Ursula Staudinger takes office as Rector of the TU Dresden

Ursula Staudinger took office as rector of the TU Dresden on August 18th. The day before, she presented her vision and goals for the university and the extended rectorate at a press conference in Dresden.

According to Staudinger, the main tasks of the new rectorate for the next five years will be based on two major guidelines: On the one hand, she wants to develop and implement the award-winning strategy of excellence “TUD 2028 – Synergy and beyond”. Complementary to this, TUD is to become a global university for the 21st century.

“First and foremost, a global university needs excellent basic and applied research for the 21st century,” explained Staudinger. With a focus on broad interdisciplinarity, this could develop contributions in order to respond to the great challenges facing humanity in the 21st century. Staudinger mentioned climate change and demographic change as examples.

Ursula Staudinger is the new rector of TU Dresden (© Robert Lohse)

Educating global citizens

“The global university of the 21st century is very aware that it is also a social actor,” emphasized Staudinger. Beyond its role as an institution of higher education, it becomes active itself. In addition, the university of the 21st century is designed to train global citizens and to open up to new groups of students. “By that I mean that we look at the entire lifespan – and go beyond the classic age groups of the students.”

According to Staudinger, the TUD of the future will be a real laboratory, which will apply knowledge gained from research to itself and be measured against it. Despite its size with almost 40,000 members, it is crucial that TUD sees itself as a learning organization and can respond flexibly to changes in the requirements of a university. That is why Staudinger wants to significantly increase diversity and integration in the university and thus benefit from a greater variety of perspectives. At the same time, she plans to press ahead with digitization in all areas at full speed in order to gain more degrees of freedom for innovation and research through efficiency gains.

Team spirit and cooperation

In order to be able to successfully implement her goals for TUD, Staudinger has expanded the Rectorate and launched the university culture department, which is unique in Germany. In addition to Staudinger, two other women will belong to the seven-person rectorate. Staudinger values transparent, appreciative and proactive cooperation in the rectorate and with all groups at the university. “I trust in the often- quoted Dresden spirit, of which I have been convinced first-hand in the past few weeks.”

Re-thinking Human Aging

After more than 20 years of intensive research, Ursula M. Staudinger has recently published her key findings in an American Psychologist piece titled “The Positive Plasticity of Adult Development: Potential for the 21st Century”. Her positive-plasticity paradigm represents an important step towards a better understanding of the dynamic process of human development and aging and provides valuable starting points to inform social policy and create effective measures to optimize aging.

Humans are living longer than ever before. In fact, the average life expectancy at birth has increased by almost 40 years since 1840. “Not only are people living longer, but they are also enjoying more healthy years,” says Staudinger. “Of course, this is a gift as well as a challenge for individuals and society alike.” Moreover, longer lives highlight an extraordinary feature of humans. “Unlike other species, we have the intrinsic capacity to modify our own development and aging,” explains Staudinger. This happens intentionally or unintentionally, for better or worse, and also within natural set limits.

A new model for human aging

So positive plasticity, as defined by lifespan scientists, is about the potential for modification as an integral characteristic of human development. “It’s important to understand that human development and aging are neither biologically nor contextually determined,” says Staudinger. “It’s far more complex because biological, sociocultural forces and a given person’s behaviors are all part of it.”

To illustrate this dynamic process, Staudinger developed a three-tier interactive model of adult development and aging that enables plasticity. It shows that development trajectories are the result of continuous interactions between organism (e.g. organs, cells), context (e.g. institutions, environment) and person (e.g. behavior, attitudes) creating the potential for intraindividual variations. What’s new about this model is that it includes the person as an active agent of his or her own development. In addition, this third ‘influencing factor’ on the aging process is not only an “emergent property” of the interaction between biology and context but needs to be taken into account in its own right.

Longer lives are a gift as well as a challenge. Foto: © Stephane Juban, Unsplash

Challenge it or lose it

How then can the positive plasticity of human aging be leveraged? Research has shown that positive plasticity can be maintained throughout life until old age unless severe pathological processes (e.g. Alzheimer’s dementia) interfere. “There is substantial evidence that recurrent exposure to novelty and challenge are important triggers of positive plasticity for both personality and cognition,” explains Staudinger. “Learning new skills and processing novel information – whether at work or at leisure – seem to buffer cognitive decline. So really, the motto for societies of longer lives should be ‘challenge it or lose it’.”

In times of population aging, there is a growing need to know more about the conditions facilitating positive plasticity of adult development. This means looking further into constellations of sociocultural and physical context characteristics, behavioral patterns of individuals as well as their biological endowments to optimize aging for as many individuals as possible. “But we will have to differentiate between groups of people as there is no promising ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach,” Staudinger stresses. “Although we still have a long way ahead, the insights gained permit us to take steps in the right direction. And when older people live healthier and independently for longer, everyone benefits.”

More on this topic:

APA Journals Article Spotlight | Rethinking adult development

New Rector of TU Dresden

On 17th March 2020, TU Dresden’s Extended Senate elected Ursula M. Staudinger to be the new Rector for a designated term of five years. She is scheduled to take office in mid-August 2020.

In the run-up to the election, presentations were held at the University. Ursula M. Staudinger highlighted the successful substantiation of TU Dresden’s University of Excellence application as a pivotal task for her tenure as Rector and thereby leading the University to a confirmation of its excellence status. To this end, the strengthening of broad interdisciplinarity on equal footing will be of crucial importance.

