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Stay Curious - Wherever You Do Your Research

By Miriam Buchmann-Alisch

The career path of a scientist in a private sector company can differ from an academic career in many ways, as an interview with biotechnologist Helke Hillebrand, Dean of the International PhD Programme of the European Molecular Biology Laboratory (EMBL) in Heidelberg, shows.

Stay curious – wherever you do your researchBiotechnologist Helke Hillebrand enjoys working in an environment where she can always learn new things: "I want to be allowed and able to grow in my profession."
academics: Following a successful career in research and development at BASF you are now Dean of the EMBL International PhD Programme. What exactly do you do there?

Helke Hillebrand: As "Dean of Graduate Studies" my area of responsibility encompasses managing the strategy, structure and content of the PhD programme. In addition to their own research and the scientific training in their laboratories the programme offers young scientists further training in key qualifications that are important for their careers.

academics: After completing your own PhD, you initially worked at a university, but then fairly quickly moved to a job in industry. What led to this decision?

Hillebrand: Originally I wanted to teach and conduct my research at a university. But in the mid-90s the wave of large-scale genome analysis and biotechnology had also reached the plant sciences. I wanted to be a part of that, because there was a sense of optimism, and it was where the funds and the resources were. I felt that technological projects on those scales would be very difficult to implement at a university. I read about the founding of a joint venture in plant biotechnology at BASF in "Die Zeit" and sent in an application.

academics: Was that a big change for you?

Hillebrand: Yes and no. Because I started at BASF Plant Science at a time when the company had just begun investing in biotechnology, a lot of development work was necessary. En route to participating in shaping a new initiative, this change was first and foremost a great team experience. I think it was definitely easier for me than if I had entered into an existing structure, i.e. an already fully functional company.

academics: What general differences between academic and industrial research have you noticed over time?

Hillebrand: The research laboratories are very similar; the differences are mainly in terms of the demands. For both areas you need a reasonable portfolio of scientific abilities. But in industry, you also need additional qualifications that play little or no part in academia. Strict adherence to timelines, for example, requires an entirely new creative approach. The number of questions that have to be answered on a given topic increases enormously. Not to mention the many socio-political and economic factors that have to be considered in a business. Sustainability and profitability are important issues here. Is a project viable in the long term, are people interested, is anyone willing to buy?

academics: What did you find particularly noteworthy back then?

Hillebrand: For me, it was exciting to determine research priorities not solely on the basis of scientific facts, but to also consider other aspects relating to e.g. the company's business strategy, or to patent law. This opened up a whole world of new information to me that I was almost entirely unfamiliar with from my university days. Academic research very rarely looks at patent literature, which offers very valuable, comprehensive and current information.

academics: Your next career move, into management, came soon after...

Hillebrand: Yes, after two years I received an offer to switch to the BASF Plant Science Centre as a Technology Manager. That was another step away from pure science, but very close to research co-ordination, where I took on a leading role in 2002 as "Head of Enabling Technologies". Back then I was very curious to learn how the people in the company's management who had so far influenced my research made their decisions. How can I justify and make an economic case for how much work is put into a project? That was a very international job, we had sites in North America and at various places in Europe.

academics: Did all that responsibility and travel leave any room for a personal life?

Hillebrand: If you truly believe in your work, you enjoy it so much that the question doesn't arise. Of course one sometimes tends to neglect one's personal life. But I'm pretty good at relaxing. I can sleep both on long-haul flights and in the wrong time zones. And after many years of commuting and the challenges of a dual-career life plan my husband and I were happy to share our everyday life when he was appointed to a professorship at the University of Heidelberg.

academics: What guided you in your career? What qualities do you think aspiring young researchers in industry should have?

Hillebrand: There's always the scientific curiosity that drives you, that's no different in industry than in academia. But in industry another basic requirement is curiosity about things outside one's specific field of research. Enthusiasm for a project is just as important as being able to let go when projects aren't profitable. There's a principle of not throwing good money after bad. That means that even if a project is scientifically highly interesting, but no longer meets the economic requirements and objectives of the company, or the economic environment changes in such a way that objectives become unattainable, then you simply have to accept that.

academics: What is the particular appeal of your current role as Dean of the EMBL International PhD Programme?

Hillebrand: It was always my aim to move towards a strategic and co-ordinative management role in the long run. A scientific context was always just as important to me as the desire to work with people. In my current role I find it particularly exciting to be able to combine both aspects and make a small strategic contribution to how knowledge creation might work in Europe in future.

academics: Do you have a personal motto that also helps you in your career?

Hillebrand: Maybe "the little everyday pleasures". I think I'm very lucky, because I can just enjoy a lot of things. I don't always manage it, but sometimes, increasingly often, I do, and increasingly I do it well.

academics :: March 2010