This year, the UN held the first International Day of Women and Girls in Science on the 11th of February.
The Max Planck Society also cares about equal opportunities http://www.mpg.de/equal_opportunities
Here at the institute, we have a lot of women, working as scientists, as group leaders, or as director.
One of them is Professor Birte Höcker.What are you working on?
We try to design, or build, proteins. Either we build the whole protein, or we try to apply the same mechanisms as in evolution. That means we combine parts of proteins to a new one. We are interested on the relation between structure and function of the proteins, and we want to learn how proteins are composed and how we can construct proteins, so we can build useful proteins in the future. Did you always want to become a scientist?
No– in school, I actually didn't like Biology at the beginning. Later, I studied Biology. During my exchange year in Ireland, I had a Biology teacher that showed me how fascinating Biology is. I was always interested in math and chemistry. I finally studied Biology because it covers such a wide field. In the upper grades, I was fascinated by the things one can't see - such as viruses. And during my studies, I got more and more affiliated to molecular biology.
How did you become a professor?
I didn't plan on becoming one. I always thought, I'd just continue as long as I like what I am doing. Then my diploma thesis went quite well, and during my PhD I moved with the lab - to a nice new town, but I could stay with the former project.
A talk by another scientist got me interested in computer assisted protein design. So I did my Postdoc in the USA in that field. I wanted to travel anyway - and after some years I returned to Germany with my husband, but I sticked to the topic of protein design. I still find it exciting.
And at the beginning, I also thought, you can't presume to become a professor. But later, as a group leader, that came more and more into reach. Not till then, I really started to work towards that goal. Before that, I just thought, this is a topic I like, this I continue to work on. And when I came back to Germany, one thing led to another: My fist contract was limited to 5 years, so I needed to acquire funds. And I had to build up a network in Germany, and become kind of visible again. So I started giving talks here and there, and tried to become member of some consortia. Those have later been important steps for becoming a professor. You have two children. How do you manage that?
I have a great husband. He is also a scientist, but that is actually a benefit- in science you are really flexible. But you also have to be very structured and organized. It is an advantage if you are not working in the lab yourself anymore - I got my children when I already worked as a group leader and I do a lot of work from my office. Naturally, the research doesn´t pause when I am not there. The PhD students and Postdocs in the group do most of the lab work. When I had my first child, I did computer analysis and wrote papers with my child on my lap. With two children, that wasn't possible anymore. On the other hand, that was a time when I didn't know when I would get my first permanent employment. My contract ended with the birth of the second child - but then I got the extension.
What would you tell a young woman in research that is unsure if she can handle both the career and having a family?
Not to think to much about it. Anyhow, you can't plan everything, and every situation is different: it also depends on the plans of your partner, who steps back on his or her expectations, and when. It is important to have a network of family and friends that supports you. This isn't always easy for scientists, that are expected to move more often. But you shouldn't change your plans beforehand, and slow yourself down just for the possibility that you might get a child sometime in the future. Sheryl Sandberg, she's COO at Facebook, once put it that way: "Don't leave before you leave". Some women worry too much about what if they had children, and then refuse a job.
You can find the TED-Talk with Sheryl Sandberg here: https://www.ted.com/talks/sheryl_sandberg_why_we_have_too_few_women_leaders