Women in Science - Portraits from our Institute

Enni Harjunmaa

Dr. Enni Harjunmaa
Enni Harjunmaa is doing research on how different populations of stickelback fishes could evolve and what the genetic mechanisms behind this evolution are
Seven day old stickleback embryos in their eggs
12-day old stickleback. A genetic modification is tested by the expression of green fluorescent protein.

Enni Harjunmaa is doing her Postdoc at the Friedrich Miescher Laboratory. She told us why her job is second best after becoming a witch and what she loves about being a scientist - and a mother.

Have you always wanted to become a scientist?
As a child, my dream job was becoming a witch. Unfortunately this didn´t work out, but I feel I got the second best thing. I´m in science, and at home I am a mother. So I see magic happen all the time.

What are you working on?
I work on the question of speciation; how different species can evolve when there is no geographical barrier to separate them. For example, the stickleback fish live in the sea but every spring they travel to breed in rivers. Some of the offspring have permanently stayed there, and have formed freshwater-adapted populations in the rivers and lakes. It’s amazing that they have developed their own adaptations and are able to maintain them despite the continued cross-breeding with the marine sticklebacks! To test one possible explanation, we are checking how the combination of gene variants is regulated. It is possible that the freshwater-versions and marine-versions of the genes are preferably kept together, and not mixed wildly in hybrids. Maybe we’ll get to see how the freshwater sticklebacks could become a totally separate species!

I do science because…
... I don’t need hobbies (laughs). Every single ability I have is made use of at work already. My fascination for science started when I was in school and first learned about genes and DNA. And since then, there was just not a good reason to stop. And I do science because we already have everything here, good health care, education and so on. So what do we do then? Science! The best means to create a better future, with people morally awake and thinking with their own brains. And you get to have scientists for work mates! Nobody here is in it for the money, or choosing the easiest path. Of course there are also bad sides about working in science: You make yourself endless to-do-lists that are never based on how much time you have in reality. The pecking order is often not transparent, and fluctuation is quite high as lots of people only stay for their PhD or postdoc. That also means responsibility for long term things is shrugged off easier, and people´s quirks are usually tolerated.

How did you end up in Tübingen?
I got my first child during my PhD. After finishing, I stayed at home, while my husband pushed his career forward. Then Frank Chan contacted me because of a Nature paper I had published before – he and his wife Felicity Jones were hiring postdocs. When I went to the job interview I was eight months pregnant with our second son, but still got made an offer. So it had to be a family-friendly environment, and the job was super interesting, so we moved here after my husband’s postdoc period in Bochum was completed.

How do you handle your job and your family?
It probably sounds naive, but I do feel like we prioritize our kids, even though my husband and I both work 9 hours a day: our kids love going to kindergarten in the morning, and they love coming home to their nanny in the afternoon, and they love the evenings, weekends and holidays that we spend together. For us, this works. I won’t lie that we don’t wish we had more security, that we wouldn’t have to be such heroes all the time, or that we had more time for our marriage. But so far we feel we’ve done the very best we can and that we have the keys to build the kind of future we want, and that is a grand thing to have.

More information on the group of Felicity Jones, where Enni is currently working: http://www.fml.tuebingen.mpg.de/jones-group.html




Birte Höcker

Birte Höcker finished her PhD in Biochemistry in 2003 at the University of Cologne, before she went to the Duke University Medical Center, USA, as a Postdoc. Since 2006, she is an independent group leader at the Max Planck Institute of Developmental Biology and is now starting her professorship for Biochemistry at the University of Bayreuth. She has two children.
Birte Höcker designs proteins. Some of them, she builds up completely, or she recombines parts of different proteins, like indicated in this picture. She also wants to know how the structure of a protein is related to its function.

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 Öffnet einen externen Link in einem neuen Fensterhttp://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: Opens external link in new windowhttps://www.ted.com/talks/sheryl_sandberg_why_we_have_too_few_women_leaders