Published 30 June 2012 by Markus Pössel

Lindau: A 2010 participant tells all

MP: Hi Rike – and thanks for agreeing to do this interview! Could you please introduce yourself to our readers?

RM-W: I’m Rike Müller-Werkmeister, and I’m almost finished with my PhD at the Institute for Biophysics of Frankfurt University. For my thesis, I’m investigating biomolecular dynamics, using ultra-short laser pulses, and artificial aminoacids as new labels.

MP: You were one of the participants of the Lindau Meeting in 2010. How did you come to be there?

RM-W: I was nominated by the physics department – probably because, with a double major in biochemistry and physics, I had a nice interdisciplinary touch. The Wilhelm und Else Heraeus Foundation paid for my stay.

MP: Lindau 2012 is just around the corner. So what’s your advice to this year’s young researchers at the meeting? Dos and don’ts?

RM-W: Eyes wide open, and immerse yourself in the Lindau experience – or, if you prefer an even more poetic style: get ready to enjoy the magic of Lindau.

MP: And the don’ts?

RM-W: Leave any preconceived notions at home. Don’t make a laundry list of "must-see, must-talk-to" laureates. Instead, just be open and ready for chance encounters. These things just happen in Lindau.

MP: What did you find especially impressive when you were here in 2010?

RM-W: First of all, Sir Harald Kroto’s talk telling me it’s OK even for serious scientists to engage in outreach activities! Then, I had a conversation with Jack Szostakabout research in general and artificial life in particular, which left a deep impression. Last but certainly not least, the talks by Oliver Smithies. Those have had a lasting effect on the way I work!

MP: In what way?

RM-W: Smithies’ talks are based on several decades’ worth of his lab notebook entries. Wow… just wow. Before Lindau, my own notes were rather minimalist. Ever since, they’ve been much more elaborate – pen and pencil entries with little sketches, graphs, some cartoons. I’ve been using up lab notebooks at three times the previous rate. But my new style has been highly useful when, say, showing scientific guests what I’m working on at the moment. Since then, I’ve helped four students with their bachelors theses. I told every one of them the story of Smithies’ talks. But I’ve still a long way to go until I can give a talk based on scans of my notebooks!

MP: Did the Lindau meeting help you directly with your research?

RM-W: No, not so much. It did change the way I see myself as a scientist, though. I realized in Lindau – and at some subsequent meetings – that it’s perfectly alright to show others that you’re a PhD student who’s enthusiastic about her subject. Before Lindau, I was more hesitant – I felt that other students were in it more for the two letters "Dr" in front of their names, and that I’d stick out in a negative way by confessing my enthusiasm for research. Also, Lindau made me realize that young researchers aren’t "students" as much as "real" scientists.

MP: The laureates are role models, but with a twist – one cannot realistically plan on getting a Nobel prize, after all. Did Lindau, nevertheless, influence how you view your own career?

RM-W: All of the laureates, with no exception, showed us that you can only plan your career up to a point – ambition and persistence are all well and good, but you also need luck. For me, it was much more important to realize the amount of freedom you have as a scientist. Up to a point, you can decide for yourself which questions to pursue. You can follow your interests and inclinations, and make the lab your playground. I tend to forget this while working in my lab – possibly because I am meeting many frustrated end-stage PhD students eager to leave university -, but if I do, all I need is to remember the general air of excitement of the Lindau meeting – that really helps! For me, research is fun. And Lindau has taught me that it’s perfectly OK not to keep your private life and your professional life separate. On the contrary: the more flexible I handle my work-life balance, the more fun I have with my research!

MP: On to practical matters. Any must-have item one should pack for the Lindau trip?

RM-W: A notebook – I forgot to pack mine! And for the boat trip, sunscreen. What else? Proper attire (including shoes!) for the dance and for the formal dinner. A towel and bathing suit – when else is a PhD student going to get the opportunity for a midnight swim during a conference? Another must: comfortable shoes. We did a lot of walking. And we always missed the last bus to the hotel…

MP: What about stuff one shouldn’t bring along?

RM-W: As a woman, leave your power suit (or similar) at home. It’ll be much too warm. And if I were going this year, I’d take an iPad instead of a laptop. There shouldn’t be any time to get some proper work done in any case, and if you just want to look something up, the iPad is perfectly sufficient.

MP: Any other helpful advice?

RM-W: Yes! Make the most of the boating trip! That’s where you’ll have the best opportunities for informal chats with the laureates. I talked to David Gross on the boat, and while I’m not an expert in his field, we had a highly interesting conversation. Both I and the other young researcher who took part felt – accepted. In fact, thinking back, I never heard any of the laureates "talking down" to the younger participants.

MP: Did you stay in contact with other participants?

RM-W: I’ve staid in contact with a number of them online, mostly on Facebook. With some of them, I’ve kept in closer contact; also, since 2010, I’ve come across Lindau veterans at every larger meeting I’ve attended. I’ve also seen some of the laureates – but only through listening to their lectures.

MP: Rike, you’ve told me that this is a stressful time for you – I’m doubly grateful that you’ve agreed to do this interview! Thank you!

Markus Pössel