Women should not shy away from competing at the highest level

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Prof. Dr. Ana-Suncana Smith Institut für Theoretische Physik Professur für Theoretische Physik W2-Professorin Naturwissenschaftliche Fakultät (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.

Professor Ana-Sunčana Smith: ‘Women should not shy away from competing
at the highest level’

Ana-Sunčana Smith, 46, is professor for theoretical physics at FAU and head of the PULS Group (Physics Underlying Life Sciences). She is also a member of the administrative board of the FAU Competence Unit Engineering of Advanced Materials at FAU and of the research cluster New Materials and Processes. Her research interests include the application of statistical physics concepts to materials science and biophysics. Smith, who was educated and has worked in several countries on different continents, commutes between Germany and Croatia. Apart from her tasks at FAU she is also a senior scientist at the Ruđer Bošković Institute in Zagreb. The researcher and mother of three children is a global citizen – not only because of her professional experience but also because of her French-Croatian roots and her family in Australia (her husband originates from there). Professor Smith speaks five languages, including Russian and German, but in her professional environment she prefers English.

Educated on two continents

She completed her physics degree in 2001 at the Faculty of Physics of the University of Zagreb in Croatia, having written her thesis in applied mathematics at the Australian National University in Canberra. She moved to Germany to undertake her doctoral degree, completing it there at the Technical University of Munich in 2004. After working as a postdoctoral researcher in Munich and Sydney, in 2006 she became a research associate at the Institute for Theoretical Physics of the University of Stuttgart. Three years later, she was awarded a Rising Star assistant professorship in theoretical physics as part of the Cluster of Excellence Engineering of Advanced Materials at FAU. She became a tenured professor at FAU in 2012. Since then, she has spent sabbaticals as a visiting professor in Cambridge (UK) and Perth (Australia).

Motherhood and studying? It works!

For Ana-Sunčana Smith, many of the decisions in her life have been a compromise between her private life and her career: ‘I had my first child while I was still a student, and now my daughter is at university herself – perhaps I’ll soon be a grandmother!’ she laughs. She speaks fondly of her student days: ‘I was full of energy. In the last weeks of my pregnancy, I attended lectures in the morning and wallpapered the apartment in the evening! Of course, I didn’t have much money, but everything worked out nonetheless. I had no responsibilities or obligations – apart from my studies and my child.’ Smith notes that women in the Western world want to graduate first and not ‘build a nest’ until they are entirely financially stable. But she is convinced: ‘The combination of parenthood and career becomes more and more stressful and strenuous the older you are.’ She also has two children of school age and knows: ‘As the years go by, being a mother becomes physically more demanding, and at the same time professional obligations increase. But it’s possible nevertheless to have children and a career – but then no hobbies,’ she smiles. Her motto is: ‘It’s better for kids to have a happy mother for part of the day than a grumpy one who’s there all the time!’

Prof. Dr. Ana-Suncana Smith im Gespräch
Prof. Dr Ana-Suncana Smith Institute for Theoretical Physics, Professorship for Theoretical Physics W2 Professor Faculty of Natural Sciences (Image: Giulia Iannicelli/FAU)

‘Women and men are not the same – but they are equal’

Women in STEM subjects have to realise, however, that competition is tough and belonging to a minority is challenging. For Ana-Sunčana Smith, one thing is clear: ‘Men and women are not the same, but they should be equal. I’m a woman, and that defines how I express myself. Not only do I have a certain sensitivity, I also draw my inspiration, my strength and my staying power from it. This is reflected in my everyday work.’ In the context of teaching, Professor Smith assumes that her demeanour differs from that of her male colleagues. ‘I offer students and young researchers my way of thinking. My approach to sharing knowledge is based on developing intuition and analytical skills. I think, however, that pluralistic thinking and getting to grips with different kinds of argumentation are key elements of an excellent education.’ This especially applies for STEM subjects, and that is why it is so important that women contribute.

Female researchers are often too self-critical and doubt their abilities too much.

Asked about her recipe for success, she replies: ‘Work hard and try to be well organised and well connected.’ And she adds: ‘I’ve always had this inner drive. We have to develop through our own will and motivation, not through attempts by others to define who we are and how far we can go. You’re the person in command!’ However, it is difficult to be successful without the safety net at home and recognition and acceptance at work. This has been Smith’s experience, as a researcher who has also won many prizes and scholarships. Over the years, she has observed the following: ‘Women are often too self-critical and doubt their abilities too much. They should bear in mind that there is no universal benchmark for success – achievement is the fulfilment of an inner desire. Women should not, however, shy away from competing at the highest level, even if their chances of making it to the top are limited!’

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.