Some of the biographies of scientists do not read as straight as others. I, for instance, worked as an independent for 6 years before I decided to go for a high school degree. During my time in high school, I got fascinated with cells and molecules and decided to go for a career as a professor of biology to have a chance to be close to new developments and actively participate in gaining new scientific insights. As a lecturer in biophysics today, I am strongly convinced that my experiences as an independent have helped a great deal in my scientific career.
Although it was my very own decision to follow an academic career path, I clearly remember that at the beginning of this scientific career the support of a good friend with a deep trust in my capabilities as a scientist was crucial. Later, my previous experience in both life and scientific work made me more and more confident in my skills and also led to a prominent position among co-students.
During my time as a postdoc at the University of California, Santa Barbara, I worked in a lab that was led by both partners of a couple, a physicist and a biologist. This model of a dual-career couple became an important role model in balancing family and work for me. Also, their qualities as lab leaders made a lasting impression. As a highly productive team, the couple supported and challenged their co-workers, prompting them to publish and also to contribute their own scientific results at conferences.
Having learned from such inspiring examples, I now believe that these kinds of supporting and orienting skills become more and more important in times of fast transformation in science caused by internationalization, global competition, and increasing economic pressures. And skills in leading and empowering tend to grow over time with diverse fields of experience. This is a major advantage the mature scientist brings from the very beginning into an already competitive scientific field.
Back in Germany I was able to build up my own independent group at the Technical University of Munich with a fellowship from the Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft. During the first year as a group leader, I gave birth to my first son and, one and a half years later, to my second. And then, I needed all that previously gained experience to combine work and family in a way to keep fun and productivity alive in both contexts. After a short process in which I learned to optimize my organizational skills, I now feel that I am even more productive in my work than before the birth of my children.
And here, being in the position of a group leader myself, the circle closes somehow: I supervised a Ph.D. student who for several years had worked as a technician before studying biology. This highly experienced and motivated student went into the new field of biophysics. Her initiative to change her field of work became one of the most productive contributions to my group and recently won her a postdoc position at the Weizmann Institute in Rehovot, Israel.