In conversation with Jutta Kühn

Which aspects about the field of electrical engineering and information technology are the most exciting for you?

The field of electrical engineering is constantly changing and developing – hence it is an area in which I will be able to tackle and develop new challenges until my retirement. After studying electrical engineering, the whole professional spectrum is open to you: ranging from pure theory, for example teaching at the university or purely scientific activities in the lower technology readiness level at universities and research institutions, to practice-oriented work in the industry. Here at Fraunhofer IAF, you have the opportunity to combine everything in one working environment: Scientific fundamental research and development of, for instance, circuits, but also of complete demonstrators for the industry, as well as teaching. Thanks to the close link of the Fraunhofer-Gesellschaft to the universities, everything is possible here.

 

In 2008, you received the Amelia Earhart Fellowship Award for your PhD thesis. The pilot and women’s rights activist Amelia Earhart crossed the Atlantic Ocean in 1929 as the first woman in solo flight. Like Earhart, your work has made you a pioneer in aerospace performance and efficiency. What did you investigate in your doctoral thesis?

Within the scope of my doctoral thesis at Fraunhofer IAF, I designed power amplifier circuits based on the gallium nitride (GaN) technology, which at the time was still quite a new field of research. The main task in doing so was the design of innovative circuit technologies to optimize the efficiency rate of GaN-based high power amplifiers. Amplifiers have a very high use of energy, while at the same time the primary energy of independent systems is limited. Therefore, the development of highly efficient power amplifiers for independent communications and radar systems, also used in aerospace applications, is indispensable in order to save additional cooling energy. The major challenge of the power amplifier circuit design is not only in the optimization of the circuit’s efficiency, but in the best possible compromise between the achievable output power and the highest possible efficiency over large frequency bandwidths with moderate compression.

 

For your research you also went to the US. How do the two research cultures differ?

During my studies, I spent half a year working for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) in Boulder, Colorado. My colleagues were very relaxed and the work atmosphere was great. Yet, the approach to research topics is, in contrast to the one prevailing in Germany, primarily based on the »principle of trial and error«. One of my tasks was to set up a »power box« for the electricity supply of a radiometer system, which included the design and the fitting of circuit boards as well as the wiring of hundreds of cables. A circuit diagram for this did not exist, which would arguably be unthinkable at a German institute. In general, little to no documentation existed; the expertise and partial knowledge, respectively, was in the heads of single staff members. However, despite my temporary concerns we managed to complete and mount the system just in time on a P-3 aircraft of the Navy. Its task was is to conduct successful measurements of soil moisture above Arizona and New Mexico. With regard to my colleagues, I certainly fulfilled the typical German stereotypes: »exact«, »organized« and »punctual«.

 

How did you continue after your PhD?

After completing my doctorate, I started with project work and reporting and then went on to the fields of project acquisition, project leadership and project management in general. Nowadays I manage the microelectronics department at Fraunhofer IAF.

You were part of the Fraunhofer support and development program TALENTA speed up for female scientists. What does that mean?

The TALENTA program gave me the opportunity at Fraunhofer IAF to attend several purposefully chosen further trainings and seminars within a short period of time. For this I could use the so-called »career time«, to which I was entitled through the program. I learned a lot from the training courses, which was very useful especially at the beginning of my new role as head of department. At the TALENTA kick-off event, I exchanged experience with other women facing similar challenges. This helped me a lot. Even though I am not part of the program anymore, I am still being invited to the kick-off events to share my own experiences, , for example during panel discussions, and to point out existing career prospects at the Fraunhofer-Gesellschaft.

 

In the credits of your doctoral thesis you mention that Fraunhofer IAF set-up a home office for you during your parental leave. Why was this important for you?

Research is very fast-paced and at that time I worked in a research field, in which others worldwide also conducted research. While studying for my PhD I had my first child. To me it was clear that after my daughter’s birth I neither could nor wanted to stop working for a whole year. I received full support from the institute. A computer for my home office was set up for me with the software I required and with access to the institute. In this way it was possible for me to start writing parts of my doctoral thesis at home.

 

What else does Fraunhofer IAF offer to employees with children?

Above all, the support I received as a researcher at the institute was the possibility to work part-time. Also, the institute has a »parent-child office«, which is very helpful in case of child care difficulties. Of course there is a core time, but you can also spontaneously work flexible hours, if at times you can only come later to the institute or have to leave early. A considerable concession on part of the institute definitely does exist. The mutual understanding of colleagues is great, too, and this does not only apply to young mothers. By now, almost all young fathers take their paternity leave, which I highly approve of. And it is not only the women who make use of the »parent-child office«. There is definitely a great change taking place.

 

As head of the microelectronics department you belong to the top executives at Fraunhofer IAF today. The interesting thing is: You work part-time. How does this work?

When you work part-time, you have to be well-structured and organized. Apart from self-organization, organizing the department and delegating tasks is extremely important. Therefore, a good collaboration in the department is indispensable; you have to be able to rely on your co-workers. This is fortunately the case in my department. We have a trustful and good relationship. Due to my part-time work, there are times when I am not at the institute, and I have to be sure that everything is going well.

What are your tasks as head of the microelectronics department?

The tasks are primarily of an administrative nature, including staff development and management, such as the coordination of the staff requirements in the individual projects. This is very time-consuming. Creating a trusting relationship is important for the team spirit in the department. Because if that does not work, tasks will be left behind. We help each other with tricky issues and we often eat lunch in bigger groups or go for a run in the Mooswald forest together during lunch break. Many do not only see each other as colleagues, but also as friends. That’s why there are also many joint activities outside Fraunhofer IAF.

 

Which advice would you give women who want to go into research?

(laughing) Exactly the same as men! Whoever wants to go into research, whether male or female, should have many ideas, should want to develop something new and advance projects, and be sure to find pleasure and joy in experimental work.

 

You are originally from Freiburg and relocated here again after your studies. What makes Freiburg so attractive for you?

First and foremost the city’s outstanding atmosphere in the border triangle, but not least the proximity to the mountains! The Dreisam Valley and, just behind it, the mountains to bike, go skiing and for other outdoor activities! With the mountainbike, my aim is always the mountain peak, no matter whether it comes to Schauinsland or Feldberg. The main thing is I arrive on top. The reward then follows in the form of riding downhill – right up to the front door.

 

What has been your personal highlight at IAF so far?

One highlight definitely was the GaN-based X-band amplifier circuit, designed by me and processed by colleagues in our clean room. I developed this circuit within the framework of the ESA project GREAT² for the satellite Proba-V. Meanwhile, it flies up there in space and helps the satellite send data to the earth.

 

How would you describe Fraunhofer IAF briefly in three words?

Togetherness. This is a great plus in the department and at the institute!

Variety. A lot of new and unforeseeable things happen in research, and the structures at the institute change accordingly.

Equipment. Our laboratory and measurement technology maintains a leading position in Europe.

 

Jutta Kühn completed her PhD on the optimization of the efficiency rate of AlGaN/GaN-HEMT high power amplifiers at Fraunhofer IAF in 2010 and is now in a leading position at Fraunhofer IAF as head of the microelectronics department. She is an award winner of the Amelia Earhart Fellowship and was part of the excellence program Fraunhofer TALENTA speed up.

Further employees of Fraunhofer IAF in conversation

 

Of highly sensitive Satellites and the passion for research

 

Research management – Getting ideas into the market

 

Doctorate: first complete GaN-based tri-gate technology

 

Quantum physics brought to application: impacting the research landscape with laser technologies