Making Your Career: A Recipe for Success

Gadi Rothenberg likes doing things his way. Now an assistant professor at the van ‘t Hoff Institute for Molecular Sciences at the University of Amsterdam, he’s been taking opportunities as they came and creating them for himself when they were hard to come by.

List of honour

‘Distinguish yourself from others’ has been the career motto of Rothenberg, who was born in Jerusalem. After 3 years of Israeli army service and a 6-month backpack tour around the United States, he was ready to start his career as a chemist. He studied at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, where he was awarded a B.Sc. in chemistry cum laude in 1993, followed by an MSc and a PhD in applied chemistry. For the latter he worked on catalysis research under the supervision of professor Yoel Sasson. By the time he gained his doctorate in 1999, cum laude again, he had 11 peer-reviewed publications under his belt.

What Rothenberg wanted to do next for his career was to take it beyond Israel’s borders. In fact, he had been thinking on how to organise a postdoc abroad since he was halfway through his PhD. “You need to plan things well ahead,” he explains. Before even submitting his thesis he had sent e-mails asking about postdoc opportunities to about 150 institutes around the world. Among the 20 professors that were interested and replied, only three had funding available. Even though this response was rather poor, Rothenberg wasn’t really worried: He had a plan B. He had applied for a ?114,000 Marie Curie personal research fellowship, and his research proposal got accepted in 1999.

Having secured a grant greatly improved his success in finding institutes that were willing to offer him a postdoc position. He opted for the United Kingdom as he saw it as a country with good research facilities, and that was less money-driven than the US. To choose between the seven British groups he had in mind to work with, he decided to put his thesis writing on hold for 3 weeks and set off to the UK for an ‘application tour’.

There were three basic criteria he carefully assessed during his visits of the groups: The place had to be nice, he had to fit within the group, and the ratio of salary versus cost of living had to be reasonable. Quality of life as a whole was really important to him, so much so that he declined an offer from a renowned professor who was expecting his postdocs to work 7-day weeks. “In that case I will not fit in with the group, because I usually work 5 days a week,” was Rothenberg’s response. He finally decided to go to the University of York, where he worked for 2 years as a postdoctoral fellow in the group of professor James Clark on the development of new eco-efficient catalysis processes. He didn’t go back to Israel afterwards, but instead decided to move on to Amsterdam, where he was offered a tenure-track position at the van ‘t Hoff Institute for Molecular Sciences.

Into a permanent position

Just as his temporary contract was running to its end in 2003, Rothenberg won a Vidi grant from the Netherlands Organisation for Scientific Research (NWO), a lump sum of ?600,000 that allowed him to set up his own research group and turn his position into a permanent one. This also helped Rothenberg gain more recognition for his work in catalysis.

On top of his work at university, Rothenberg developed a new method for monitoring chemicals in soil and groundwater, together with his colleague Hubert de Jonge. The method has been put into practice through Sorbisense, the environmental monitoring company they set up in January 2004. Even though Rothenberg and his partner have completely different scientific backgrounds–catalysis and soil science–and “know practically nothing about each other’s field,” they still run a company together. Rothenberg likes to work in such an interdisciplinary environment. “Two things are essential for a good scientist,” he says, “the willingness to learn new things and the ability to talk to people outside your field.”

You could say that Rothenberg has it all in his career, and he would certainly agree. “I feel enriched,” he says, adding that having the freedom to direct his own research in an environment where he feels comfortable gives him true satisfaction. Earning lots of money comes second in his career–he turned down a chemical company in Israel that offered to double his salary, because it didn’t give him the independence he is enjoying in the academic environment.


Rothenberg also feels that the ability to communicate science clearly is extremely important, both to other scientists and to the general public. He has published 48 peer-reviewed papers, as well as several newspaper and popular-scientific articles about his research, and presented numerous talks at international conferences. Together with colleague Christopher Lowe he developed ‘ Write it Right’, a course for writing scientific articles. But to Rothenberg there is much more to communication than words, and he tries to teach his students to use body language to their best, reflecting back on his training in kung fu in Jerusalem. Last year one of his PhD students won an award for “best lecture” at a national congress, so his approach seems to be working.

So will the University of Amsterdam be Rothenberg’s final destination? “I think I could settle here,” he admits, “but to be honest I don’t know where I’m going to be in 10 years.” It all depends on where his hunger for new challenges will take him.

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