First-Person Report: Ulrike Gaul Interview by Stefanie Schramm
Ulrike Gaul has made a successful career for herself in the USA. Now the biologist is returning - to Munich, as a Humboldt Professor.
© Johannes KroemerHave you finished packing?
Not yet, but I'm in the middle of organising our move. The most complicated part is transporting the flies to Germany.
Drosophila melanogaster, our test animals. We've put years of research into breeding various mutants. They will be coming with us to Munich. And they have to travel by plane - the flies wouldn't survive the journey by boat.
The USA offers you working conditions German researchers can only dream of. Why are you coming back now, after twenty years?
The aims associated with the Humboldt Professorship appeal greatly to me: on the one hand, science in Germany is to become more international, on the other hand, new research areas are to be developed. I can contribute significantly to that.
What are you thinking of doing?
I would like, for example, to organise a summer school for my subject, systems biology, to which I would invite fellow scientists from America, Europe, Israel. That sort of thing is still quite uncommon at German universities.
How would that benefit the students?
The great thing about this award is that for a change it is bringing excellent scientists not only to research institutions, but also to universities. I think it's extremely important that students see how exciting science is. In Germany contacts of this kind are often made very late, if at all.
Why is that?
Many high-ranking scientists here work at research institutes.
Would you also have returned without the Humboldt Award?
I had already been approached by the Ludwig Maximilians University. That's unusual in Germany. The standard appointment procedures are laborious and long-winded.
But you hadn't made your decision yet?
I wanted to have a look around first. After all, there were reasons why I left back then. I went on what you might call a tour of Germany, visited probably twenty institutes, and spoke to many researchers. I wanted to know: what is it really like now?
And what is it like?
I was pleasantly surprised. Things have changed a lot; the structures are less hierarchical, less bureaucratic, less rigid. has generated a lot of energy.
Did that convince you?
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Yes, that appealed very strongly to me. But we intend to develop a new key research area at the Munich Gene Centre. That will require lots of equipment and new staff. Which is all very expensive.
So it wouldn't have been possible without the Humboldt funding.
(laughs) Not so easily.
Five million euros for five years - is that internationally competitive in your league?
Absolutely. I also had offers from the USA, so I know what you can get at top institutes there. The Humboldt Professorship is internationally attractive.
Some award winners nonetheless hesitate to make the move to Germany, also because the sponsorship ends after five years. You didn't?
I don't see that as a serious issue. If you are given that much in advance and conduct good science with it, you will attract funding from elsewhere too. The Humboldt Professorship is a research award, not a life insurance. You only receive the Nobel Prize once too. At some point you just have to start writing grant proposals again like everyone else.
Even researchers in the USA?
Especially there. What a load of nonsense to now pretend the system has to be different in Germany! And after all, it was different at one time. Nobody ever used to ask, »Are you actually doing anything with the money?« That research funding is assigned in relation to performance was a significant change in German academia.
Why did you leave back then?
After completing your doctorate you just need a change of scene. The more important question is why I didn't come back earlier.
I liked living in the USA - the hands-on optimism, but also the meritocratic aspect: that what matters is what you achieve. I had several offers from Germany, but in each case I would have been the only woman at the institute. In the USA it was easier for a young woman in research. The skies were somehow higher there.
What exactly made it easier?
More leading positions were held by women. In Tübingen, where I studied, there wasn't a single female C4 grade professor in the natural sciences. The women who went far had a hard time - and you could tell. In the USA things changed earlier. It simply wasn't cool to have no women in the faculty.
You are the only woman among the Humboldt award winners. So nothing has changed here?
No, most people realise how important it is to also have women in leading positions. But there are still practical issues, especially when it comes to childcare. In the USA, any self-respecting university nowadays has a creche. That makes an enormous difference. I mean, who wants to have to choose between children and science?
Did this question arise for you?
Yes, and I chose science, together with my husband. I don't regret it, but it was very tough.
Does your husband already know where he will be working in Germany?
Yes, with us. He is a trained philosopher and is now doing systems biology in our laboratory. That sort of thing is easier in the USA. Universities help your partner to find a job at the same location. In Germany many scientist couples commute, even if they have a family. Insane!
How do you intend to promote women in research in Munich?
The Excellence Initiative includes a sponsorship programme at LMU that I will participate in. The most important aspect is specific mentoring work.
What does that mean?
Well, it means talking about everything with the women - about science and about presenting oneself. That's easier if you're a woman yourself. It's easier for me to say, »Listen, I think there's a problem there.«
What problems do you see?
Young women are often insecure and conform too readily. They have to learn to become more independent. They are often overly sensitive to criticism. Then I say, »Why not first see if that's even true?«
Did you have similar experiences when you were younger?
To be honest, no, I didn't. I had to learn to deal with criticism too, but I was always convinced that I wanted to be a scientist. I didn't spend much time doubting.
Why was that?
Perhaps because I grew up in the country, in Swabia. I didn't have a large circle of friends, I was left to myself a lot. So you get used to doing your own thing and not allowing yourself to be easily influenced.
Your job in Munich will be to establish systems biology, a discipline that is barely represented in Germany at the moment. What is it about?
We aim to understand how genes and proteins work together in an organism, especially during development. Thousands of genes have to be activated and deactivated in the right places at the right times. Ultimately, we want to find out how the one-dimensional DNA sequence undergoes a four-dimensional process - if you include the dimension of time - to become a fly.
Once the human genome was sequenced, many people believed it would be possible to simply read the »book of life«. Now it all turns out to be much more complicated, even with a simple fly?
Indeed, but we already knew that back then. (laughs) Today, individual genes can easily be read. The largest part of the DNA however doesn't actually code any proteins. It holds the control elements that determine when which gene is read. These command centres are not so easy to find. And that's exactly what we're working on. Sequencing, in our case of the fly genome, was only the beginning.
What does your research say about humans?
The control mechanisms are not identical in humans - but they are similar. We are learning how genes are regulated.
What might possible applications be?
In stem cell research we try to turn undifferentiated cells into specialised ones, for example liver cells, to help people with liver cancer. Basically you have to replicate the process that also occurs in an embryo. It will be a long time yet before we have a practical application, but particularly in Munich there are excellent researchers working on this who could benefit from our results.
What stimuli for your research are you expecting in return?
Munich is one of the most diverse scientific locations in Germany. And systems biology requires experts from a wide range of disciplines: mathematicians, molecular biologists, nanotechnologists. These colleagues can help us test our predictions regarding the control processes. I'm already looking forward to working with them.
What will you miss?
The energy and the chaos of New York. On the other hand Munich is less stressful, the underground trains even run at regular intervals. And the food is good. I like to cook and was worried that I wouldn't be able to get any fresh coriander, but it's sold at the Viktualienmarkt. I've already checked that out.
A woman and her idear
Ulrike Gaul studied biology and physics in Tübingen. After completing her doctorate she went to Berkeley, then to Rockefeller University in New York. In the spring she plans to move to the Gene Centre of the Ludwig Maximilians University in Munich. A molecular biologist, she has won one of the first nine Humboldt Professorships. With this award the Federal Ministry of Education and Research aims to attract top-class international researchers to Germany; each award winner receives five million euros over a period of five years.
DIE ZEIT :: March 2009