Women in Research: “Follow Your Scientific Passion.”

The following interview is part of a series of interviews of the “Women in Research” blog that features young female scientists participating in the Lindau Nobel Laureate Meetings, to increase the visibility of women in research (find more information about “Women in Research” on Facebook and Twitter). Enjoy the interview with Marlene and get inspired.

Marlene Heckl from Germany is a graduate student (medicine) at the Technical University of Munich. She is investigating certain tumor suppressor genes in different types of ovarian and endometrial cancer as well as endometriosis in women. Their research goal is to identify new biomarkers in order to create better subtype specific cancer treatments. Marlene participated in the 68th Lindau Nobel Laureate Meeting.

What inspired you to pursue a career in science?

Marlene Heckl: “As long as I can remember I have been fascinated by science, nature and the human body. As a kid I often asked myself “why does something happen in this or that way”, I wanted to get to the bottom of things, I was curious about how our world works. In 9th grade we had to do a four-week internship and I decided to go to a hospital. I spent the entire time in the Department of Clinical Pharmacology, where I not only got to know the daily routine of a physician, but also got in touch with some really cool researchers and was allowed to help them in the lab. Although I didn’t understand everything that they were doing I was fascinated by their curiosity, spirit and desire to find new drugs to help people. So I decided I wanted to do the same thing when I’m older – become a doctor and researcher at the same time.”

Marlene Heckl presenting a science poster, © Marlene Heckl

Who are your role models?

Marlene Heckl: “I don’t have any specific role models. I admire every scientist – past or present – who had the courage to fulfill his or her dreams and who was not discouraged by backlashes. I think we can learn a lot from them, but we also have to find our own way in life. There have been some important mentors in my life – school teachers (like my former math teacher Mr. Würch) who encouraged my passion for science and university lecturers (like my supervisor Prof. Mayr) who helped me in my scientific career. Also my father, who is a scientist himself, inspired me with his passion and joy and I am really grateful for my parents’ life-long support in what I am doing.”

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

Marlene Heckl: “In school I had a great math teacher who encouraged me to participate in a scientific competition for school children (Jugend forscht – ‘young researchers’). As a mentor he has supported and motivated me to pursue a scientific career as a girl – which I couldn’t really imagine before. I was lucky enough to get into medical school and to be supported by the German Academic Scholarship Foundation (“Studienstiftung des deutschen Volkes”). During the first semesters of my studies at university, I was inspired by really good teaching of some professors. When we had to choose an elective, I decided to do a laboratory internship at the Institute of Neurophysiology, because the professor was a pretty nice and intelligent guy. With a fellow student, I investigated the relatively unknown calcium binding protein secretagogin, especially focussing on its localization and function in the cell. It was a great time as I learned a lot about laboratory work and how to overcome backlashes and keep pursuing research aims. After my first medical state examination I decided to start my doctoral thesis in the lab of Prof. Mayr who works in the field of gynaecological pathology. Since then I have been researching and studying at the same time which is the perfect combination of conducting science experiments and learning about the human body and helping patients.”

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

Marlene Heckl: “The project I am working on right now is really cool. I investigate how the expression of different proteins influence the survival rate of woman with ovarian or endometrial cancer. I like the thought that some day my work might contribute to actually help real people – although it’s only basic research so far.”

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

Marlene Heckl: “If I have to name a single event, I would say that I was really happy when – after years of researching and studying – I was finally able to publish a paper with first-authorship about my work this year. It was an unforgettable moment when I got the acceptance note and I celebrated it with my colleagues that evening. I am grateful to be part of such an amazing team that supports everyone in his/her research aims.”

Nobel Laureate Michael W. Young and Marlene Heckl during the 68th Lindau Nobel Laureate Meeting, © Marlene Heckl

What is a ‘day in the life’ of Marlene like?

Marlene Heckl: “I am still studying at university, so on a typical day, I get up in the morning, have a cup of black tea, catch up on my e-mails and get a quick overview of my daily schedule. Then I take different medical courses and listen to lectures at my university. In my time between university classes and sometimes on the weekends I drop by my lab to supervise, plan or analyse experiments. I am a very organised person, so I try to document my work right after I conducting the experiments. If I don’t have to take care of an experiment, I am writing e-mails, drafting applications, preparing or holding presentations, and, if it’s a good day, working on a medical article for my blog ‘Marlenes Medizinkiste‘. When I am finished I go home, make dinner or go out for dinner to meet friends. Once a week, I take dancing courses in the evening or practice with my medical university choir. On the other days I finish the evening watching good series (often medical ones like Dr. House, Grey’s Anatomy or The Good Doctor, but I am also a fan of GoT;)).”

What are you seeking to accomplish in your career?

Marlene Heckl: “I am still at the beginning of my career and my first goal is to finish medical school next year. After that I have to decide which field is the most exciting and which specialised training I want to do in order to become an attending (physician). I want to do something where I can pursue research, preferably in an interdisciplinary field and where I find passion and joy. I am curious to see where my scientific career will lead me in the next few years and hoping that some day I can contribute something to society that will help people.”

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

Marlene Heckl: “I like to sing in our medical university choir (I have also been playing the piano since I was six years old), dance, go out for a walk with my dog Charlie or meet with friends. I enjoy simple things like reading a book or watching good series to relax after a stressful day. As a scientist I am not only interested in researching but also in making it applicable to the general public. Since a couple of years I am engaged in science communication and work as a freelance science journalist for Spektrum der Wissenschaft (Scilogs) and DocCheck alongside my study. So on free days you can also find me writing articles about other research or health related topics on my blog ‘Marlenes Medizinkiste’.”

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

Marlene Heckl: “Every woman interested in science should believe in herself: If you’re passionate about something (no matter what) you should pursue your dreams. Every female scientist has my huge admiration and it is most important not to be afraid of anything just because of being a woman. Follow your scientific passion, find what drives you in science and don’t be stopped by comments like ‘you’re just a woman’ or ‘that’s what women do’. We should adopt the attitude of Donna Strickland, the third woman in history to win the Nobel Prize in Physics this year: ‘I see myself as a scientist, not a woman in science’.”

In your opinion, what will be the next great breakthrough in physiology/medicine?

Marlene Heckl: “That’s a tough question as there might be a lot of breakthroughs in the next decades. I personally think that the use of big data algorithms and artificial intelligence will lead to new solutions for the diagnosis and therapy of illnesses. We could characterise biomarkers for early detection of certain cancer types, make further progress in the field of personalised medicine, improve robotic surgery, discover new triggers of diseases or develop urgently needed drugs in a faster and safer way.”

About Ulrike Böhm

Ulrike Boehm is a physicist and science enthusiast. She works as a research specialist at the Advanced Imaging Center at the HHMI Janelia Research Campus in the United States. She did her PhD studies at the Max Planck Institute for Biophysical Chemistry in Göttingen in the Department of NanoBiophotonics of Nobel Laureate Stefan Hell. She loves to develop and build tools 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.

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