“I want to do science as a mother, as a woman and as somebody that has my own way of doing things”

Members of the “Women in Science” network together with Prof Maya Schuldiner (yellow outline)
© WiS

Prof. Maya Schuldiner, a professor at the Weizmann Institute of Science in Israel, recently gave insights into her research on “Keeping in touch – systematic identification of contact sites and their functions” in the Pioneers Lecture by the Cells in Motion Interfaculty Centre (CiM) at the University of Münster. She had been invited by the “Women in Science” network, a group of PhD students and post docs from CiM labs. The group spoke to the accomplished researcher about her scientific journey, the importance of mentorship, the impact of academic culture, and the challenges faced by female students and researchers in science.

How do you practice authenticity as a PI and gain the trust of your students?

My students see me get upset. They see me cry. They know about every grant I don’t get. I’m not perfect. Why shouldn’t my students know this? There is this strong façade that PIs maintain in front of their students: they are always correct, and everything works perfectly for them. In reality, we fail, we make wrong decisions, and we have bad days. My lab knows that. I don’t think it makes them appreciate me any less. Rather, they are better able to relate to me and they trust me.

The most wonderful thing about not having a hierarchy is that you create a joint agenda and strengthen the relationship with your students. I always say that my best students are those that continuously fight with me. I need students who disagree with me. Science is about brainstorming, exchanging ideas and disagreeing. This is the most powerful thing you can do in science. If the relationship doesn’t allow this, it weakens the science.

How can we change the current culture in academia to be less hierarchical, more honest and more family- and team-oriented?

I want to do science as a mother, as a woman and as somebody that has my own way of doing things. It was hard at the beginning, but more and more people are choosing this way.

I think this is a cultural change that females can promote. If you continue in academia, it’s not just about becoming a PI, it’s about mediating a change in the culture of how we do science. Traditionally, science was done following strict rules that we, as women, often don’t relate to. I think doing science like a woman is something that we deserve to do: working together in groups, collaborating, being friendly, enjoying it and playing. Every female that continues in academia and starts her own lab is another little step in making this change.

You have prioritized and really exemplify mentorship in your career. Can you elaborate further on differences you see in how male and female PhD students approach their future careers?

At the Weizmann Institute several years ago we distributed a questionnaire for PhD students with three questions: (1) What is your gender? (2) Do you think you would be a good PI and (3) Do you want to become a PI? Most male students answer: “Yes, I want to become a PI and would make a good PI.” In contrast, female students often answer: “I’m not sure if I would make a good PI and I’m not sure I want to become a PI”. So, there is some intrinsic quality control that tends to go on more inside female brains. I have to say, I really connect to and understand this feeling. I felt the same way towards the end of my PhD. I felt that I could never become a PI. I think that the normal fear of whether you are talented or not, which I think everybody feels at some point, is somehow enhanced in women.

What do you think gives rise to that imposter syndrome or feeling that one is not good enough to become a PI?

I think there are two things that come into play. The first is that PIs are like parents: you have to believe that they are the best ever, because they are in charge. When I was a PhD student and later a postdoc, I completely felt that my PIs were so amazing that I would never be able to live up to anything they were capable of. Now, looking back, I feel that that was guided by the fact that I was dependent on them. The second thing is that as human beings we tend to be very comparative. We judge ourselves based on a comparison group that we have created. We often make the mistake of comparing ourselves to the wrong groups, either groups that are too large or not at the same stage. Don’t compare yourself to others and this will reduce your impostor syndrome.

It is important to understand that it is not only about how clever or talented you are, but it’s about how many years of practice you’ve had. It is many years between a PhD and running your own lab. When you have had that many years of experience, you will be able to do it as well.

What advice would you give to female PhD students asking themselves if they are good enough to be a PI?

Don’t ask whether you would be good enough to be a PI or not, because you don’t know, nobody knows, neither males nor females know. There is no point worrying about it. The questions you should ask yourself are: Do you want to be a PI? Are you excited by the notion of being a PI? If the answers are yes, then most likely, you will be a wonderful PI, because PIs come in all different shapes, flavours and sizes.

Second, I want women to realise that it is possible to do a post doc while devoting time to be a great mother, and a great partner. It is not an all or none thing; you don’t have to work 7am until midnight to do a great post doc. You simply have to be dedicated and focused and make good choices.

What do you mean by good choices?

Go to a lab that is family friendly. Choose topics that really interest you and that you can make progress on. Most importantly remember that science is a long-term investment. For example, I did my first post doc in five and a half years. I started the post doc shortly after my son was born. The first few months of combining a post doc and a young child were extremely challenging. However, in a career of 30-40 years, it is a minute amount of time. Everything balances out eventually. I think it is important to remember that everything is temporary. You can work 80 or 90% for some years when you need to focus on being a mother and still be a great scientist.

I also actively decided, together with my husband, that I wanted to be with my kids and would not work on weekends, evenings, and holidays so naturally my postdoc was longer than the duration of a fellowship. If you want to combine a post doc with family, you need to make informed decisions about the lab you join. Choose a lab that has the resources to support you when the fellowship runs out. Discuss with your PI what happens if the post doc exceeds 3 years.

In my lab, everybody does a post doc longer than three years. I support them, whether they have children or not. This is because in my lab I enforce that people have a life, whether that involves children, spouses, friends, or hobbies. People should finish work at some point.

How do you create a family friendly environment in your lab?

My students and postdocs that have children are all extremely dedicated parents. It is part of the lab culture, regardless of gender. Being a dedicated parent is not only possible, it is important for being a good scientist. Being a good scientist is about being a happy, satisfied individual. You can’t be a happy, satisfied individual doing creative work with passion, when you’re upset because you’re not spending time with your family. When I started my career, people would say “oh, you have a kid and you’re a PI, you’re probably a superwoman!” I hated that! When people say that it means that they think it is extraordinary, that I must have some special trait. It also suggests that I haven’t been fighting really hard to make it happen, which I have. We are not superhumans! I think it is just a matter of accepting, as a society and as scientists, that science and family do not come at each other’s expense.

How can young scientists cultivate a sense of scientific independence?

Really keep track of who you are as a scientist. Notice your strengths and weaknesses. We are so busy worrying about what we are not that we don´t stop to think about our strengths. People become good scientists with very different capabilities. Ask yourself: what are the things that will allow me to succeed? Spend time to strengthen them. Ask yourself: what are my weaknesses? Instead of giving yourself a hard time, navigate away from them. Try to tap into your inner scientist and find what makes you really, really happy.

For me, I realized that I really love to see things. I need to see how things look, so I was drawn to microscopy. I like to figure out what the little parts of the cell are doing. I also really love to collaborate; this is my strength. I really work well with people and create good groups. The minute I accepted that and started relying on my strengths, I found what makes me happy in my science. It is just about listening to yourself and becoming the scientist you want to be.