Women in Research: Apply for That Dream Job, Says #LiNo17 Participant Katherine MacArthur

Interview with young scientist Katherine MacArthur

This interview is part of a series of interviews of the “Women in Research” blog  that features young female scientists participating in the 67th Lindau Nobel Laureate Meeting, to increase the visibility of women in research (more information for and about women in science by “Women in Research” on Facebook and Twitter). Enjoy the interview with Katherine and get inspired.

 

Photo: Courtesy of Katherine MacArthur

Photo: Courtesy of Katherine MacArthur

Katherine MacArthur, 28, from the United Kingdom is a postdoctoral researcher at the Ernst Ruska Centre for Microscopy and Spectroscopy with Electrons, Forschungszentrum Juelich, Germany. In her research, she is trying to push the limits of characterising catalyst nanoparticles in the electron microscope. If we can understand their structure better then we can relate this back to their catalytic properties and try to make better catalysts. Can we really count the atoms and determine their atom type and how does that relate to the particles catalytic properties?

 

What inspired you to pursue a career in science/chemistry?

I have always been interested in understanding why things work the way they do. I’m very much an applied scientist/engineer. I like to be solving a real world problem. I remember doing a lot of miniature science/craft projects at home with my mother, for example, growing salt crystals, and clay modelling. I would often dismantle things to see how they were made. Physics and chemistry were always my favourite classes in school. I particular liked the chemistry practicals and mixing chemicals together for different results. I think a lot can be said for exceptional school teachers who make the subject engaging as starting point towards a specific career in that subject.

I fully credit my careers adviser at school for helping me choose which science degree to study. She was the first to suggest Materials Science to me as an option. In particular, the course at Oxford University which had a French language option looked the best option. This is because it combined as many of my A-level subjects as possible (at the time these were Maths, Chemistry, French, Product Design and Theatre Studies). Ok, it didn’t containing anything to with Theatre Studies, but all the other four subjects were covered. In an effort to find out more I booked onto a Materials Open Day in Oxford. A day which I thoroughly enjoyed. There was a vast array of practicals which demonstrated simple materials properties, all of which had a real connection to real world problems that thoroughly appealed to my practical mind set.

 

Who are your role models?

My mother has demonstrated how fruitful life can be juggling a career and family life, she is an inspiration. Otherwise I tend to get small inspirations from many of the people I interact with in my daily life. The variety reminds me that there is no specific route one should take to a permanent position in science. For that reason there is no one person who I can look at a say, ‘I wish I had their career’. Instead, I just look at what aspects of someone’s career I am inspired by.

 

How did you get to where you are in your career path?

The first hurdle in my scientific career came right at the beginning when I chose Materials Science as the degree I wanted to take but realised they recommend Physics A-level which I did not have. I was very fortunate that my school allowed me to take complete the Physics A-Level in one year by taking 1st year and 2nd year courses in parallel, adjusting the timetable completely so that I was able to manage my new set of courses. I got my offer from Corpus Christi College, Oxford and I got my 3 A’s in Physics, Chemistry and Maths. Later on my College Tutor who interviewed me said he is still yet to accept a candidate without Physics A-level, so it was clearly worth the extra effort. I found Oxford both enriching and immensely challenging at the same time. It is difficult to be in such an environment surrounded by some of the best minds without developing some sort of inferiority complex. You have to learn to re-evaluate what you classify as good results, and keep reminding yourself that just because the people you spend your day to day life with are immensely clever, does not diminish how clever you are. Unfortunately, I developed an illness known as IBS which is made considerably worse by stress, and I completed my final exams on quite a lot of painkillers. Now I manage the condition but it flares up occasionally, e.g. if I have a impending deadline that I’m not ready for.

[…] the idea that it is possible to image individual atoms was simply astounding […]

For my final year masters project I chose to specialise in high resolution electron microscopy, the idea that it is possible to image individual atoms was simply astounding. I spent many, many hours imaging gold nanoparticles after different heat treatments and was enjoying it so much I already knew that I wanted to do a PhD in Microscopy. Although I researched many options I actually ended up reapplying to Oxford. However I did change supervisors in order to work with Professor Peter Nellist (my college Tutor), Dr Sergio Lozano-Perez and Dr Dogan Ozkaya. The project was sponsored Johnson-Matthey and so had an industrial focus on the catalysts which I like as a link to real world applications. My PhD in Oxford was rather different to my undergraduate degree. Having three supervisors meant there were always at least 3 branches of the project I could work on at any one time. I thoroughly enjoyed this aspect particularly as I find it stops me getting too focused and stuck on any one avenue of research. Towards the end of my PhD (some time in my 3rd year) I began to feel a crisis of confidence, I still wanted to be a scientist but I began to feel like I wouldn’t be good enough to have an academic career. I had been jointly working with two or three other people and I began to worry that there wasn’t anything that I could point at as distinctly my contribution. It also didn’t help that I was still the most junior person in the research group as it consisted of me and two postdocs. They both made me feel like research required a real amount of bravado to convince people that your ideas are the best (at least to get successful funding applications). There was a hunger to survive in research which I saw in them that seemed essential for a career in scientific research and which I felt I lacked. I now believe differently, I think you can be a lot quieter and humbler and people will still notice if you have interesting and worthwhile results. After long discussions with all my supervisors (Dogan help in particular because he was able to explain to me why he left academia for industry) I decided to try out a postdocs position before I made my decision about staying in academia or not.

The coolest project is normally whatever I’m working on at the moment.

