Published 28 September 2023 by Ulrike Böhm

Women in Research #LINO23: Sandra Wagner

Sandra participated in the Lindau Meeting in summer 2023. All Photos/Credits: in courtesy of Sandra Wagner

Sandra from Germany is a postdoctoral researcher and deputy group leader at University of Tübingen, Germany.

Her research concerns nearsightedness, termed myopia, reasons for its development, and methods to prevent its onset or further progression. And she is interested in assessing the near response (accommodation) and possibilities to restore this function in the elder eye (presbyopia).

A myopic eye has grown too long, which multiplies the risk of severe eye diseases. The prevalence of this refractive error is increasing rapidly and cannot only be based on genetics. There is evidence for additional environmental factors promoting the eye’s further growth. Nearwork is suggested as one major risk factor for myopia. The quality and content of the image that is projected onto the retina during reading affect the eye’s length, but the underlying mechanism is still unclear. Her current research project aims to disentangle this relation by assessing both accommodation and retinal processing when changing the visual experience during nearwork.

Sandra participated in the 72nd Lindau Nobel Laureate Meeting.

Enjoy the interview with Sandra and get inspired:

What inspired you to pursue a career in science / in your discipline?

Already during my undergraduate studies, I had the chance to spend three months of a practical semester at a renowned vision research institute in Sydney. Besides gaining my first experience in research on vision, specifically regarding myopia, I also participated in conferences and internal professional trainings for Ph.D. students. This project led to my first scientific poster, which I presented at a conference in Manchester, as well as my very first peer-reviewed paper, based on my Bachelor’s thesis. I have enjoyed the scientific work – from developing a study and literature research to taking measurements and analysing results. During this internship, I got inspired by the idea of pursuing the scientific path, and the experience highly motivated me to continue my academic development. Vision Science, and especially myopia research, is also related to my personal life since I got my first pair of glasses at the age of seven years, and my prescription has increased by then. It means a lot to me to find ways to prevent children from becoming highly myopic.

Who are your role models?

I do not have a specific person as a role model. I rather find inspiration in different personalities. Female researchers, especially in the STEM disciplines, who demonstrate a successful academic career, manage to stand their ground in the occasionally challenging academic climate and still maintain a good work-life balance and a family life are those I like to model myself on. Also, I find inspiration in people who accomplished a successful scientific career despite having a non-academic family background or despite having changed their professional field throughout their life. Or personalities, who have overcome obstacles, who have faced a blow of fate, and who have nevertheless found their way in life, are those I admire.

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

Several pictures of Sandra Wagner attending a conference
Sandra attended the International Myopia Conference 2022 in Rotterdam.

Initially, I studied human medicine but redirected to Optometry and Audiology (BSc), followed by Optometry and Psychophysics (MSc). For both my Bachelor’s and Master’s Thesis, I performed studies at vision research institutes, first in Sydney, then in Tuebingen, and I published both theses in peer-reviewed journals.

Since I liked the scientific work, I wanted to continue with a PhD, being also much supported in this idea by my former supervising (female) professor. In the following time, while working as a Research Assistant in Tuebingen, I prepared my application documents for different PhD positions in Germany and the U.S., including taking the TOEFL and the GRE test. Finally, I received three letters of acceptance, which were from both countries. After some difficult time pondering, I decided to start my PhD in Neuroscience at the Institute for Ophthalmic Research with coursework at the International Max Planck Research School of the University of Tuebingen. My self-developed PhD project was supported with a scholarship by the Hector Fellow Academy so that in addition to my PhD position and the funding for my project, I could take MBA courses and attend seminars in science communication and soft skills. Throughout my doctoral studies, I have always kept in touch with a professor of one of the U.S. universities where I had been offered a PhD position, and I was eager also to spend a research phase there. Thus, while being in the middle of the main study of my PhD project, I additionally invested a great amount of work and time in my application for the Fulbright Visiting Researcher Scholarship. But the work paid off – I was awarded the Fellowship, and in September 2019, straight after a conference in Tokyo, I took a plane to New York City.

These six months as a Fulbright in New York City were an important milestone in my PhD time. I prepared the experimental setup of a study with children, took the first measurements, and trained a student to be able to continue the project after my departure. Furthermore, I attended PhD courses, journal clubs, and seminars, and with a Student Travel Fellowship, I took part in a conference in Orlando, where I gave a talk about my latest research results. I met other Fulbrighters and also participated in a Fulbright Enrichment Seminar in Pittsburgh. Not to mention all the cultural events, museums, exhibitions, etc. I experienced. Taken together, I had an unforgettable, mostly informative time. Unfortunately, in March 2020, the COVID pandemic hit us all, and my stay in the U.S. ended abruptly one month earlier than planned.

Back in Germany, I completed my project, and by the end of 2020, I defended my PhD thesis in a hybrid mode. Pursuing my doctoral degree was quite a journey, metaphorically and literally, as it gave me the marvelous chance to travel to conferences and meetings worldwide, from Hawaii to Vancouver, to Tokyo, to New York. While presenting or conducting research at these places, I also got to meet and exchange with inspiring people from all around the globe; I made many new acquaintances, broadened my horizons, and gained unforgettable experiences. After graduation, I started a Postdoctoral Researcher position in a project of a newly founded Young Investigator Group in Tuebingen, for which I had also been involved in the grant application. Last year, I successfully submitted a project proposal for a research grant, and I am now supervising two students as P.I. of a project aiming to better understand the link between reading and myopia onset to improve current myopia control strategies.

