“I feel that being a scientist is the best profession ever”

An interview with Prof Sara Wickström
Members of the “Women in Science” network together with Prof Sara Wickström (middle)
© WiS

Prof Sara Wickström investigates how tissue stem cells communicate with each other and with their microenvironment so that coordinated cell divisions, cell movements and differentiation processes can give rise to specific tissue structures. She took up the post of director at the Max Planck Institute for Molecular Biomedicine in Münster in a part-time capacity on November 1, 2021, and will assume it full-time in April 2022, moving from the University of Helsinki, Finland. A few months ago, young female scientists from the University of Münster’s Cells in Motion Interfaculty Centre had invited her to give insights into her research in a lecture series, and they spoke to her about her personal path in research, the challenges faced by female researchers and the prerequisites for a successfully managed research group.

What made you choose your career path?

I always wanted to be a scientist. I was interested in math and physics but chose to enroll in medical school because I thought that this would enable science that would be solving real life problems. I did not know what a PI was at that point. After my PhD, I worked briefly as a clinician, and it was a very interesting experience. I liked doing something for people so that they could get better, but I did not like that my day was fully programmed, with little room for intellectual freedom. In medicine, you do not want a doctor that comes up with creative solutions to treat your disease. The desire to become a group leader came at the postdoc stage. What I really like about science is that you have room for creativity. Of course, there are also certain things that I don’t like that much. It can be quite lonely, and you carry the pressure of getting money to support your people and research. However, I am fully autonomous. Nobody is telling me what to do and if I want to change the research direction of my lab, I just do it. I feel that being a scientist is the best profession ever.

What was it like to choose a new lab as a Postdoc and which challenges did you face?

I applied for a Postdoc position in both Germany and the USA and I ended up joining the Max Plank Institute in Munich. My decision to stay in Europe was driven by the group dynamic in the lab. You need to feel comfortable with the PI and the members of the lab you are joining. Now that I have my own group, I pay a lot of attention to group dynamics. When hiring, I engage the whole group, because I think science is teamwork. I hire people who are smart and motivated, but at the same time show that they are team players and can integrate into the group. When I moved to Germany, the lab was very welcoming and international, which made making friends easier. Going abroad is a challenge that you cannot underestimate, and it becomes more difficult as you get older because you become less flexible, more selective and you want to spend more time with your family. From a personal perspective, moving to another country is hard, but from a professional perspective, it’s very valuable as you become exposed to different environments and people, which drive your science in new directions.

How do you deal with the group dynamics in your lab?

First, you have to think about the optimal group size for your lab. I, for example, try not go above 15 people. As a group leader, you know that there will be things outside of your control. If two people in your lab do not get along, often the problem comes to your attention when it is too late. It is important for people to interact and encourage each other, but also be respectful and acknowledge that people come from very different backgrounds. I also experienced that people can change over time because they are having issues outside of the lab. Very often, you must deal with challenging situations that you are not trained for. It is good to have an experienced mentor with whom you can discuss difficult situations.

How do you help your students cope with the vicissitudes of a PhD?

That is of course very challenging and from my perspective my job is to remove obstacles for them to succeed. If somebody is struggling, I try to identify what is blocking their progress. I also try to help that person gain self-confidence to pick up and continue. However, if a person is not motivated, it is very difficult to externally motivate them. I always try to keep in mind that everybody is different and that what can work for one does not necessarily work for all. In academia, we try to train scientists in the specific career path that we know. However, that is not the career path of choice for all students and therefore it is important to support their own decisions.

How is it like not to do practical lab-work anymore?

I have been trying to stay in the lab for as long as possible. It depends a bit on your position, if you have to teach, then it is more difficult. I was lucky because at the Max Planck you don’t have to teach more than you want. This meant that I was still pipetting quite long into my PI career and even sometimes now although I don’t have so much time anymore unfortunately. The less experiments you do, the harder it is to start one. However, if I have time and somebody asks for help – quite rarely in these days because they think I am hopeless – I like to help them.