The place I’m at now (Forschungszentrum Juelich) was actually chosen slightly at random. I’ve heard one of my colleagues describe it as a Venn diagram approach. My husband and I both spoke to our supervisors and sent out a whole lot of emails to find out the availability of postdoc positions in research groups we liked. We each attached the others CV to our emails with a note asking if they knew of any groups in the area which would have a suitable position for our other half. From that I drew up a list of places I liked and he the places he liked. We ended up with a choice of two places in Germany, Juelich-Aachen or Stuttgart-Karlsruhe. Juelich has 5 top end electron microscopes where most places have only one, making it a fantastic hub of research in microscopy. Unfortunately they didn’t have any money to actually employ me but encouraged me to apply for a Helmholtz postdoctoral scholarship, making it the more risky option but would be fantastic if it worked out. Although it was rather nerve-racking at the time, I started in Juelich on a 3 months contract before I found out if my funding was successful or not. Thankfully it was and I’m now in my second year, thoroughly enjoying science again and having just come back from a 2 month research stay in Australia that I never thought I would do two years ago. I even have it in my sights to try and apply for a tenure track position next year.

 

What is the coolest project you have worked on and why?

The coolest project is normally whatever I’m working on at the moment. I never have the inspiration to work on something unless I think it’s cool. That being said there is one project which has just been written up into a first paper that I think has real potential. Essentially, we were able to determine the 3D atomic structure of Pt nanoparticles from a single experimental image. Being able to determine a structure from one image (normally requiring 20 or more) means we can get the atomic structure of several particles in the time it took to get one, leading to higher throughput. It also means we are damaging the particles less under the electron beam the structures we get will be more accurate.

A simulation group in the University of Southampton has now done some modelling calculations on these structures. This is an important step for several reasons; firstly, it’s never been done before. Prior to this modelling has always been carried out on ‘perfect’ or ‘ideal’ structure with atomically perfect particles in their equilibrium shape. In reality catalyst particles are never going to have ‘perfect’ structures, there will always be kinetic effects in the synthesis or impurities which affect the shape and structure. Therefore to understand real catalysts we need to model real structures. As with most materials science challenges is often the deviations and defects from a perfect crystal structure which actually end of controlling overall materials properties. Therefore being able to characterise and model such defects is essential to understanding exactly what is happening down at the atomic level.

 

What’s a time you felt immense pride in yourself/your work?

The first time I ever tuned a microscope by myself to resolve atomic columns. I was so excited I took a picture on my phone and sent it straight to my boyfriend. I think it might be a bit like when you’re groping and fumbling around to find your glasses. You finally find them and put them on and can suddenly see everything clearly again. It’s as sudden as this in the microscope and it’s beautiful. I love that moment every single time, when your visibility suddenly improves and you can actually see atoms. I still send my (now) husband a picture if I find a particle that is just too pretty and I have to share it with someone.

 

What is a “day in the life” of Katherine like?

Photo: Katherine MacArthur

Photo: Courtesy of Katherine MacArthur

I normally get into work 8-8:15. I pour myself a cup of peppermint tea and check my emails. In 90 percent of my days I will spend all day at my computer. Setting up simulations, analysing data taken on a microscope, writing software or reading/writing papers. I normally get a microscope session once every couple of weeks and it takes me that long to understand the images from a previous session. I have a quick packed lunch and then a group of us go out to play Boules if the weather is nice. When I am on the microscope I will work from 8 am through until I get too tired or until I’ve collected everything I think I can get that day. Therefore if the microscope is working well, I have been known stay well until the middle of the night, because the data coming out of the machine is so beautiful. Plus if you are collecting data after normal working hours, there’s normally no-one around to slam doors or run loud machines and carelessly mess up your data.

 

What are you seeking to accomplish in your career?

I think the way that the scientific community is structured makes it very difficult to have long term goals. My contract only lasts for two more years and each funding application is typically a 3 year timescale. In that time you need to have real results to prove you’ve achieved something which was worth funding. Personally, things have been a little shaken up with the Brexit vote. My husband and I had planned to do 3-4 years in Germany before moving back to the UK. Now I think we are already seeing a drop off in scientific funding options and I think there will be fewer jobs available in research. Therefore we’ve had to come up with a new plan rather quickly. I have a plan to apply for a large 5 year funding grant. If I’m successful with this then my husband and I will be staying in Germany, if we’re not successful then we’ll be looking to move somewhere within the EU. Ideally, I would like to end up in a permanent position linked with a university where I’m also able to do some teaching. I really enjoy sharing my scientific knowledge with other people and really enjoyed my time spent tutoring at Oxford. However, I’m a long way off that just yet so it’s easier to think it short-term goals.

 

What do you like to do when you’re not doing research?

When I’m not doing research, I’m normally cooking/baking. I normally cook a meal completely from scratch every night. With my IBS I have to avoid ready-made sauces and ready meals. This means I have learned how to make a lot of different things including: currys, pizza, sweet and sour sauce, and various pasta sauces all from scratch. My herb and spice rack is rather extensive for this reason. I find it helps me to relax and unwind from the day I’ve had. Some nights I just throw things into a pan for a quick stir-fry, but other nights (if I have time) I go for something much more complicated. I don’t always have time to cook something extravagant as I have German classes, Bible study and dancing most nights of the week.

I would recommend […] always applying for a position you like the look of even if you worry that you might not fulfill all the criteria.

Of those activities my main passion is the dancing. During my time in Oxford I learned to dance Latin, Ballroom, Salsa, Rock and Roll among others. Now I just limit myself to acrobatic rock and roll twice a week. There’s nothing quite like being thrown upside down to clear your head! Plus I learned during my time in Oxford where the motto is ‘work hard, play hard’ that after a mentally tiring day you sleep an awful lot better if your physically tired as well.

 

What advice do you have for other women interested in science/chemistry?

