Published 24 October 2019 by Ulrike Böhm

Women in Research at #LINO19: Jana Lasser from Austria

#LINO19 Alumna Jana Lasser on a field trip in a salt desert. Photo/Credit: Jana Lasser

This interview is part of a series of the “Women in Research” blog that features young female scientists who participated in the 69th Lindau Nobel Laureate Meeting to increase the visibility of women in research (find more information on Facebook and Twitter).

Jana from Austria is a postdoctoral researcher at the MPI for Dynamics and Self-Organization in Göttingen, Germany. Her focus of interest are the iconic hexagonal patterns that often form in salt deserts, such as the Death Valley, USA. She tries to uncover the driving mechanism of this pattern formation process, using both numerical simulations and experiments in the lab as well as organising field studies to research the patterns in nature. Enjoy the interview with Jana and get inspired:

What inspired you to pursue a career in science?

I went to a Waldorf school in Austria which is a private school that focuses on education in art and craftsmanship. During my time in school, I engaged in a lot of vocational activities such as martial arts, learning instruments and a fourth language. I was always pretty good in math but my school did not really encourage us to follow a scientific career. Particularly my physics education in the last two to three years of high school was next to non-existent due to fluctuating and really bad teachers. Therefore, after I finished my high school graduation, I had the feeling I knew everything except physics. For me, the logical next step was to study the thing I knew the least about (which made achieving the Bachelor’s degree rather hard for me). Additionally, I also didn’t really want to decide what to do with my life. Physics seemed like the field that opens the most doors and career paths. So that was a nice fit.

Photo/Credit: Jana Lasser

Who are your role models?

I think I don’t have specific people as role models – rather groups of people or professions that I associate a specific trait with that I admire. I admire entrepreneurs for their courage to go out into the world with their own idea and their own plan and just do it. I admire athletes for their dedication and discipline and I admire nerds and hackers for their drive to go to the bottom of things and really understand. These are traits that I aspire to.

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

Definitely my field research. I planned two trips to salt deserts in Central California (Deatch Valley and Owens Valley) and conducted research there. We had to travel mid winter so the temperatures in the deserts would be somewhat bearable. Getting two weeks of sun in German winter (while being paid) is just awesome! Next to that, planning a field campaign is a challenge on a very different level: one has to make sure to get the most out of the very limited and expensive time at the research location in the field. Every hour and every experiment is carefully planned – but of course nature tends to mess with careful planning and one needs to be creative on the spot as well. I really enjoyed this experience and would always repeat it again!
The other is the project ‘Daten Lesen Lernen‘ I am working on right now. Together with colleagues from the center for statistics in Göttingen I develop a new curriculum to teach “Data Literacy” to all the students at the university: from the archeology to the enonomy students, from the biologists to the sociologists, they will all have the possibility to learn a little bit of programming, data visualisation, statistics and critical interpretation of data analysis early in their studies. My duties there involve both the development of teaching materials as well as the coordination of the whole project and outreach to gather and spread best practices. I really like the great freedom I have there to pursue my ideas and the diversity of my activities.

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

During the last year of my PhD I  served as the Spokesperson of the Max-Planck PhDnet, the representation of over 5,000 doctoral researchers of the Max Planck Society. This position comes with a lot of responsibility and work and is nearly a full-time job in itself. I managed to finish my PhD on time while making some contributions to the representation of PhDs that truly have an impact. When I was elected for the position I had my doubts whether I would be able to manage the immense workload. In the end, it worked out and was the greatest and most intense year I had in my life so far. I am very proud that I had the courage to embrace that challenge.

What are you seeking to accomplish in your career?

I am striving to have an occupation which allows me to learn new things and explore interesting ideas on a regular basis. I also need possibilities to challenge myself and get out of my comfort zone. Next to that I want to contribute to the society around me and do something useful. I have the feeling that I grew up in a very privileged environment which made it rather easy for me to get the education I have now and I want to give something back. I decided to follow a path that leads me deeper into the academic life. My next step will be a PostDoc position where I hope to combine my passion for Data Science and my wish to work on something closer to application.

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

I don’t know if my advice for women would be any different than my advice for men, nevertheless I am happy to give it: physics is not magic. Studying physics is hard work fueled by curiosity and takes time. Don’t be discouraged if you fail exams or don’t understand something at first glance. Find a circle of friends and colleagues who support each other and go out to have some fun every once in a while. And last but not least: do what you enjoy doing, the success will follow.

Photo/Credit: Jana Lasser

In your opinion, what will be the next great breakthrough in physics?

In my opinion, the next great breakthrough will be of applied rather than theoretical nature. Batteries are becoming an increasingly integral part of a decentralised energy infrastructure, which relies on renewable energies to a large degree. This requires batteries with a high energy density and many charging cycles, made of materials which are common and not hugely poisonous. The most promising approaches in that regard lie in the field of solid state batteries. The capability to produce such batteries will play a key role in transforming our energy production and management away from fossil fuels and towards a sustainable solution.

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

I think that the discouragement young women experience when it comes to the natural sciences happens very early on. It starts with gendered toys (not a good idea), continues with the notion that there are activities which are more ‘boy-like’ or more ‘girl-like’ and ends with very low numbers of girls being interested in starting to study natural sciences after finishing their school education. Changing this needs awareness and effort in school, starting at first grade, in families and in (pop)culture in general. Featuring more female role-models working in STEM-fields is certainly a good start.

Additional information: Learn more about Jana’s research in her article ‘From ‘Star Wars’ to Geophysics‘ on our blog.

Ulrike Böhm

Ulrike Boehm is a physicist and science enthusiast. She works as an optical scientist at ZEISS in Oberkochen, Germany. Previously, she did her Ph.D. studies at the Max Planck Institute for Biophysical Chemistry in Göttingen in the Department of NanoBiophotonics of Nobel Laureate Stefan Hell, followed by research stays in the US at the National Institutes of Health and HHMI’s Janelia Research Campus, developing tools for biomedical research. She is generally passionate about designing and building (optical) instruments to image, probe, and manipulate (biological) structures. Furthermore, she is passionate about science communication and open science and is a huge advocate for women in science.