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Just Follow Your Heart: A 5-Year Journey


R eflection

It is winter 1997.

It is the year of my PhD ... a big step for me, and yet nothing special these days. Everybody around you seems to have a PhD, and at least half of your friends are looking for the same as you, this dream job where you finally get recognised as somebody with experience, at least in your own field. Where you get paid properly, not just for a half-time job or with a stipend, and where you have better working hours, less than 16 hours a day. In a dream place, where you work in a team and share results, and publishing is no problem. Will the experience, and title, I've gained help me find my dream position? I know how to work hard, how to guide my own project, and how to work independently. On you go ... it can only get better.

And I am lucky. I get a postdoc at EMBL (European Molecular Biology Laboratory), a dream place to be--international, a centre of excellence at the forefront of science. Better still, I already have an offer from my group leader to go abroad with him and help plan his new laboratory. I feel lucky again, since that would have been my next step, to gain experience in a different country. I always wanted to see the world with different eyes, live and feel a different culture, be a part of a different world and another way of thinking. I will go.


Denmark, summer 1998

If I had to describe my new home in two words, they would be roligt and hyggeligt, two words that reflect exactly a way of living, a feeling and a lifestyle, and that are therefore very difficult to translate. To give a rough idea about the meaning, Danes like to have a rhythm in their lives; they like to go about their daily tasks calmly, without pressure, and in a given time frame. Private life outside work with family or friends is very important, and they do make time for it. Danes also like every situation to be as nice and cosy and cheerful as possible. Hygge, best translated as "cosiness," is a very important part of daily life; people like to sit together and talk around cups of coffee and cakes in a cosy atmosphere, warm and bright with lots of candles at any time of year.

And there is something else outstanding about Denmark. There are many families, especially young families with two, three, and four children, and both partners are working full-time. How is that possible? I will come back to that later.

I start at the University of Odense in July 1998. The working hours for scientists are still as long as you like,10 to 12 hours per day on average, and longer. My tasks: building up a new lab, starting a new project, building up a new contact network to the other scientists round about, gaining postdoc experience--oh, and learning a new language. Danish feels best to speak after a few beers and with a cork in your mouth, and even if you can speak and understand a little, you still have to get used to the reality that you do not understand the small talk happening around you.

Children, the Best Biology You Can Do

One year of a challenging postdoc abroad has passed, and yet another, new and incredible challenge confronts me, the best biology to do: A child is waiting to be born. Wonderful, but I'm abroad, and my husband is also a scientist, and also not from Denmark, so we have no family nearby. Will it work out for us, for our child, for my career, and for me as a woman? Many questions, but only the future will tell the answers.

It's only now that I start to think seriously for the first time about a long-term perspective on a scientific career. So far everything has gone smoothly, but now I will not be able to work the 12 hours and more a day that are expected, or be available to go to conferences anytime. Daily life has to be planned, and the working day cannot go on ad infinitum, but has to be very efficient in a shorter time frame. Will I still manage to be excellent at my work and at the same time the best mum in the world?

Luckily I live in a country where you are entitled to 6 months of maternity leave, and I have an excellent boss, who understands what it is to be in a foreign country without any relatives to help out with babysitting. Although uncomfortable about leaving my job for such a long time, I am nonetheless relieved to have 6 months alone with my baby, so I decide to skip all my worries and completely enjoy the time with my daughter Angela. But I know I have to give more thought to my future from now on.

Milestones Instead of Papers

You can get really creative when you have time to think. Maybe I should do something totally different, something that is easier to combine with having children, where they could also be around now and again while you are at work. In a lab, that is completely impossible. Should it be a toy store or a children's bookstore? I come so close. ...

But do I really want to leave science without even trying out my new situation? Will I not miss the daily challenge of research, exploring different areas, experiencing challenging discussions, and adding a part to the understanding of life? But how many women are group leaders or professors, and how often do they see their children? What is feasible, and what and where are the real alternatives?

How about industry? How does that fit into the picture? And what would be the chances to get into industry with a small baby who needs love, time, and care? Company working hours seem more human, and most people here in Denmark stick to them, which has surprised me.

Lucky again, while I ponder all these thoughts about the perfect solution, I continue my postdoc position at the university, but I know I have to decide soon about my next step. My contract runs out at the university, and I really have to decide if I want to continue and apply for permanency.

Unbelievable, a children's clothing shop in the city closes just then. Successful, and in an excellent location--this could be my new life. But nearly at the same time, I get the offer of a position at a new biotech company, which is just starting to employ its first people--an incredible challenge at a time when biotech is booming. I have to make a choice between making a total career change and giving science a chance in a different environment.

Science does not let go, and I start as a senior postdoc in this new company. Senior, because I have gained a lot of experience in many different areas of biology, which helps me to set up the work flow in the laboratory and to advise and train other staff.

It is soon clear that the company will hire more people and needs a leader for each of the departments below the chief scientific officer. I am asked to take the position head of biology. That is an incredible opportunity for me, and I just cannot resist accepting the challenge. Honestly, I am wondering if I will manage it, but I am convinced it is part of my life to take this job and its responsibility; I know I have to try. Now I follow milestones instead of writing papers.

Not an Exception, but the Rule

You can be so glad if the system allows you to have kids and to have them looked after, so you have the time to work. A lot of people here are in the same situation and have to pick up their children. In this country it is not an exception but the rule to have children and to see them and be with them before they go to bed.

The system allows it: maternity leave of 6 months to a year with full salary. Incredible!! And the taxes pay for it: income tax, luxury taxes, and a strong economy that keeps a monopoly on products by excluding too many foreign goods.

Most important, however, is that the society accepts and supports that women have children and return to full-time positions after their maternity leave. This support is further reflected by the fact that a place in child care is guaranteed. The opening times of these centres coincide with the working hours of most parents, between 06:30 in the morning for parents who start early and 17:00 in the afternoon for those who stay late. A working day for a parent, but also for the child, is then about 7.5 to 8 hours, an example that I'd like to see spread worldwide.

"One Finger, One Thumb ... Keep Moving"

Meanwhile, my daughter Angela is 3 years old. She is an extremely happy child with an enormous amount of energy--the best thing that ever happened to me. I am very proud that she speaks Danish, German, and a little English, the result of growing up in Denmark with German and Scottish parents.

I, too, am extremely happy that I had the opportunity to continue my scientific career. The management position gives me an enormous variety of tasks, which change all the time. The position is challenging and exciting. I learn by doing. I am a leader, guide people, drive projects, focus on milestones, change directions to satisfy new needs, meet collaborators, co-ordinate patents ... I could go on forever.

One of my daughter's favourite nursery rhymes describes very well the way life is: "One finger, one thumb, one arm, one leg ... keep moving." My advice to any scientist who wants to combine parenthood and career is just that: Keep moving forward, and listen to your heart.

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