As corny as it sounds I would say believe in yourself or find someone who believes in you. Whenever I have a small crisis of confidence or worry that things aren’t going to come together in time, I have a wonderful husband who reminds me of all the things I have achieved and so why would this situation be any different. I would recommend thinking positively and always applying for a position you like the look of even if you worry that you might not fulfill all the criteria. In all my discussion on gender issues and why there aren’t enough women in high ranking positions, there was one statistic that stood out for me. It said that most men will normally apply for a job even if they only fulfill 60 percent of the criteria, whilst most women will wait until they fulfill 100 percent of the criteria before applying for a position. If this statistic is true there are lot of women out there who take themselves out of the running of top jobs by not even applying in the first place.

 

In your opinion, what will be the next great breakthrough in science/chemistry?

In the field of electron microscopy I think the biggest breakthroughs come through in instrumentation. For chemistry this has come in the form of new holders which allow the in-situ flow of gas or liquids around the sample whilst still being able to image with the electron beam. This is still an expanding area of research and currently has made a lot of pretty videos but is a lot harder to understand the exact processes going on. Getting real catalysts in under microscope in reactive conditions, I think will be essential to really understanding the catalytic process and how to improve it. I think I lot more can be done in terms of quantification. Can we measure the exact ratio of the gases going in and coming out (this is tricky as very small volumes are involved)? Can we track compositional changes with time and understand particle degradation processes? For Fuel-Cell catalysts there has been a lot of success in developing better catalysts than those commercially available, but the problem is over time the particles degrade and activity is lost. We need to understand and prevent these degradation mechanisms in order really achieve more efficient Fuel-Cells.

 

What should be done to increase the number of female scientists and female professors?

Personally I think it’s still more an issue of cultural expectations than anything else. I don’t think we’ll ever be close to reaching gender equality until it is just as socially acceptable for a man to change his surname after marriage as it is for a woman. Far too many people had an opinion on what I was going to do with my surname when I got married. This was an issue which was entirely mine as it was completely assumed that my husband (also a scientist) would keep his name exactly as it is. It may sound like a trivial thing, but I think about it: scientific achievement is measure by how many papers and citations you have. If you choose to modify your name you need to do it carefully so that all your papers can still be attributed to you. Otherwise you are losing out just because you changed your name.

I don’t think we’ll ever be close to reaching gender equality until it is just as socially acceptable for a man to change his surname after marriage as it is for a woman.

I think the ratio of female to male really drops of during the postdoctoral years. Spending your time on limited 1 or 2-year fixed termed contracts doesn’t really provide a great deal of stability financially. I think women worry about this more, especially if they’re looking to start a family. Also as I said above not enough women are applying for the top end positions, so they may be moving from postdoctoral positions to permanent positions later in their career. In Germany they try to actively combat this issue with positive discrimination. For example, they have a professorship funding option available only to women and some of their lower level funding specifies that at least 40 percent of the awards will be given to women. I still haven’t decided if I agree with this practice or not, but if it does succeed in encouraging more women to apply then it could be a good approach. However, it might leave some people believing they only got the position in order to ‘fill a quota’.

“Persistence” – #LiNo17 participant Karen Stroobants’ key to success

Interview with young scientist Karen Stroobants

This is the beginning of a new series of interviews of the “Women in Research” blog  that will feature young female scientists participating in the 67th Lindau Nobel Laureate Meeting, to increase the visibility of women in research (more information for and about women in science by “Women in Research” on Facebook and Twitter). Enjoy the interview with Karen and get inspired.

 

Photo: Courtesy of Karen Stroobants

Photo: Courtesy of Karen Stroobants

Karen Stroobants, 29, from Belgium is a Postdoc at the University of Cambridge, UK and one of the young scientists that will participate in the 67th Lindau Nobel Laureate Meeting dedicated to Chemistry. Karen’s current group has established that membrane proteins of mitochondria, the powerhouses of our cells, are likely to play a role in the pathways of neurodegenerative conditions such as Alzheimer’s disease. She is investigating the misfolding behaviour of such proteins, and the way the cell responds to it, with the goal to identify potential new targets for therapeutic purposes.

 

What inspired you to pursue a career in science/chemistry?

I always had an interest in science, and biology in particular as it was more accessible as a kid (I had a toy microscope and ‘devised’ a cardboard box to take ‘röntgen’ scans of my stuffed toys). I however only realised I would pursue a career in science when I had my first lessons in chemistry, in the third year of secondary school. Studying chemistry throughout high school was very playful and enjoyable for me, and I noticed it wasn’t for everyone. I helped out several classmates with revising before tests, and I felt I had identified a strength that could well be worth further pursuing. Four years later, I started my bachelor in chemistry with the same enthusiasm and I have never regretted that choice since.

 

Who are your role models?

One of the key moments in high school that without doubt has further supported my interest and enthusiasm in chemistry was the class that thought us about the discoveries of Marie Skłodowska-Curie. I have been intrigued by her life path and accomplishments from the first time I heard about her, and she remains my most important role model today.

I further have encountered amazing women along the way. Important role models to me are Professor Tatjana Parac-Vogt, my PhD supervisor, who is an amazing chemist and has shown me that there is no need to adapt to male behavior to pursue a career in science, Professor Dame Athene Donald, the Master of Churchill College (where I am a By-fellow), who is not only a brilliant physicist but also has a profound interest in science policy and Professor Dame Carol Robinson, who became the first female chemistry Professor both in Cambridge and Oxford, after having taken an eight year career break to take care of her children.

 

How did you get to where you are in your career path?