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

I would definitely say that there is more than only one project which I count in this category, from the intern project at the vision institute in Sydney to my first self-developed projects later. Until today, every single project has its cool sides, and admittedly, of course, there are also times when you have to do tedious work, which has to be overcome to get to the “cool part”. For me, finding something unexpected that even contradicts your initial hypothesis is very exciting, e.g., during my PhD, we revealed that the eye’s muscle which is responsible for near vision, the ciliary muscle, undergoes a significant thinning after a continuous 30-min period of reading – I had expected the opposite, so this was a surprising and intriguing outcome, and it augmented our knowledge about the effects of nearwork.

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

I remember several occasions or moments when I felt proud of what I have achieved so far. One of them is definitely when I received the email that I was awarded a Fulbright Visiting Researcher Fellowship to undertake a part of my PhD studies in New York. Another special moment was when I was asked, while being a PhD student, to moderate a paper session during the International Myopia Conference in Tokyo. I was also proud of myself after the successful defense of my PhD thesis, which, unfortunately, took place without my family due to the regulations regarding COVID-19. Moreover, receiving my first research grant to perform my own project was an outstanding, exciting experience. And quite frankly, each time I meet someone during a conference, especially a senior scientist, who tells me they read a paper of mine and we discuss the results, this gives me some feeling of pride.

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

Sandra Wagner holding a speech
Sandra presenting her research at the myopia conference

I usually start work around 8 am. Then, if I have not already done so during breakfast or on the way to the Institute, I check my emails and answer the most urgent ones straight away. The rest of the day depends on the schedule. In general, I always try to structure it to allow for periods being only dedicated to writing; either I continue working on a manuscript, a grant proposal, or lecture material, or I write a peer review. I also try to check the latest publications in my field daily to stay updated. On the other hand, I prepare the experimental setup and design of upcoming or planned studies and projects, and the Group Leader and I regularly discuss new ideas. If I am not performing measurements myself, I support and supervise the students who are undertaking their thesis under my guidance. We meet frequently to talk about the progress or possible problems and challenges, and I provide them with feedback regarding their written preparation. Each week, we also hold a lab meeting to get to know the status and possible obstacles of the various PhD projects or student theses of our group, practice talks, or include a journal club. Furthermore, a weekly Progress Report Seminar takes place at the Institute, during which PhD students or Postdocs of the various labs present their work and subsequently discuss the research outcomes. Additionally, I have regular online meetings with a group of collaborators from the U.S. From time to time, I take part in professional training seminars, be it for didactics or scientific methods. By the end of the day, I usually go to the gym for running or a workout; it helps me to clear my head and develop new ideas. And finally, to relax in the evenings, I either read a paperback thriller or memoirs and belles-lettres that can always be found on my night table, or I watch an episode of some series – by the way, I am still searching for a good replacement for House of Cards… Any suggestions?

What are you seeking to accomplish in your career?

I would like to contribute to science on myopia to better understand why a child becomes myopic and how we can prevent the development or at least the progression to the sightthreatening high levels of this refractive error. Making a change for these at-risk children would be a great accomplishment in my scientific career. Regarding my role as a woman in research, I hope that I can add to opening the scientific career path to students, especially females of working-class families or of underrepresented groups, become a mentor myself, and help to even out their unequable starting conditions.

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

I enjoy many types of sports, from running to swimming, tennis, and dancing. In my free time, I always try to also be in nature and go for a hike or a bike ride, meet friends for a coffee or dinner, and spend time with my family. And I love going to exhibitions about history or art galleries. Also, I am a huge fan of movie theater, theater, and, since my time in New York City, also of opera. And for sure, I very much enjoy traveling, seeing new places, and learning about their history and culture. I am still eager to learn another language, and Spanish is definitely on my list.

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

Already during your undergraduate studies, you should seek every opportunity to get an insight into research, to perform your own little project, for which you collect and analyse the data, and become familiar with the scientific methodology. If you have fun in these projects, then a scientific career might be your thing, and you could spy out which options your specific field offers, from a classic academic path to industry, nonprofit organisations, and so on. I recommend collecting as much experience as possible early on, e.g., by applying for internships or research summer schools. On your way, it is most important to also establish a profound network with colleagues in your field, both national and international. Taking part in the social program of conferences is a very good way of connecting not only with your peers but also with experienced scientists. You have the chance to ask questions, talk about your research, exchange ideas, and probably make new, helpful contacts.

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

Sandra Wagner during a presentation
Sandra loves contributing to science on myopia.

In the specific field of myopia research, we still lack a comprehensive understanding of the multifactorial mechanisms of myopia development. A great breakthrough would be to identify the most important environmental factors that drive an eye to become myopic to finally attain efficient prevention methods. Also, regarding children who are already myopic, it would be a major accomplishment if we found non-invasive, affordable, and easily accessible means to sustainably prevent myopia progression. Regarding vision science in general, the new developments in terms of artificial intelligence and machine learning will definitely have an increased impact in the coming years.

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

Especially for females who want to combine a scientific career with family life, it would be a great relief to have longer-term contracts instead of the commonly offered limited ones, which often only guarantee a position for one year. In general, I would say that removing the glass ceiling and closing the gender pay gap would be two immense cornerstones for an increase of female scientists and professors. Equal opportunities, regardless of sex, identity, ethnical and socioeconomic background, are fundamental goals we should strive for.

Further Information

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.