You had quite few challenges during your career, were there specific challenges or disadvantages for you as a woman? Did you ever experience discrimination?

In my personal experience, I have not experienced direct discrimination, but as a woman, you have to show your competence. In my experience (and this is shared by many others) if you are a woman, the default assumption often is that you are incompetent, and you have to somehow prove your competence. If you are a male, the default assumption is that you are competent and only if you mess up you can then lose this assumption. But if you do well and publish high quality papers then people will respect you regardless of gender. I found it challenging after my time at the MPI. I felt that I was doing pretty well with my level of science but because I did not have papers at the absolutely elite journals at this time, I felt that people still judged me as a junior scientist more than what they would have done with a male colleague with a similar CV. I often suggest women to place their key publications in the first slides during job interviews to counteract immediately the assumption of incompetence. In certain situations like job interviews it is important to put your accomplishments out there and be visible.

Which could be the reason behind the leaky pipeline that sees many female PhD students but far fewer postdocs and even fewer PIs?

This is a very complex issue. Partially this is due to lack of support and encouragement. A concrete example is the MPG award for the best PhD students. The basic requirement is that you should have summa cum laude but also your PI has to nominate you. When you look at the summa cum laude, it is distributed quite evenly between males and females, but female PhD students get nominated less for this award. It is very important that someone supports and promotes you during your career. As I said, I don’t think there is active discrimination, at the same time, many women are not being actively pushed. What is important to note that this unconscious bias is both from men and women.

The other problem I see is that in science you are expected to change the city or country and this becomes more difficult when you have children. At that point, it becomes a negotiation with your partner and, based on my personal experience, it is often the woman that does the compromise. There is some data from the EMBO fellowships. They tried to figure out why women were getting fewer fellowships than men. At the early PI-stage, it turned out that women indeed had less good CVs compared to men and that those differences partially arose because women changed their location more often on reasons that were not based on their own career advancement.

Do you think that the role of the women in the society is changing right now?

Women are more interested in pursuing careers and society has changed in a way that fathers participate more in raising children. This is helping women to not be forced to choose between career and family, but to combine them. However, if you look at the statistics, things are not improving as fast as people hoped. Some tools are being implemented to counter discrimination and promote women in science. However, for those men that never experienced discrimination, it is sometime hard to understand why they are necessary. Some men look at these measures very critically because they say that it limits their possibilities. For example, it might happen that you have two candidates, a male and a female, who are at the same level and there is now pressure to select the woman. I totally understand that at the individual level this can be frustrating, but on the other hand it is clear that without active measures the biases will never change.

What would you suggest we as females can do to improve our chances of advancing our careers in science?

One important thing is to look for mentors. Your PI is typically your mentor, but they don’t have to be the only one. Try to find other people who can support and promote you. You will always need somebody that speaks for you. Because in the end, you will rarely be in the room where decisions on your career are being made. The second thing is to be open for networking and to be active and open in discussions.

Where do your ideas come from?

I think that the creative ideas come from connecting two dots that are seemingly not connected. Hearing presentations and reading papers in your area will help you understand what the open questions are. Hearing talks from other fields will help you become creative and connect dots. I think that my ideas are – people might disagree – getting better over time as I learn more and more about how nature works. Furthermore, I think that it is very important, to be open for discussions. Students can also bring new and fresh angles that you may have never thought about. Therefore, I think it is essential to discuss your ideas. That is why, in my lab, I always try to encourage critical discussions and brainstorming on the data.

How do you define the direction you want to take with your research while setting up your own lab?

You have to think about your expertise. When the first students join your lab, you have to teach them how to do things. This means that you preferably should start with methods and approaches that you are good at. During your career, you will have gained expertise from different labs, and this normally creates a combination, which makes your profile unique in that field.  On the other hand, when it comes to the biological questions it is important to be ambitious. People often say that you have to find your niche and try to answer this small question that nobody else studies. I do not agree with that. You should study something that you are interested in, even if it is big. You will not answer the question with the first few papers, but you will have a long-term goal.