Germany: Deciphering Cellular Processes

To German-born biochemist Anne Spang (pictured left), a researcher's role is similar to that of a police detective: "putting evidence together to solve a riddle." Her scientific snooping has led her to uncover fundamental cellular processes such as intracellular transport mechanisms and mitosis and taken her to four countries. At each stage, Spang has ventured into new territory and taken risks. As a reward, in a few months, she'll take up her first tenured faculty position at the Biozentrum in Basel, Switzerland.

In career terms, this is the icing on the cake for Spang, who already has an independent and prestigious--but untenured--position. But she wasn't prepared to take the first job she was offered. In fact, after 2 years of applying and interviewing, she believes that persevering for the right faculty job--a position that can fulfil your career ambitions--is worth the investment of time and risk. "The most important thing," she says, "is figuring out what you really want."

Discovering biology
Spang "came into biochemistry through the back door," as she puts it. She started her scientific life as a chemical engineering student at the University of Applied Science in Darmstadt, Germany, where basic courses in biochemistry and microbiology turned her on to biochemistry.

After finishing her chemical engineering diploma thesis in 1990, Spang moved to France to study biochemistry as an undergraduate at the Pierre and Marie Curie University in Paris. Although she says the challenge of catching up with her fellow students "was a shock," her exposure to biochemical research cemented her choice: "I knew I wanted to do a Ph.D."

So in 1992, Spang moved back to Germany to pursue a Ph.D. at the Max Planck Institute for Biochemistry at Martinsried, near Munich. There she worked with Elmar Schiebel investigating a core cell-biology question: the role of the centrosome analog--important in mitosis--in the yeast Saccharomyces cerevisiae. "I had a great time," she says. "It was clear to me that I loved doing research." Next stop, California.

With her newly minted Ph.D., Spang joined Randy Schekman's lab at the University of California, Berkeley, where she stayed for three-and-a-half years. There she developed an in vitro assay to measure intracellular transport mechanisms: the trafficking route from the Golgi to the endoplasmic reticulum. It was a high-risk project, but the gamble paid off, not just in immediate terms but--by establishing a novel technique--also in terms of her career. "It was clear from the beginning that because the project was risky, I could take [it] with me when I left Randy's lab."

Spang took the project back to Germany. In 1999, after interviewing for several jobs, she was offered a prestigious 5-year position as a junior group leader at the Max Planck Society's Friedrich Miescher Laboratory (FML) in Tübingen, Germany. The job came with funding for five staff positions and the possibility of a 2-year extension. FML, says Spang, is a "special institute" comprised of four young group leaders in different fields of life sciences who work together to manage the institute's budget and communal resources.

At FML, Spang took advantage of her independence to develop two major research lines. One originates from her previous work: elucidating intracellular traffic processes in yeast; how vesicles are formed and how and when cargo is included in transport to the various organelles. The other focuses on cytokinesis--the final stage of mitosis, in which the mother and daughter cell separate and move apart--in the roundworm Caenorhabditis elegans.

Finding the right faculty job
Although she has complete research freedom at FML, it is not a long-term option. So 2 years ago, Spang started applying for faculty jobs. She hit the jackpot earlier this year when one of the first places she applied, the Biozentrum, offered her a tenured professorship this year. Spang and her group of eight from Tübingen--everyone but one technician in the lab--will move with her to Basel. "I'm totally excited about starting."

What really attracted her is the lack of distractions. "There is no overload of administration and teaching. I can still do research." It was a good fit--just as she was looking for a research-focused job, Basel was looking for a research-focused candidate--and Spang believes this is key. The interview process, she points out, goes both ways: They are interviewing you, and you are interviewing them. "You immediately develop a feeling for the position. Would this be good for me or not?" Warning bells would have rung loudly, she says, if during an interview she had been asked, "Would you think about becoming dean within the next 2 years?"

Now that she has secured her own tenured position, Spang urges other early-career researchers not be disheartened. "Don't take it personally. Now that I'm on selection committees, I see how difficult it is to decide between the last candidates."

"When I watch cell division in C. elegans, " says Spang, "I still think this is a fascinating and beautiful process. Only study problems that you really find interesting," she advises. "Only then have you the energy to keep going."

Anne Forde is the European Editor, North and East, for Science's Next Wave.