Women in Science: The Jigsaw Puzzle Called Life

Making sense out of a sticky mass of experiments and adding another piece to the big jigsaw puzzle that is called life is what I really love. And, since I wanted to get the feeling of "real" science after graduating in biology, I decided to do a Ph.D. thesis in molecular biology in a well recognized lab at the Max-Delbrück-Centre for Molecular Medicine in Berlin. This was pretty hard work, but I learned a lot about good clinical research and teamwork. Up to then, being a woman did not apparently make any difference: I did not have to work harder or better than my male colleagues--it just didn't matter. Writing my thesis gave me the last push to stay in the world of science.

However, the next steps in a classical scientific career usually is a postdoc position at some excellent lab in the United States, work there for 2 years without any private life, publish whatever you can, and then go back home to establish your own small research group. At this point, I realized one of women scientists' dilemmas: Having a baby never really fits into the time schedule of your (professional) life. So I started to look for my way, pondering career perspectives against the wish to have a private and eventually a family life.

Together with my friend (now husband) we decided to stay in Berlin and I applied for an interesting job as a scientist at the cardiological research lab of the Charité, Humboldt University's medical faculty. This was a new and challenging research field for me and also gave me the opportunity to establish my first small lab group. And although this decision was in a way against "big science," it allowed me to run the best "experiment" I ever did in my life: having a baby. Since a baby never really fits, I decided that it would fit anyway.

As anticipated, expecting a child caused problems. First reactions ranged from honest congratulations to "Oh my god!" In the beginning, I had to get used to the idea of becoming a mother. This would just change everything: private life as well as work life. But the more my belly grew the more my way of looking at the world changed. I started taking everything easier. Although I didn't care less about my work, it simply did not matter that much anymore when an experiment went wrong. I became a lot more relaxed. And in fact, the surprising thing was: Experiments worked better!

When I promised my boss to come back to the lab soon after birth, he agreed to give me a part-time contract for 1 year. Now, I have a 6-month-old lovely daughter, Nike, and a part-time job till the end of the year. I will go back to full-time work when Nike is a year old. She will then be old enough to go to the nursery of the Charité. I am very happy with this solution; it allows me to combine both having a child and a job. It allows me to stay in science and at the same time gives me a year to enjoy my little daughter.

One of the big advantages of my job is that I am very flexible in terms of working hours. Because I am not working constantly at the bench anymore, I can do a lot of writing at home having online access to the scientific community. Luckily, my husband also has a very flexible working schedule, so that long-lasting experiments and evening seminars are no problem.

Of course, my working style has changed a lot: It has become very regular but a lot more efficient. Incubation times are no longer filled with coffee but rather with e-mails and phone calls. Maybe I even became more creative: I still find enough time for good ideas--sometimes I even get them while I am playing with my daughter. In the next months I plan to harvest the publication yield of the last 3 years of my scientific work. I also applied for a grant that supports women in science. Having Nike taught me a valuable lesson: Although many things in the big jigsaw puzzle cannot be planned completely, you have good chances to succeed with a more flexible and creative attitude.

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