I was allowed to install power sockets at home even when I was still a child
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 Marion Merklein: ‘I was allowed to install power sockets at home even when I was still a child’
‘I am the exception to the rule,’ claims Prof. Dr. Marion Merklein, referring to her unusual career path. Unusual because she studied, completed her doctoral degree and finished her postdoctoral thesis without leaving FAU. Just 14 years after she first enrolled at FAU, she was appointed as a professor. The 48 year old specialises in developing light metals for transport technology. Throughout the course of her career, she has often been a pioneer for women, leading the way for others to follow, whether as the the first female professor in engineering at FAU, or the first woman to be appointed Dean of the Faculty of Engineering.
She must also be one of the youngest women to become a full (W3) professor in a STEM subject, after being appointed to the Chair of Manufacturing Technology at the age of just 34. She has been a member of the Executive Board at FAU since 2017, where she has the position of officer for the site development of the Faculty of Engineering. Marion Merklein has led a number of DFG-funded research projects, including leading her own transregional collaborative research centre for more than 12 years. She is currently a member of the board of a DFG collaborative research centre at FAU. Her CV boasts a number of prestigious prizes and awards. In 2013, she received Germany’s most prestigious research prize worth 2.5 million euros, the Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz Prize. She has even been awarded the Bavarian Order of Merit for her efforts aimed at encouraging young researchers. In spite of a packed schedule, in her free time the professor loves cooking, and enjoys sewing teddy bears.
In-house appointments tend to be frowned upon’
Born in 1973 in Nuremberg, where she also went to school, Marion Merklein first started to study materials science and engineering before she changed to mechanical engineering, completing her doctoral degree in 2001 and her postdoctoral thesis in 2006. Two years later, she followed in the footsteps of her academic supervisor and mentor, basically ‘inheriting’ his Chair. When appointing professorships, universities usually prefer external candidates, who can bring a breath of fresh air and a new outlook to the university. ‘In-house appointments tend to be frowned upon, but I was encouraged to apply directly for the Chair where I was currently working as a research assistant, and the Ministry approved my appointment,’ explains Prof. Merklein.
She refused numerous opportunities to leave her alma mater, although the academic world was at her feet and she was spoilt for choice. She turned down professorships at reputable universities in the Saarland in Germany, in Scotland and in the USA in favour of FAU, partly for family reasons and partly because of the opportunities in her subject offered at FAU. There are not many universities that offer her specialisation. Her expertise lies in manufacturing technology, focusing on forming in the transportation industry. ‘I investigate how working components and goods can be manufactured using various materials. The focus is always also on finding energy-saving solutions for industrial applications.’ Merklein has developed a forming procedure for light metals that improves industrial production chains in automotive engineering, in aviation and in rail transport.
Keen on technology from an early age
She became interested in technology at an early age. ‘I was eight years old when my parents started to build their house. I was fascinated by the building works, I wanted to know how power sockets and drills work. I was even allowed to install sockets myself, and drill through walls!’ Even while she was still at school, she knew that she wanted to go into a technical profession. Originally, she hadn’t planned to study, as she had arranged to start an apprenticeship at Siemens after passing her school leaving examinations. ‘But I passed with flying colours, and that changed everything,’ she explains. The Bavarian organisation for the promotion of young talent awarded her a scholarship to go to university. ‘I couldn’t turn an opportunity like that down, and I think my parents were very pleased with my decision to go to university. I haven’t regretted it!’ She even met her husband to be during an introductory event on the very first day.
Marion Merklein believes that waiting to encourage girls to take up a STEM subject once they have become young women is too late. ‘Ideally, we should start much younger. You can encourage
girls who are just three or four years old to become interested in technology by giving them the relevant toys to play with and by parents recognising and encouraging their daughters’ interest in STEM subjects early on. I was brought up that way. I played with Lego Technic and knew very early on which direction my career should take,’ the professor explains.
‘It was a man who acted as my best supporter and mentor along the way’
Although she is still fascinated by technology today, there were several obstacles she had to overcome at FAU. ‘It wasn’t easy in my position as a former assistant at the Chair and a young woman to suddenly be placed in charge of all the scientists at my Chair, a number of whom were considerably older than me, and who used to be my colleagues However, I never gave up and now I can say with conviction: I love my Chair, I love my work, I love my colleagues and students. I am also very grateful to my former boss. He was an amazing mentor. Although he was a man, he was the one who provided me the best possible support.
It goes without saying that Merklein finds it regrettable that women in academia are so few and far between when it comes to STEM subjects. Sometimes the system ‘drives her to despair’, for example the fact that predominantly male colleagues demand that men and women should be represented equally in academic committees. ‘However, as there is a lower percentage of women in these subjects, it means that those there are have to become involved more often in committees or working groups, leading to added strain for young women in research and distracting them from their actual research.’ According to Merklein, many female university graduates opt for an academic career because they are predominantly interested in research and teaching. However, they become so involved in committees that they have little time left to devote to what they really want to do. ‘It is only now, in my position, that I can afford to say no. But it is not so easy for a number of young women striving for a professorship,’ explains the researcher, who knows the situation only too well, and is herself an active member of numerous professional societies or committees.
Finally, she believes it is counterproductive that universities want to attract more women to STEM subjects, but then end up making it more difficult for them by burdening them with too many other commitments on top of their research and teaching duties. ‘Women who want to pursue an academic STEM career have to accept that this is the case.’ In her opinion, if someone’s main priority is science, they should consider entering an institute outside the university, for example the Max Planck Institute or the Helmholtz Institute. ‘The main thing is that women find a job they love.’
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.