The key word in my career so far is ‘persistence’. I have always had goals in mind, and I have worked very hard to reach them. I knew that I wanted to go for a Master in chemistry from the third year of secondary school, that I wanted to do a PhD from the second year at university and that I wanted to do a post-doc in the lab of Professor Chris Dobson at the University of Cambridge from the third year of my PhD. Once my mind is set on something, I work towards that goal.

I have been very lucky to always receive the full support of my parents, who have financed my full education, from primary school all the way to university. When I decided to do a PhD, I immediately received support from Professor Tatjana Parac-Vogt, who also was the supervisor of my master thesis. Tanja encouraged me to write a proposal for the Research Foundation Flanders (FWO), and, with her help, I received a fellowship before even finishing my master. During the PhD, I collaborated with a group at ULB in Brussels, where I met a former post-doc of the Dobson group. She gave me the support I needed to grasp this potential opportunity. I sent at least five e-mails to Chris before I received an invitation for an interview in Cambridge. When I pointed this out to him later, his response was to the point: ‘Persistence is a good quality in a scientist.’ Fair enough :-).

 

What is the coolest project you have worked on and why?

I would say it is my current one. Over the past seven years, I have worked in the fields of cardiovascular disease detection (during my Bachelor), artificial enzyme development (during my Master and PhD) and neurodegeneration (now, as a post-doc). The common denominator has been my expertise in spectroscopy and other biophysical techniques, whereas the topics and applications have spanned fundamental chemistry as well as the life sciences. My current project is on the role of mitochondria, mitochondrial proteins in particular in neurodegenerative diseases. One could say that I have moved away somewhat from the basic chemistry I studied towards biochemistry and the border with biology even. Maybe I have touched ground again with the science that had initially sparked my enthusiasm as a kid? My drive for this project surely further is related to the stories my mum used to bring home. She works with people with dementia; some of the situations she encounters are devastating. I aspire to contribute to the establishment of effective therapies for these conditions in some way.

 

Photo: Courtesy of Karen Stroobants

Photo: Courtesy of Karen Stroobants

When have you felt immense pride in yourself/your work?

There are two moments of extreme pride that I can point out without hesitation. The first one is my public PhD defence. This final presentation in Belgium goes hand in hand with a public event where family and friends are invited and it was one of the best days in my career so far. One of the reasons is without doubt the festive element to it, but, more importantly, it marks the successful finalisation of several years of, sometimes very exciting, sometimes quite frustrating, hard work.

The second moment was the day I was informed by the European Commission that I had successfully secured a Marie Skłodowska-Curie post-doctoral Fellowship. I had compiled my first application for this prestigious fellowship that is associated with the legacy of my ultimate role model, two years earlier, but had failed to secure it in this round. I tried again one year later, taking on board the feedback I received, and my persistence allowed me to reach another goal. The research proposal I had put forward to secure the grant has meanwhile brought me to Warsaw in Poland, the birthplace of Marie Skłodowska-Curie.

 

What is a “day in the life” of Karen like?

I try to be at the department around 8.30 (although I probably arrive at 9.00 as often), and usually know what to start on in the lab. At the moment I am working with S. cerevisiae or baker’s yeast cells, and their growth and needs in part define my schedule. Today I got in and immediately checked how they had been growing overnight. It was a good day, they had behaved as expected and I could start my experiment. I added a compound in their nutrient solution to initiate the production of a specific protein, and let them grow for another few hours. In the meantime, I prepared a discussion on model organisms in neurodegeneration for the day after, and skimmed through my e-mails. At this point, I was the one craving nutrients, so I texted my colleagues to go for lunch.

After lunch, my yeast cells were ready to be harvested, by spinning them down at a high speed. The procedure to do so, and collect them in batches relevant to my experiment, took me most of the afternoon. In between, I planned out the experimental work for the next day, and prepared the necessary solutions and yeast cell cultures to get going again in the morning. Before going home, I usually have another look at my inbox and take time to answer e-mails that I had just skimmed over earlier in the day. In the evening, I either spend most of my time in the kitchen, or go for a gym session or run along the river Cam (in which case my lovely housemate Lily Chan provides dinner). My runs are not entirely science free, as they usually allow my mind to drift and come up with new ideas, some better than others admittedly.

 

What are you seeking to accomplish in your career?

While my current project has again sparked my enthusiasm for the science itself, and is at a stage where new ideas pop up during every run, I have for a while now played with the idea of leaving the path of an academic for a full-time career in science policy. Where I have in every previous step known well in advance what I wanted to do, this is probably the first time that I am not so sure…

As a scientist, my research has brought me to the study of our energy production pathways and the organelles related to it in the context of neurodegeneration. Would I be happy to further expand my knowledge in this direction, and push the border of our understanding through my own ideas? I certainly would, and I know I enjoy supervising students, editing articles, writing grant proposals and teaching as well.

As a science communicator, I feel the science community has a lot to learn in terms of effective communication, with policy makers, industry as well as the general public. Would I find as much satisfaction in taking up a role either as policy advisor, in a learned society, or supporting researchers in their communication strategy? I probably would, in fact there is only one way to find out…

And there are even more careers to consider. With the right balance between science and policy initiatives, I keep my options open for now. The future will tell.

 

What do you like to do when you’re not doing research?

I have already mentioned my pleasure in cooking and exercising on week evenings. Whereas my runs often stimulate my brain to wonder about new ideas, cooking for me is the ultimate form of relaxation. While I work with my hands, my mind is completely distracted, or rather fully occupied with assessing the type of pasta to go with a specific sauce or the quality of the seasoning.

