The university offers more freedom than the business world

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Prof. Dr. Katharina Herkendell, CBI, Lehrstuhl für Energieverfahrenstechnik Juniorprofessorin/FAU-NGL TechFak (Bild: Giulia Iannicelli/FAU)

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.

Assistant Professor Katharina Herkendell: ‘The university offers more freedom than the business world’

Professor Katharina Herkendell is a qualified bioengineer. She completed her studies, which included research visits in the USA, India and Israel, at the Karlsruhe Institute of Technology (KIT). After just three years, she already had her doctoral degree from the Department of Mechanical and Process Engineering at ETH Zurich under her belt and then spent a further year there as a postdoctoral researcher. This also explains how – at the age of just 33 – in September 2020 she was appointed as assistant professor at the Institute of Energy and Process Engineering.

Actively co-shaping the energy transition

‘My field of research, bioelectrocatalysis, is concerned with the low-emission energetic use of residual waste materials by means of enzymatic and microbial catalysis in electrochemical cells. In biofuel cells, for example, we generate green electricity through the oxidation of organic compounds, such as are found in regular household waste, biofluids or wastewater. What I appreciate about my subject is the fascination of life, utilising nature for clean processes as well as the possibility to convince people of technologies and needs through reasoned arguments.’

For me, research means …

‘… an opportunity to learn something new each day and to pass on my knowledge. I can be creative, try out ideas at our institute and often experience a little sense of achievement. I make my
own decisions about my work and am independent, but nonetheless interact with fascinating personalities – be it among my colleagues, in the research environment at FAU or on Energie Campus Nürnberg (EnCN), be it with students, on committees or within international research partnerships. In general, each day that I’m free to plan entirely by myself is an absolute blessing. I know that I wouldn’t have this freedom in the business world.’

An academic career in a STEM subject …

‘… was my wish from an early age. Among my favourite subjects at school were maths and biology. I wanted to choose something from among the abundant opportunities open to me after school that offered me good prospects, whereby it was important to me to make a valuable contribution to society with my subject, to work independently later on – and to be financially independent too – in a recognised field.’

FAU offers me …

‘… a wonderful research environment and highly dedicated students. Here, everyone is sensitised towards future issues, a sense of togetherness prevails at our institute, but also from department level up to the Executive Board. As an assistant professor, I received start-up funding of €50,000 for newly appointed female professors at the Faculty of Engineering in the framework of the university’s internal target agreement measures to increase the percentage of women in science. I was also funded through FAU’s Emerging Talents Initiative. Meanwhile, I’m deputy chair of the Degree Programme Committee for Clean Energy Processes (CEP), a new English-taught degree programme at FAU which is just starting.’

Playing an active role beyond that …

‘… is very important to me personally. Last summer, the Executive Board appointed me as FAU’s Officer for the Prevention of Anti-Semitism. I’m the contact person for Jewish students, researchers, teaching staff and employees. My role is to act as a person of trust in any suspected cases of anti-Semitism in relation to FAU. The Executive Board established this new post recently because worrying social tendencies are being observed – on the campus too. I think it’s great that the university is taking immediate and resolute action and saying: Not here! We’re not budging an inch for racists, sexists and anti-Semites. I’m really proud to be part of a university that’s proactive and doesn’t react gingerly if there is an incident. FAU’s progressiveness and ability to innovate are evident here too in its community spirit. Apart from that, I’m also active as far as early career researchers are concerned, for example as a reviewer for the German Academic Exchange Service and as a mentor.’

Prof. Dr. Katharina Herkendell im Labor
Prof. Dr Katharina Herkendell, CBI, Chair of Energy Process Engineering
Junior Professor/FAU-NGL TechFak (Image: Giulia Iannicelli/FAU)

I’m a born fighter

‘Since I finished studying, I’ve had to struggle with severe physical ailments that are partly an extreme burden and at times really bring me to my knees. After several operations in 2019, I wasn’t sure whether I would have the strength to manage an academic career. But I’m sticking to my goals because my work is so very fulfilling, and each day I decide afresh in favour of the path I’ve chosen. I get a lot of support from the great people around me in my personal life. Regular reflection and managing my own expectations also help me.’

My advice for female early career researchers:

‘Find a topic that really inspires you. In my case, that only happened in the last year of my degree in an elective. From my experience, we always compare ourselves with the best around us and those who make the most noise. But all that glitters is not always gold, and other people also put their trousers on one leg at a time. Concentrate consciously on the average, and then ask yourself: In comparison to the others, have you got the courage to apply? I would say: Yes! It’s good to have a few female friends or a network who are also aspiring to an academic career or are stuck at the same stage in their education as you. Very often you’re facing the same challenges and doubts, discussing them does you good. In your circle outside the university, you simply get less feedback when you tell them about the one or other absurdity of everyday life in research.

What needs to be done in order to recruit more women for STEM subjects:

‘Starting in several areas is needed. Research institutions could initiate targeted headhunting for women for permanent posts and professorships. In addition, universities should sensitise appointment committees towards prejudices against female applicants. Parental leave and part-time work for fathers should become the new normal. More family-friendliness and concepts for part-time working as well as greater flexibility for pregnant women and regarding childcare can also be incentives for women to stay in STEM subjects. There also ought to be compensation for the financial risks faced by principal investigators, that is, project managers, when they appoint women of child-bearing age. It should not make any difference whether you employ a man or a woman and thus risk a project’s duration. Here, it’s also the duty of third-party contractors and the university to have compensation funds and automatic project extensions. And naturally you can also convince female researchers with exciting topics.’

This article is part of the brochure “The Sky is the Limit”

Headerimage The Sky is the Limit
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.