From farm life to plant research with a few detours
In our series of 22 reports, we present a panorama of female researchers from various qualification levels and academic positions, ranging from students to W3 professors. With their individual career paths, the female researchers in STEM subjects act as role models to encourage young female researchers to pursue an academic career, giving interesting insights into their careers to date. The MINT experts also share aspects of their private lives.
Postdoctoral researcher Christina Müdsam From farm life to plant research with a few detours
Dr Christina Müdsam holds a Master of Science and, as a molecular biologist and research associate, is conducting plant research at the Chair of Cell Biology. ‘My workplace on FAU’s southern campus is surrounded by so much greenery that you already feel like a proper biologist for that reason alone,’ she says enthusiastically. Müdsam, a native Franconian, is studying processes and genetic modifications in plant cells. Even if she loves her research at FAU, she struggles now and again with the fact that there is a shortage of permanent jobs and an uncertain future in science. But she doesn’t want to let that spoil her fun and her passion for research.
My route to STEM
‘I grew up on a farm. But that’s not why I’m now a biologist. In fact, after finishing school I wanted to become a nurse, but then I abandoned my training. And because I didn’t want to tie myself
down completely as far as studying was concerned but leave myself some room for manoeuvre, I chose to do a teaching degree in secondary education, in my case for grammar schools, with the subject combination biology and chemistry. My flatmates at that time said I was good at explaining things. And I thought that if I notice one day that the teaching profession is not for me after all, I can take a postgraduate degree and work in business. After the intermediate exam, I indeed found the technical part far more interesting than the idea of teaching. But after six semesters at FAU, taking the jump from a teaching degree to molecular biology was an enormous hurdle because my previous course achievements weren’t recognised. That was the opportunity for me to go abroad. I went to the University of Hull in England and earned my Bachelor’s degree in pharmaceutical science in two semesters. After that, I wanted to scrape some money together and work in a restaurant, but I soon noticed that my brain needed something to do. So two days before the deadline I enrolled for the Master’s programme in molecular sciences at FAU. If I hadn’t gone abroad, I probably wouldn’t be where I am now.
From contract to contract
‘So far, I’ve always been lucky: at the end of my degree, for example, my later boss and doctoral supervisor asked me whether I was interested in a position as a doctoral candidate in his research group. I then also wrote my Master’s thesis at the Chair of Molecular Plant Physiology. So ultimately it was a lucky coincidence that I ended up there. I stayed there for five years, above all because I saw little reason to finish in record time. My job as a doctoral candidate in biology wasn’t particularly lucrative, but it was enough to live on and more than I’d ever earned before. And I enjoyed it. Then came the postdoctoral phase. On the day of my doctoral exam, I received a job offer from the Chair of Biochemistry. The project I worked on there was great, although – or because – I had to learn a lot of new things. I like it when the learning curve goes through the roof. Then at some point I found myself at the end of my contract. And just when my mood was at the lowest point because of that, I was incredibly lucky again. And now I’m standing in for a colleague who’s on parental leave in her project in the Cell Biology Division.’
Why I’ve stayed with STEM nevertheless
‘I was never the career type, I don’t necessarily have to be the boss. I don’t even know whether I’d be particularly good at it. I don’t need to earn pots of money! Regarding STEM: I prefer to get to get to grips with things that underlie some kind of logic, that are easy to understand and for which there is an explanation, rather than with current trends or opinions. In the natural sciences, you’re not obliged just to believe or accept things – there is always the possibility to question and revisit them. I mostly had a free hand in my research and at the same time great people around me – the right bosses and the right colleagues. Instead of just being given instructions and having work dumped on me, I mostly received input, feedback and constructive criticism. Now and again I also heard: ‘Girl, you quite simply belong in research!’
From the greenhouse to the office and back
‘Since the start of my doctoral thesis, the only invariable as far as the subject is concerned has been plant research. It’s all about optimising processes, that is, crop yield or resistance against pests or diseases. We mostly work on the model organism in this field – thale cress. Arabidopsis thaliana is for us a bit like what the mouse is for medical researchers. After my doctoral thesis and before my current job, I was involved in a project on sugar beet and also able to gain some experience in bioinformatics. But that has taken a back seat again in my present job. During my doctoral degree, I spent most of my time in the lab or at the microscope. Since then, my work has shifted more in the direction of the office: reading and writing papers, communicating with project partners, compiling interim and final reports, correcting work by students, organisational stuff. Over the last weeks, I’ve supervised a practical course, and before that Bachelor’s and Master’s students.”
Would I recommend an academic career in STEM? Yes, BUT …
‘… you should of course pursue an academic career if you like to learn new things and to think critically and analytically. However, as far as biology is concerned, here comes a big caveat. You should think pretty early on about the consequences that such a career might or probably will entail and ask yourselves whether that’s what you want or at least be able to handle it. A safe and reliable job? In many cases – wrong! At some point I gave up counting how many contracts I’ve signed so far. I think the longest one lasted 18 months. At the moment, I don’t know with absolute certainty whether this time next year I’ll even still have a job at all. Long-term planning, such as starting a family or buying a house, is difficult because I don’t even know whether I’ll have sufficient income in the long term or whether I’ll be forced to look for a job elsewhere. And whether my partner would be prepared to move is the next question. In my case, there is also the following to consider: my family lives here, and I would prefer to stay nearby. But my Plan B is to find a job outside the university if things don’t progress here.
This article is part of the brochure “The Sky is the Limit”
Brochure “The Sky is the Limit”
Diverse, inspiring and innovative, the brochure “The Sky is the Limit” introduces female researchers in STEM subjects from the Faculty of Engineering and the Faculty of Sciences in a series of varied interviews.
Other interviews are available on the Research website.
Download the brochure “The Sky is the Limit — Female STEM scientists at FAU”
The publication is the result of collaboration between RTG 2423 FRASCAL and the Office of Equality and Diversity. Dr. Susanne Stemmler conducted the interviews.