Having studied medical informatics, Prof. Dr. Matthias Willems is pleased about the intersection of health and medicine in his research. Today, Willems is not only a researcher, but he serves as President of University of Applied Sciences, Middle Hessen (THM), a role he has held since 2016. He speaks here about educational priorities, university plans and current challenges in research and teaching.
What do you see as the important task of universities today?
Prof. Willems: We have to give young people today the basics, so they can continue to develop and learn about new topics again and again. For example, they need to understand how to approach a project. While the basic research principles will not change, the methods will. What is needed here is flexible thinking and the willingness to think about new areas.
The health service at THM has grown enormously. What exactly is new?
Prof. Willems: We have, for example, founded the department of health. There we offer medical informatics and a medical management ourse with five different specializations – and were surprised by the enormous interest shown by students and employers alike: We now have over a thousand students in this department. In the future, we want to offer academic training opportunities for young people who are interested in medical professions such as midwifery or nursing. In research, we are working on topics such as digital medicine, 3D printing and telemedicine. Here we work closely with our partners on the Middle Hessen research campus. With the University of Marburg, for example, we use telemedicine to monitor patients with chronic lung disease. And with AI, we want to better care for babies with nighttime breathing problems. All of these approaches pursue one goal: We want to improve the lives of patients with the help of new technology. This goal is also reflected in teaching: We have very good modules that we now use with virtual reality or augmented reality to understand the real world even better. For example, our students can take a close look at a carotid artery and at the same time learn details about its anatomy and function.
How do you see the region positioned in terms of healthcare?
Prof. Willems: In terms of the medical region: We have three universities here with a total of 70,000 students and complementary product portfolios in the study courses. The differences strengthen the overall picture and promote synergies. This means that there is always the opportunity to build up joint projects and to use the strengths of all three universities. Our students, for example, can combine their research with practical application at the university hospitals. Everyone benefits from this – often even beyond the borders of Hessen.
What are THM’s greatest strengths?
Prof. Willems: The special and perhaps also the outstanding aspect, even in national comparison, is the regional networking, on the one hand, and the application relevance, on the other. Our students learn in concrete projects, solve real problems and can demonstrate practical results. They are thus optimally prepared for their professional lives. Our studies train personal responsibility right from the start – and students from different departments are increasingly working together. I’m thinking, for example, of the concept of racing cars that should go as far as possible with as little fuel as possible, or of our Robotics team.
Our projects in dual study programs offer concrete benefits for our regional partners in industry and local communities. The word gets around – among students as well as among the regional companies to which our graduates transfer.
And what is a big challenge for THM today?
Prof. Willems: On the one hand, digitization will fundamentally change all areas of our lives. Our challenge now is to incorporate into all degree programs the know-how that graduates need to be prepared for their professional fields in the long term. On the other hand, we want to further expand our research priorities so that students will continue to be at the cutting edge of technology in the future – in medical informatics as well as in biotechnology and electrical engineering. Another aspect will be ethics in digitization. This means, for example, questions of how you deal with the media, and which data will be disclosed in the future.
The corona pandemic is a further force of transformation. How do you see the THM in terms of being equipped for this crisis?
Prof. Willems: As a result of the corona crisis, courses started late in the semester and will initially be offered exclusively in digital form. But I hope it will not take too long before we can show that we are not a distance learning university and what ‘studying’ really means. Hopefully students will soon be sitting in lectures and laboratories again, getting to know their fellow students and making new friends. In general, we are, of course, preparing ourselves to help shape the digital change – also in teaching. We must adapt our teaching methods to the new behaviour. We have to use technical possibilities not as an end in itself but in such a way that they bring improvements to learning. It will not be enough to simply record teaching content or lectures on video. The teachers have already found very individual and innovative ways in the Corona crisis. But of course, classroom teaching will remain: This means lectures, seminars and, above all, the central element of the University of Applied Sciences — practical exercises in which you learn how to solve practical problems.