She is focussing on the molecular understanding of vascular disease in children who are suffering from chronic kidney disease and require kidney replacement therapy. As a translational scientist, Maria seeks to transfer molecular findings into possible therapeutics.
Enjoy the interview with Maria and get inspired:
What inspired you to pursue a career in science / in your discipline?
My dad is a physicist, so I was in contact with science from childhood. Then it was my biology teacher in high school who was incredibly passionate about the subject and also a very active person. I remember meeting her in our aerobic classes in the evening after school. I also remember my fascination when we started with genetics and checked the blood group inheritance. Although I studied biology, I always wanted to be close to people, so doing translational science at the clinic is just what I imagined.
Who are your role models?
I have to admit that it is hard to name just a few. From (female) scientists, I am fascinated by Marie Skłodowska-Curie but also any other person who devotes their life to making this world a better place. My family is a very important inspiration for me, especially my grandma, who was born between the wars as the oldest of 6 children, and although very smart, she couldn’t study. She has had an incredible, tough life and passed away last year at the age of 99. I know she would have been proud of me for participating in such a fantastic event as the Nobel meeting. Also, my mum and her dedication to family, my father and his passion for science, my uncle for what he has built up by himself, and many other people I meet for their achievements or how they master their everyday life (challenges).
How did you get to where you are in your career path?
I studied biology and biotechnology in Bratislava, Slovakia, and went for an Erasmus exchange to Uppsala, Sweden. At that time, it was not so common in our department, so my friend and I had to overcome several administrative obstacles to get this chance. It was a great time meeting new people from all around the world and learning the importance of international collaboration. This experience inspired me to pursue a PhD abroad. I applied for the early-stage researcher (ESR) position in the Marie Skłodowska-Curie Programme and got a position in Heidelberg in the European Training and Research in Peritoneal Dialysis (EuTRiPD). The beauty of this programme is its pan-European nature which emphasises collaborative research and exchange of ideas. So, I spent time in labs in Spain, Austria, and France and hosted colleagues from UK, Poland, Greece, and many other places. Although my initial plan was to stay in Heidelberg just for my PhD, I was lucky to work with Prof. Claus Peter Schmitt, who creates a great working atmosphere and has supported me when I decided to continue my academic career path. I successfully applied for a German research foundation (DFG) grant to fund my own position and also acted as a co-supervisor in the next Marie Curie-funded project – this has been a particularly stimulating experience to see other ESRs and share my experiences with them. Currently, I am an Olympia Morata and Elite-Programme fellow, which is supporting my independent research on the way to a professorship position.
What is the coolest project you have worked on and why?
While studying the early vascular changes, we established a cooperation with the Kirchhoff Institute of Physics with Prof. Michael Hausmann and studied the nanoscale organisation of single molecules in the tissue samples we had previously collected from children. At some points, the biomedicine and physics worlds crashed, but this cooperation shows me how important is contact beyond your own discipline. We established a first-time analysis and provided insight not known before.
What’s a time you felt immense pride in yourself / your work?
I am proud when people I love are proud of me. But of course, I felt an important achievement when I defended my PhD and every time I get a fellowship or an award, or recently the invitation to speak at a large European conference. Also, during my PhD, we published a paper describing one particular signaling pathway associated with worse vascular outcomes in children on peritoneal dialysis. Since then, several papers have discussed the importance of this pathway, and we are currently developing a therapeutical concept in cooperation with industry. Seeing how my work has the actual potential to improve patients’ health one day makes me proud.
What is a “day in the life” of you like?
I usually get up at 7 am, have breakfast, and bike to the lab with my colleague and friend. Coffee is an important daily ritual, so I drink it with my colleagues, and we discuss the plan for the day. When the weather is nice, we do it outside in the sun and discuss the recent results and papers. I like this relaxing but stimulating atmosphere; it almost feels like a holiday. On other days, I need to run to collect tissues from a recent surgery for the International Peritoneal Biobank, which I manage. Sometimes, kidney transplantations come as a surprise; it can also be in the middle of the night. But we are a great team; we are flexible and can manage any such situation. On some days, I teach medical students in physiology or supervise and help younger colleagues; on others, I’m busy with my own experiments. I also do a lot of organisational work, and we have frequent online meetings with international collaborators. Every day is different, and this is also one of the things I like a lot about my job.
What are you seeking to accomplish in your career?
I want to improve the life of patients by providing novel therapeutical concepts based on the molecular understanding of the disease. I want to continue working towards this goal in my team and provide a creative and relaxed atmosphere and teach and inspire the next generation of scientists to pass on the privilege I have had.
What do you like to do when you’re not doing research?
I love to travel, which is also part of my work, but I enjoy it very much in my free time too. Be it by visiting my family or friends who live in different parts of the world or just by going and exploring new places. Furthermore, I like to do sports and to spend time in nature, biking, hiking, and skiing in winter. I get excited just about everyday things like seeing the sun and enjoying my coffee on a nice day outside with my friends.
What advice do you have for other women interested in science / in your discipline?
Just go for it. Choose a topic you have passion for and which you feel makes sense. And do not overthink about the fact that you are a woman. We are just as good and suitable for scientific careers as men, and we can do it!
In your opinion, what will be the next great breakthrough in science / in your discipline?
Artificial intelligence. It has immense potential to improve our lives and to help us. We should learn how to use its potential and don’t start thinking that it will think for us.
What should be done to increase the number of female scientists and professors?
I do not see a lack of female scientists, but it is definitely a major problem that the number of female professors is very low. We still live in a world where women take more responsibility for the household. In my view, more flexibility at work (hours and place) and change in the culture of expected overtime hours is an important step. Shared leadership is a concept that academic research should adopt more frequently. The still very rigid rules for career paths of young scientists without the prospect of long-term contracts also need significant change.