One evening a week, and part of my weekends, is devoted to extracurricular endeavours, mostly related to science communication and science policy. I am currently Head of workshops for the Cambridge University Science Policy Exchange initiative, an organization that aims to provide insight into the process of policy design and portray the communication difficulties commonly experienced during science-policy exchanges to fellow University staff. I further am involved in the Global Shapers Hub in Cambridge, the policy work group of the Marie Curie Alumni Association, and the policy challenges initiative of the Cambridgeshire County Council. These initiatives indeed take up some of the time that I could otherwise further spend on my science. I however hope that these efforts will be as valuable as they might contribute to re-installing the importance of evidence-advised policy in a world currently ruled by ‘alternative facts’.

 

Photo: Courtesy of Karen Stroobants

Photo: Courtesy of Karen Stroobants

What advice do you have for other women interested in science/chemistry?

My most important piece of advice to anyone pursuing a career in science would be: ‘Be persistent’. This probably is applicable much broader, for reaching life goals in general. I do believe this characteristic has brought me where I am now, and where I anticipated being a few years ago.

For women more specifically, I have two more pieces of advice. First, do not underestimate yourself. There are plenty of studies showing that while men tend to overestimate themselves, women tend to do the opposite. Just remembering this basic fact does encourage me to present myself more confidently and I am sure this has made the difference at a number of occasions.

Second, define your own work-life balance and communicate clearly about it to superiors. Scientists are in general very passionate about what they do, which can result in a seemingly endless enthusiasm to work long hours, weekends and bank holidays. If one enjoys this, that is perfectly fine, however, I felt very early in my career that I need time to go for a run, meet with a friend, go on a weekend away, all on a regular basis. In addition, I have committed to spend part of my time to science policy initiatives. Of course I have an occasional late night or weekend in the lab, but I make a point of taking very conscious decisions on how I want to spend my ‘out-of-office-hours’ time, as I realise how precious it is.

 

In your opinion, what will be the next great breakthrough in science/chemistry?

The hardest question last :-). I imagine I would answer this question differently on a day-to-day basis depending on what I just read, or what occupies me at the moment. I think very generally in science, we, the human race, have a number of huge issues to address, including growing inequality, climate change, and healthcare. I believe breakthroughs can be expected in the fields of renewable energy and antibiotic resistance fairly soon. The fight against inequality is a different matter. Social scientists are certainly delivering evidence for the expected success of a basic income for everyone, but I fear we will have to wait longer for the practical implementation of such solutions.

In my own field, I feel great progress is being made as an accumulation of a vast amount of ‘small steps’. The brain remains one of, if not the most complex organ to understand. I always feel entertained by this irony: ‘Will the human brain ever be able to fully understand its own complexity?’ Although I obviously cannot answer this question, I do feel we are answering one small question at a time, and continuously move closer to that anticipated understanding. Both in terms of fundamental processes, and disease mechanisms, great work is being done, and I expect this to lead to breakthroughs in the field within the next decade.

 

What should be done to increase the number of female scientists and female professors?

Although a lot of programs have been set up within institutions and universities to address the gender imbalance in academia specifically, I believe more general societal changes will have a larger impact. First, I believe most governments still underestimate the key role of teachers, from kinder garden to university, in shaping individuals and with it the next generation and its thinking. Good teachers, that share their interest in the world around them and are accessible for all children, are of vital importance to motivate youngsters to take up studies in the sciences. Female teachers, as role models, in addition can further stimulate girls in particular to see the feasibility of pursuing a STEM career.

Second, changes that contribute to a more gender balanced society more generally will result in an increased number of female scientists. The girl – boy mentality gets fed to our children from a very early age, with gender specific toys, activities and behaviour. I believe there are huge opportunities for behavioural scientists to address many of these issues. One example I immediately think of in later life is the issue of parental leave. It has been proven that allocating part of this leave to the male parent by default would have profound effects on the work-life balance of both parents in the long-term. Many more recommendations in this respect are out there already, waiting to be implemented.

#LiNo16: Ein enormer Motivationsschub für Neutrinoforscherin Zara Bagdasarian

Zara Bagdasarian   Picture/Credit: Gabriele Weiland

Zara Bagdasarian, Picture/Credit: Andrea Pesce

Interview mit Zara Bagdasarian, Postdoc am Institut für Kernphysik des Forschungszentrums Jülich, über die 66. Lindauer Nobelpreisträgertagung

Einmal im Jahr treffen in Lindau am Bodensee Nobelpreisträger auf junge Wissenschaftler und Wissenschaftlerinnen und diskutieren mit ihnen über aktuelle Fragen der Forschung. Die 66. Tagung im Juni 2016 war der Physik gewidmet; zu den Teilnehmern und Teilnehmerinnen zählten ca. 30 Nobelpreisträger und 400 Nachwuchsforscher – Studierende, Doktoranden und Postdocs – aus insgesamt 80 Ländern. Hinzu kamen Ehrengäste aus Politik und Forschung, darunter Bundesforschungsministerin Prof. Dr. Johanna Wanka und der österreichische Bundespräsident Dr. Heinz Fischer. Mit dabei war auch Dr. Zara Bagdasarian, eine junge Physikerin, die aus Georgien stammend am Jülicher Institut für Kernphysik, Bereich Experimentelle Hadronenphysik, als Postdoc tätig ist.

 

Sie haben sich erfolgreich für eine Teilnahme an der Lindauer Nobelpreisträgertagung 2016 beworben. Was haben Sie sich von der Tagung erhofft?

