skills and a high level of education.

Şahin, 56, was born in İskenderun, Turkey. He came to Cologne with his mother when he was four years old, not speaking a word of German. His father worked on the assembly line at the Ford automobile plant. It was thanks to the intercession of his German neighbor that Şahin was able to enroll in the Gymnasium. He was the first child of Turkish guest workers to complete the Abitur at the Erich-Kästner-Gymnasium in Cologne – at the top of his class. He went on to write a summa cum laude dissertation on cancer immunotherapy and a Habilitation. The rest is history.

In the media, in conversations with STEM institutions, in everyday life – there is often talk of the Mainz-based company or of German scientists as leading manufacturers of an mRNA-based Covid vaccine. Do migrants, once they succeed economically, suddenly become Germans? Do they have to do more to prove that they have deserved it? Yogeshwar has been observing this quasi-postcolonial phenomenon for some time. Yet Western countries are no longer in a pole position, no longer the world champions, he says. China, Israel, India all are further ahead – in many things. Whether we are talking about science research, the pandemic, digitalization – STEM talent from abroad is much wanted. The “PISA shock” too has not yet been overcome.
This is confirmed by Stefanie Kowitz-Harms, head of MINTvernetzt, the umbrella organization for extracurricular STEM (in German: MINT) education in Germany, which was founded in May 2021 and is funded by the Federal Ministry of Education and Research. There have been political failures, she says. In addition, the Covid pandemic has further aggravated the problems among children – many of whom are struggling with basic math.

All this when the little ones are supposed to learn that math or physics are not uncool or for nerds only. “These fields can be used to shape the world of tomorrow,” says Kowitz-Harms. The STEM fields in particular address pressing issues for our future, such as climate change, pandemics, the energy transition or digitalization. But even if the current climate movement signals a growing interest in science and even if there are countless STEM initiatives – why is there so little progress? According to Kowitz-Harms, there is little political support, plus “the problems often start at home, with clichés or stereotypical roles and low confidence in one’s own abilities.”

In Germany, the percentage of women working in STEM fields is approximately 15 percent, according to a 2019 survey by the Federal Employment Agency. Careers such as that of Asifa Akhtar, which is profiled in this video, are even less common. MINTvernetzt currently does not have a contact person for intercultural issues.

Kowitz-Harms thinks that women should emancipate themselves in the STEM sector in general and thus balance out the gender pay gap. But the point is not to do STEM at any cost; women are also needed in the humanities and social sciences. “We need to rethink education in general,” she says. Here, Scandinavia, for example, has pioneered models such as “learning in a flower meadow, in a waterworks or an engine plant” – away from the stuffy classroom. Later, learning should happen in an interdisciplinary manner, by “thinking in terms of phenomena and applications.” Kowitz-Harms has a PhD in history and is married to an engineer. She had enough of precarious jobs and jumped careers to the STEM sector. As a historian she is looking to the past – to Germany’s engineering skills that are based in STEM professions. She hopes that things will be looking up.

Add to this the role of the media. Ranga Yogeshwar has frequently criticized the fact that today’s science formats on public television often resort to spectacle and effect, sacrificing seriousness. He himself has not sold out in the process. “I was never afraid of becoming less important.” He has, after all, always been much sought-after, and now relies on YouTube. A week before our conversation, he had been working with the Swedish ambassador on awarding the Nobel Prizes. When I talked to him on the phone from Switzerland in mid-December, Yogeshwar seemed relaxed. When it comes down to it, he has kept his inner peace and has advanced from being a graduated physicist with a migration background to one of the most recognized faces in the world of science. He looked out his window and sighed: “The world is at rest.”