’I don’t see interdisciplinarity as an end in itself.’

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(Photograph: ETH Zurich / Stefan Weiss)

(Photograph: ETH Zurich / Stefan Weiss)

For Sebastian Bonhoeffer, interdisciplinarity is all about taking the little intellectual detours that open up when exchanging ideas with colleagues from other fields.

You initially studied music in Basel. How come you then switched to physics in Munich?

You’re probably thinking I was worried about not being able to earn enough money as a musician! That’s an old cliché. But it’s not me. It was more about needing to put some distance between myself and school in order to realise that I was actually very interested in science. It’s also easier being a professional scientist and amateur musician rather than the other way around!

Music requires freedom and scope for creativity. Do these have a role to play in science?

Very much so, in my experience. But as well as requiring freedom and creativity, you’re constantly on the lookout for new perspectives on a particular question, and you’re always reflecting critically on your own work. Plus there’s the perseverance it takes to get things done and also the need to work as a team with fellow academics. It’s a bit like chamber music!

Right now, you’re using mathematical models to investigate HIV infections. Do you see any parallels to COVID-19 infections?

In my work, I’ve actually taken the opposite route. What I’ve done is to adapt existing epidemiological models in order to describe and understand the evolution and population dynamics of HIV within an infected person. But you’re right: there are a lot of parallels. Were that not the case, my group and many of its former members would never have been so closely involved in the work of the Swiss COVID-19 Science Task Force.

You’re also Director of the Collegium Helveticum. What are your goals in this capacity?

We want to make the Collegium into a forum for lively exchange and creative expression. Those are pillars of intellectual freedom. In turn, it will boost Zurich’s status as a centre of scientific excellence, as well as attracting the odd dose of new talent.

What is it about interdisciplinarity that intrigues you?

I’m a mathematical biologist doing research into infectious diseases. Interdisciplinarity has always been something that arises quite naturally from the nature of the research problem itself. I don’t see interdisciplinarity as an end in itself. It’s all about taking those little intellectual detours that open up when you kick around ideas with experts from another field. In my experience, that’s much more effective than repeatedly banging your head against a brick wall!


Sebastian Bonhoeffer is Professor of Theoretical Biology at the Department of Environmental Systems Science. He has also served as Director of the Collegium Helveticum since 2021.

This text appeared in the 22/02 issue of the ETH magazine Globe.

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