Excellent Research and Teaching

Staudinger states that, naturally, excellent research must go hand in hand with excellent and innovative teaching. “In addition, I would like to develop TU Dresden into a global university for the 21st century, and I see the 200th anniversary in 2028 as an important milestone in this process.” TU Dresden can make decisive contributions to mastering the global challenges facing humanity and at the same time further expand its role as an important societal stakeholder.

Ursula M. Staudinger at TU Dresden © Michael Kretzschmar

As a former professor at TU Dresden, she was deeply impressed by the development of the University in recent years: “It was not least this performance curve of the University that motivated me to apply for the position of Rector.” Professor Ursula M. Staudinger has extensive leadership and management experience, not to mention excellent knowledge of other academic systems, which she would like to bring to TU Dresden, as well as her excellent international networks.

Farewell to Columbia University

Ursula Staudinger has been working at Columbia University in New York since 2013, where she was the Founding Director of the Robert N. Butler Aging Center for five years. She will leave Columbia University in August. “It is not easy for me to leave Columbia University and the extraordinary interdisciplinary network that I was able to build up with colleagues there. I hope I can maintain a close relationship with Columbia,” says Staudinger.

Nobel Prize Dialogue Berlin 2019

Towards Health: Equality, Responsibility and Research

Nobel Prize winners, world-leading researchers, political activists, media representatives and the public got together at the Nobel Prize Dialogue in Berlin on 8 November 2019. The event focused on questions concerning health: How can we achieve healthy living and a responsible healthcare provision for everyone? How can we create and promote health education as well as healthy work and environmental conditions? And what contributions can research make to all of this?

Ursula Staudinger at the Nobel Prize Dialogue Berlin 2019
Photo: David Ausserhofer for Leopoldina

Nobel Prize Laureates and World-leading Scientists

Together with Peter Agre and Tolu Oni, Ursula Staudinger discussed the question “What does ‘Health’ mean to you?” in the opening session. Staudinger highlighted the fact that focusing on treatment and prevention of diseases is not the flip side of strengthening health resources from the beginning of life. Moreover, she alerted the audience to the fact that health is not unidimensional but rather consists of multiple domains such as physical, functional, cognitive and emotional health. And that the sources of health are accordingly multifold including genetics, behavioral patterns and contextual as well as environmental exposures.

Importance of Physical Fitness

In her talk “Mental Health and Longer Lives: Positive Plasticity of Cognitive Aging” Staudinger emphasized that the age-related decline of cognitive functioning can indeed be attenuated. “One way to change the trajectory of the decline is to invest in your aerobic physical fitness,” she said. Thus, scientific studies have shown that with increasing levels of fitness, the brains of sixty-year-old individuals need less activity to achieve better performances just like younger brains.

Nobel Laureate Edvard Moser and Ursula Staudinger
Photo by David Ausserhofer for Leopoldina

In the following Q & A Session on „Mental Health, Cognition and Ageing“, Nobel laureate Edvard Moser and Ursula Staudinger answered questions of participants. Both agreed that human brains are extremely adaptable and that activity as well as exposure to novelty and challenge are key factors to prevent cognitive decline. Asked about the effects of new technologies on the trajectory of cognitive decline, Staudinger said that new technologies can be helpful to compensate for experienced decline such as the loss in memory function. Yet we need to be mindful that such support does not create disuse where use is still possible. Therefore, it is crucial for education in the 21st century to convey digital competence in the sense of becoming “masters of the toys and the information they provide”. Both scientists showed great optimism about healthy aging. Yet they also pointed to hazards such as air pollution that might put a stop to the positive trend.

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Ursula Staudinger can be seen at 16:03 and 2:29:22

About the Event

The event has traditionally taken place during the week of the Nobel Prize Award Ceremony since 2012 and was now held in Germany for the first time. Bridging science and society, the Nobel Prize Dialogue inspires and honors human ingenuity, research and collaborative, creative thinking.

Expert Discussion at the Federal Ministry of the Interior

Transition from working life to retirement is an important aspect of demographic development. To gain more insight, German Federal Minister of the Interior Horst Seehofer met with a small group of experts from science, local government and business. Ursula Staudinger was invited as aging scientist and contributed important scientific findings on the plasticity of human aging and the productivity in older age to the discussion.

The Federal Minister of the Interior with participants of the expert discussion on 28 February 2019, Source: BMI

Focus on entire working life

During the discussion they talked about how to make better use of the new potential of a society of longer lives. Ursula Staudinger argued that business and politics should promote a culture of appreciation, development and learning over the entire working life. “Variety throughout our vocational careers as well as new tasks for our work routines help counteract the age-related cognitive decline,” she said. It was important to look at the entire working life and create new occupational paths. This would allow for lateral careers as well as (insured) breaks for education, family or personal projects.

At the same time, the legal retirement age should be gradually adapted to the increased life expectancy, Staudinger said. It was, however, decisive to hold onto a legal retirement age. This would allow people to stop working without justification and sustain the change of generations. Yet re-entering paid work after retirement should be facilitated for all those who would like to.

Shaping the gained years of life is an important task for all

Ralf Paul Bittner, mayor of an awarded age-appropriate community, and Marion Kopmann, founder and managing director of a consultancy for continued employment and education for older people, also participated in the expert discussion. All participants agreed that the abilities and talents of older people should be better acknowledged, used and promoted within our society. Shaping the gained years of life is an important task for all of us. The impact of demographic change also poses a challenge for public service: About one third of the Ministry of the Interior’s employees will retire by 2030.