Zara Bagdasarian: Ich wusste, dass in Lindau auch die beiden Wissenschaftler sein würden, die 2015 den Nobelpreis für Physik erhalten haben, und zwar auf dem Gebiet, auf dem ich selbst auch forsche: der Neutrinophysik. Bei Neutrinos handelt es sich um Elementarteilchen, deren Existenz in den 1930er Jahren von Wolfgang Pauli zum ersten Mal postuliert wurde. 1956 ließen sie sich dann tatsächlich experimentell nachweisen. Allerdings wurde angenommen, sie seien masselos. Der Beweis von Neutrinooszillationen, die zeigen, dass Neutrinos einen Masse haben, gelang erst Ende der 1990er Jahre in zwei verschiedenen Experimenten jeweils dem Japaner Takaaki Kajita, Professor an der Universität Tokio, und dem Kanadier Arthur B. McDonald, Professor an der Queen’s University in Ontario. Die wollte ich gerne kennenlernen!

 

Ihr eigenes Forschungsprojekt liegt ebenfalls in diesem Bereich. Womit beschäftigen Sie sich genau?

Zara Bagdasarian: Meine Forschungsarbeit ist Teil des „Borexino-SOX“-Experiments – einer internationalen Kollaboration zur Erforschung von Neutrinos, an der Forscher aus Italien, den USA, Russland, Frankreich und Deutschland beteiligt sind. Durchgeführt werden die Experimente in Italien am Gran Sasso National Laboratory. Es geht darum, die Existenz einer bestimmten Art von Neutrinos, sogenannten sterilen Neutrinos, nachzuweisen.

 

Auf der Tagung in Lindau waren über 500 Teilnehmer und Teilnehmerinnen. Hatten Sie denn überhaupt die Gelegenheit, mit den beiden Neutrinophysikern zu sprechen?

Zara Bagdasarian: Ja, da hatte ich Glück! Neben Takaaki Kajita saß ich beim Dinner und konnte mich den ganzen Abend lang mit ihm und seiner Frau unterhalten. Diese Abendessen sind immer so organisiert, dass jeweils ein Nobelpreisträger mit zwölf Nachwuchswissenschaftlern an einem Tisch sitzt. Wir haben über den Alltag in der Forschung gesprochen. Er hat berichtet, dass er einerseits immer sehr viel Spaß an seiner Arbeit hatte, es aber gleichzeitig eine Herausforderung war, genügend Zeit für die Familie zu finden. Vielleicht liegt das auch am japanischen Arbeitsethos; sein normaler Arbeitstag dauert von 9 bis 20 Uhr. Die Frage nach der Vereinbarkeit von Beruf und Familie wurde übrigens im Laufe der Veranstaltung öfter angeschnitten. So hat ein amerikanischer Nobelpreisträger erzählt, wie er jeden Abend gegen 19.00 Uhr nach Hause kam, um mit seinen Kindern zu Abend zu essen, und oft danach ins Labor zurückfuhr. ‚Never forget the people in your life! Invest in family and friends: At the end of the day you need them more than anything else’ – so lässt sich die Essenz der verschiedenen Diskussionen zusammenfassen.

 

Zara Bagdasarian and Nobel Laureate Takaaki Kajita at the 66th Lindau Nobel Laureate Meeting, 27.06.2016, Lindau, Germany, Picture/Credit: Christian Flemming/Lindau Nobel Laureate Meetings

Zara Bagdasarian und Nobelpreisträger Takaaki Kajita während der 66. Lindauer Nobelpreisträgertagung , 27.06.2016, Lindau, Deutschland, Picture/Credit: Christian Flemming/Lindau Nobel Laureate Meetings

 

Und Arthur B. McDonald?

Zara Bagdasarian: Mit ihm habe ich unter anderem über Frauen in der Wissenschaft gesprochen. Er hat mich ermutigt, aktiv auf Mädchen zuzugehen und Vorträge in Schulen zu halten, um junge Frauen für die Naturwissenschaften zu gewinnen.

 

Rahmenbedingungen für Forscher und Forscherinnen waren ein Thema – welche weiteren Fragen wurden debattiert?

Zara Bagdasarian: Was immer wieder betont wurde, war die Bedeutung der Grundlagenforschung. Beispielsweise warten gegenwärtig alle auf die Anwendungen des Quantencomputers, aber ohne Grundlagenforschung ist der nicht zu haben. In der Vergangenheit ist es öfter vorgekommen, dass grundlegende Forschungsergebnisse erst Jahrzehnte später zu Innovationen geführt haben. Ein berühmtes Beispiel ist Einsteins Relativitätstheorie, die – 1905 veröffentlicht – heute für die Konstruktion von Navigationssystemen genutzt wird. Ein anderes Thema, das ebenfalls viel diskutiert wurde, waren aktuelle Forschungsfelder in der Physik. So waren sich alle einig, dass der nächste Nobelpreis für Physik auf dem Gebiet der Gravitationswellen verliehen wird.

 

Wie lautet Ihr persönliches Fazit der Veranstaltung?

Zara Bagdasarian: Für mich hat die Tagung einen enormen Motivationsschub gebracht. Ich möchte in der Forschung bleiben und hoffe, eines Tages eine eigene Arbeitsgruppe zu leiten. Gleichzeitig will ich aber auch eine Familie gründen. Mein Mann ist ebenfalls Physiker – wir haben uns in Jülich kennengelernt – und für uns ist es wichtig, Arbeit und Familie vereinbaren zu können.

 

Die Fragen stellte Kristin Mosch.

Tamás Vámi interviews Scientific Chairman Lars Bergström

Professor Lars Bergström is one of the two scientific chairmen of the 66th Lindau Nobel Laureate Meeting (alongside Prof. Rainer Blatt). The theoretical physicist from the University of Stockholm is a member of the Physics Section fo the Royal Swedish Academy and also serves as a deputy board member of the Nobel Foundation. His interviewer, Hungarian Tamás Vámi, is a particle physicist at CERN and one of almost 400 young scientists taking part in this year’s Lindau Meeting.

