“What matters most in doing research is enjoying the process”

Prof. Anna Akhmanova, a professor of cell biology at Utrecht University, has recently held a lecture at the Cells-in-Motion Cluster of Excellence (CiM). She had been invited by the “Women in Science” network (WiS), a group of PhD students from CiM labs. The network members Cecilia Grimaldi and Sadhana Panzade have talked to the biologist about enjoying the process of doing research, acquiring confidence about your own work, and challenges for women in science.

Prof. Anna Akhmanova (centre) with PhD students from the “Women in Science” network at the Cells-in-Motion Cluster of Excellence
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Prof. Akhmanova, could you summarize in just a few words what is your ultimate aim as a scientist? Is there a specific question in science that you dream to answer?

There isn’t one particular scientific problem I work on. I try to answer different questions, from how a cell polarizes to how it transports molecules from one part of the cell to the other. But in all these cases, what interests me the most is understanding how cellular functions emerge from the interaction of molecules. I want to achieve a level of comprehension where I can define a specific cellular function in terms of which molecules are important for it and how the structure of these molecules translates to what they achieve in cells. In other words, for each cellular process I investigate, I would like to be able to build a map in my brain with all the molecules involved in it.

What lesson has been the most difficult but at the end the most rewarding that you have learned through your career?

What I always find very difficult to deal with is when you think you have discovered and achieved something exciting and profound, but others do not appreciate your work. For example, about seven or eight years ago, we discovered the role of a particular molecule in bringing together the molecular motor cytoplasmic dynein and its accessory complex dynactin. I thought this was an incredibly profound finding because it shed light on how these molecules work. And yet, it was rejected by every single journal with nasty comments. At the end, we published those data, which actually helped to solve several problems in the field and are now well appreciated. What I have learned from this and other similar experiences is that negative comments should be a chance for you to reflect on the quality and relevance of your data and eventually become more confident about your work. When you firmly believe your findings are important you should not worry too much about other people’s opinions; sooner or later also the field will appreciate them.

Did you struggle to find motivation for your work while going through these difficult moments? If so, what were your strategies to deal with failures and what piece of advice would you give to young scientists facing the same challenges?

Compared to tougher challenges one has to face in life, problems in your research are incomparably minor. This is why I find easy to rationalize them and move on. I think what matters the most in doing research is enjoying the process very much. To do scientific research is itself incredibly rewarding; it allows you to always work on new things and gives you the freedom to try to discover something. As long as I enjoy the process, failures, mishaps, and unfortunate events do not affect me profoundly. If I would take a climbing comparison, some people can enjoy the climbing process, and some others just want to reach the top. If it is all about being on the top, the situation can become tough if suddenly the end turns out to be higher than you thought; soon you will find yourself breathless and your motivation will fall. But if it is the climbing process which gives you pleasure, then it does not matter which level you will reach. I also find very important not to take science too personally; one should always focus on what they can make of science and not on what science makes of them. The danger, as with any competitive profession, is to define who you are through your work and this can become very disappointing at some point. My grandmother, from whom I have learned a lot, was always telling me that the secret to overcome all kind of problems in your personal life is to cultivate interests that go beyond your family and personal relationships and ambitions because this would help you to deal with them.

How do you deal with these different kinds of personality as a mentor? Do you adjust your mentorship to students based on any strategy? And in your opinion, what are the greatest challenges of mentorship?

The main difficulty of mentorship that holds on your shoulder is a load of responsibility for the success of the people who work for you. My greatest pleasure is to work with people that realize they are responsible for their successes and failures. I find very hard to work with students who put all the responsibility on you; I usually advise them not to stay in science. Because one of the most important lessons you can teach as a mentor is how to be independent, which also implies taking the load and decisions. The major responsibility of a mentor is to identify the personality of your students and decide based on that; some people can be pushed and they will give their best under pressure, while other might break and give up. For me, this aspect is essential since I work mainly with Ph.D. and Master students who are still in a stage where they need to build themselves up not only as researchers but also as human beings. Let’s take Master students as an example. In the Dutch system, they spend nine months in the lab for their thesis. Some students come with brilliant grades and do brilliantly; some have excellent grades but achieve nothing; some others join the lab with pretty low grades, but then work very hard, develop significantly, and gain a lot of confidence. As a mentor, the most wonderful feeling – even more rewarding than discovering something – is to watch someone very unsure of themselves acquiring confidence by making things happen.

Do you notice differences between female and male students? If so, do you adopt different strategies mentoring them?

I do see some differences; for example, sometimes women like to receive encouragement while men tend to be a little overconfident or superficial, and bluff more easily. I notice these differences mainly in Master students, especially when they present either themselves or their data. I like to discuss these aspects with my students to make them aware that projecting a more confident image of yourself can do you good.

Who have been your role models in life and do you think it is important for female students to have role models?

I think role models are critical. Young people tend to project a mental image of themselves on people around them. They look at all the grownups and start to think who they could become in the next ten or twenty years: maybe the president of a big country, a great doctor, or a successful scientist. But looking up at people who are too different from what you are might discourage you. That is why I think it is important for female students to come across women professors; it subconsciously gives them the idea that they can become a professor if they want to. My grandmother has been an essential role model in my personal life. She was an exceptional person; she was born before the Russian revolution, and she went through many tragic periods of Russian history. She had to face many crises, but at the same time, she managed to build a career as a scientist in linguistics and make a significant contribution in the field of her research.

Do you feel like you faced any unique challenges as a woman in science? And have you ever experienced discrimination or gender biases?

Unique challenges that women face compared to men are mainly related with raising children; for obvious reasons, men cannot give birth or breastfeed. These experiences can undoubtedly enrich a woman’s life, but they also bring challenges along. Nowadays, society started to take these aspects more seriously, and women are offered additional time to develop their careers. Society must increase opportunities for women to combine motherhood with their careers.

Regarding my personal experience, I have indeed faced professional challenges as a woman, especially when I had to work with older generations. About fifteen or twenty years ago, in academia men were perceived as being more active and prone to success than women, who were treated as ‘girls’ up to an age where it was not reasonable anymore. I have noticed this attitude also towards other women colleagues. I must say that the situation is now improving; the generation of people behaving this way is gradually retiring, which is good for young women.

What advice would you like to give to young women scientists who might face challenges related to their gender?

I would advise them to deal with it calmly. Anger might be their first reaction, but they should not let these issues affect them too strongly. These challenges must not define who they are or how they feel about their job. In every position people have to deal with stressful situations; one has to find a balance. If women in science work hard and stay focused on the quality of their research, they will receive enough support and reach their goals.