 

Tamás: Lars, you are one of the two scientific chairmen of this year’s Lindau Meeting. What can we expect from the scientific programme of #LiNo16?

Lars Bergström: I think we will see a vibrant programme with many memorable talks. Of course it is especially gratifying that the most recent Physics Laureates are present, and that also many Laureates in Chemistry contribute to the programme. Taken as a whole, this year we will have excellent overviews of diverse scientific areas from the persons who were instrumental in creating them. 

 

Tamás: There are many candidates for Dark Matter. Which model is closest to your heart, which is the one that is the most promising in your opinion?

Lars Bergström: This is a difficult question. Experience tells us that in science it is not always good to “fall in love” with a particular theoretical model. I think the answer is at the moment in the hands of our brilliant experimentalists, and we have to keep an open mind and see what they find. Weakly interacting massive particles (WIMPs) and axions belong to the most studied dark matter candidates, but nature could be more subtle.

 

Tamás: Dark Energy is one of the biggest mysteries of our days. There are many theories about it, but what are the experimental methods of studying it?

Lars Bergström: The thing that distinguishes dark energy from dark matter is that dark matter is gravitationally attractive, whereas dark energy on the contrary is repulsive. This means that the expansion of the universe, which would slow down if there was only matter present, will instead accelerate. This accelerated expansion can be seen on very large length scales as it e.g. makes distant supernovas dimmer than they would otherwise appear. It seems, however, to be very difficult to see effects of dark energy locally, such as in the solar system.

 

Tamás: 2016 is certainly a very exciting year for science: The LIGO experiment announced the detection of gravitational waves and there is a sign of new physics at the LHC with the “750 GeV bump”. How do you think these announcements could affect your field? (eg. gravitational waves – dark energy connection?, 750 GeV bump – dark matter connection?)

Lars Bergström: I do not think it will affect either the modeling of dark energy, or enter the explanation of the tentative 750 GeV resonance. However, a new subfield of astroparticle physics and cosmology will likely be created: gravitational astronomy. Here one would study some of the most extreme events happening inside and outside our galaxy, like the merger of neutron stars or of black holes. This is an unchartered area where many surprises may be hiding.

 

Tamás: Are there any possible breakthroughs in Science that you wish to live to see? What is it and why do you think it is important?

Lars Bergström: Having worked for three decades with the dark matter problem, the identification of the particle constituting dark matter would be highest on my wish list. Then there are many areas of quantum physics, like quantum communication or quantum computing, where breakthroughs may happen that could even change our everyday lives. But of course many discoveries and inventions have been total surprises, and maybe that is how progress will be made. The young scientists at #LiNo16 live at a time when they can make use of past achievements to make such breakthroughs – if they just remember to be bold and creative, like the Laureates were that they will get in touch with here in Lindau! 

 

Tamás: How do you see the role of the individual vs. collaborations in Science?

Lars Bergström: Collaborations are of course made up of individuals, and in physics we often need very large collaborations to make progress, e.g. in particle physics or cosmology. Fortunately, for the Nobel Prizes in Physics, it has so far been possible to identify at most three persons that were crucial for the awarded discovery or invention, and hopefully that will be possible, although perhaps more difficult,  in the future.

Junge Physikerinnen im Rampenlicht

Unter den diesjährigen Teilnehmern des 66. Lindau Nobelpreisträgertagung befinden sich zahlreiche junge begabte Physikerinnen.

Einige haben mir im Vorfeld des Meetings mehr Einblick in ihr Leben gewährt und sich zu den folgenden 10 Fragen geäußert:

  1. Was hat Dich inspiriert in der Physik zu arbeiten?
  2. Wer sind Deine Vorbilder?
  3. Wie bist Du dorthin gekommen, wo Du gerade arbeitest?
  4. Was war das coolste Projekt an dem Du je gearbeitet hast und warum?
  5. In welchem Moment war Du besonders stolz auf Dich / auf Deine Arbeit?
  6. Wie sieht ein Tag in Deinem Leben aus?
  7. Was willst Du in Deiner Karriere erreichen?
  8. Was machst Du neben der Forschung?
  9. Welchen Ratschlag würdest Du anderen Frauen geben, die sich für Physik interessieren?
  10. Was könnte der nächste große Durchbruch in der Physik sein?

Darüber hinaus wollte ich auch noch wissen, was ihrer Meinung nach unternommen werden muss, um die Anzahl von weiblichen Professorinnen in der Physik zu erhöhen.

Lasst Euch inspirieren von…

Lola (29) aus Spanien, Charlotta (22) aus Deutschland, Gabriela (33) aus Brasilien, Ana Isabel (30) aus Spanien, Katarzyna (29) aus Großbritannien, Ayesha (24) aus Pakistan, Irene (23) aus Spanien, Winifred (25) aus Ghana, Birgitta (35) aus Deutschland, Anastasiia (26) aus Russland, Anna-Christina (26) aus Deutschland, Zaynah (28) aus Mauritius, Cora (27) aus Deutschland, Tara (26) aus Slovenien, Ann-Katrin (29) aus Deutschland,…

Alle Interviews sind auf dem Women in Research Blog zusammengetragen. Vielleicht ist beim nächsten Treffen auch ein Eintrag von Euch dabei!

womeninphysics

Spotlight on Young Women in Physics at Lindau

Several young talented female physicists are among the participants in the 66th Lindau Nobel Laureate Meeting.

Some of them gave me an insight into their life in advance of the meeting by answering the following 10 questions:

  1. What inspired you to pursue a career in physics / STEM?
  2. Who are your role models?
  3. How did you get to where you are in your career path?
  4. What is the coolest project you have worked on and why?
  5. What’s a time you felt immense pride in yourself / your work?
  6. What is a “day in the life” of you like?
  7. What are you seeking to accomplish in your career?
  8. What do you like to do when you’re not doing research?
  9. What advice do you have for other women interested in physics / STEM?
  10. In your opinion, what will be the next great breakthrough in physics research?

Furthermore, I wanted to know what should be done in their opition to increase the number of female professors in physics.

Get inspired by…

Lola (29) from Spain, Charlotta (22) from Germany, Gabriela (33) from Brazil, Ana Isabel (30) from Spain, Katarzyna (29) from the UK, Ayesha (24) from Pakistan, Irene (23) from Spain, Winifred (25) from Ghana, Birgitta (35) from Germany, Anastasiia (26) from Russia, Anna-Christina (26) from Germany, Zaynah (28) from Mauritius, Cora (27) from Germany, Tara (26) from Slovenia, Ann-Katrin (29) from Germany,…

All interviews are gathered on the Women in Research Blog and might include an interview with you during the next meeting as well.

womeninphysics

Five questions to a Nobel Laureate: Jack Szostak

szostak-collagex

 

How much sleep do you need and does it affect your work?

I sleep about 6 or 7 hours. If you can’t get enough sleep, you can’t really pay attention to things.

 

Are you addicted to something? Science cannot be the answer

Not really. I drink coffee in the mornings, but that’s about it. At conferences I drink more than usual, but that’s about it.

 

What’s your idea of a perfect holiday?

I like lots of different kinds of things. Doing things outside, such as hiking.

 

Where do your best ideas come from?

I think it’s quite important to give yourself some time to think. I try to make sure, almost everyday, that I have some period to sit quietly and think about new experiments.

 

What one advice would you give to young scientists?

If you really like doing science and want to have a life in science, then you should try to do something really significant and not just small, incremental things. Think of a big problem that really grabs your interest and focus on that.

Five questions to a Nobel Laureate: William Phillips

William-Phillips-collagex

How much sleep do you need and does it affect your work?

On average, I go to sleep between 12.30am and 1.30am. Then I get up around 7.30am. I’m probably not efficient when I’m tired, like everyone else.

Are you addicted to something? Science cannot be the answer

I don’t believe I’m addicted to any chemical. I drink a little but no coffee. Mostly I get caffeine from diet colas, but I don’t particularly like them.

What’s your idea of a perfect holiday?

We have a joke in my family. It’s not considered a holiday if it involves physics or family. And under that definition, we have not had a holiday since 1972. According to a more normal definition, a holiday is at a place which has a lot of stimulating features, either artistically, naturally, intellectually, or in the company of good friends. On that scale, this conference is just like a holiday.

Where do your best ideas come from?

The past, that is I had all my good ideas when I was young. Now the best ideas are not my ideas but those of the young people I work with.

How does creativity play a role in science?

The only way science advances is through creativity, if you define creativity as doing something new. What things lead to creativity? That’s different for different people, but for me I find it in the company of smart people. It comes from throwing ideas around, discussing and beating them out. I like a good fight, scientifically speaking, because it is when we disagree with something that we are likely to learn something new.

Five questions to a Nobel Laureate: David Gross

gross-collagex

How much sleep do you need and does it affect your work?

I try to sleep for 8 hours, but on average I get about 7 hours. When I’m thinking hard, I need more sleep. Actually, I think a lot of work gets done while sleeping.

 

Are you addicted to something? Science cannot be the answer

New knowledge (says so while smoking). I also prefer coffee.

 

What’s your idea of a perfect holiday?

My wife jokes that I wouldn’t want to go to a beach, because after a day of sitting around I’ll go crazy and start causing trouble. One of my main goals in life, if not the main goal, is to not be bored.

 

Where do your best ideas come from?

I wish I knew. A lot of the work on solving problems is done by some portion of the brain without knowing. It often happens that, when I’m talking to someone, I say something that I had no idea where that thought came from. So I stop myself and I say, “Wow, that’s pretty interesting.”

 

What one advice would you give to young scientists?

Do what you enjoy, because then you’ll enjoy the journey

Five questions to a Nobel Laureate: Venkatraman Ramakrishnan

Venki-collage

 

How much sleep do you need and does it affect your work?

I usually go to bed about 10pm or so. I wake up between 6am and 7am. I can’t function very well without a good night’s sleep.

 

Are you addicted to something? Science cannot be the answer

I’m addicted to surfing news articles on the internet. That’s a very bad addiction, because most of the things I read are not very lasting. If I hadn’t read them, there would be no consequence whatsoever. But the internet has this addictive quality, and it’s one thing I’m trying to control.

 

What’s your idea of a perfect holiday?

A perfect holiday would be either going on a hike or a bicycle ride, where I’m doing things outdoors and not thinking about all the stresses of life. Definitely away from email and work-related things.

 

Where do your best ideas come from?

Often they come when I’m engaged in some leisure activity. For instance, I’m on a walk or a bike, and suddenly without knowing I’m thinking about some problem that’s been bothering me. In these moments, a new approach might occur to me. Occasionally, good ideas will come from reading something I wasn’t expecting to read. And very occasionally, they come from people I meet, who may not be in my field but have an insight into my work that hadn’t occurred to me because the person’s an outsider.

 

What one advice would you give to young scientists?

Do something where you really care about the answer, because fads in science don’t last and the process of science can often be very tedious. You have to really care about the question and know the importance of finding the answer. That’s the most important thing, because it will keep you interested and motivated.