It’s not possible to plan your career strategically

Prof. Dr. Kathrin Castiglione, W3-Professorin TechFak, Lehrstuhl für Bioverfahrenstechnik.
Prof. Dr. Kathrin Castiglione, W3-Professorin TechFak, Lehrstuhl für Bioverfahrenstechnik. (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.

Professorin Kathrin Castiglione: ‘It’s not possible to plan your career strategically’

Professor Kathrin Castiglione has held the Chair for Bioprocess Engineering at the Department of Chemical and Biological Engineering (CBI) of FAU since 2018. Her research focuses on applied and sustainable industrial biotechnology. Microorganisms or enzymes are used as biocatalysts in the production of pharmaceuticals, agricultural products or food and fodder. ‘Biotechnology is all around us in our everyday lives. Enzymes are found in detergents and drugs such as insulin are also produced in a biotechnological process – as is beer.’ Professor Castiglione is particularly interested in special molecules that exist as an image and mirror image version and are needed for drug manufacture.

All of a sudden, I’m the token woman’

In a YouTube video produced by FAU, she explains her research, and you can see how passionate she is about her subject. In addition, Castiglione is regarded as an outstanding lecturer and is popular among students and young researchers. Just recently, she received the Audience Award for Excellent Teaching from the CBI student association initiative and the year before the Teaching Award of the Faculty of Engineering. She sometimes finds things ambivalent nonetheless: ’I got top grades at school and in my degree. Yet suddenly as a scientist I find myself in a situation where I’m packed away in the gender quota cubbyhole more often than I’d like’. And she goes on to explain: ‘All of a sudden, I’m the token woman. I really don’t know what’s going on here. I’ve won two teaching awards, and then a colleague says: It was high time that a woman won it again!’ Whereby, she adds, in teaching evaluations she is rated equally well by both male and female students alike. She says that acceptance on the part of students is not the problem. ‘What leaves a bitter taste is that there is often the suspicion that you owe what you’ve accomplished to the fact that you’re a woman! That destroys female researchers’ self-confidence. I would like to be defined by my performance.’ Professor Castiglione sometimes feels that being a woman in science is a downright burden. She discusses this with her colleagues too. ‘The problem is finding a happy medium. It’s important not to give women special treatment that then disadvantages them, but instead to measure them against their achievements.’ 

Prof. Dr. Kathrin Castiglione, W3 Professor TechFak, Chair of Bioprocess Engineering.
(Image: Giulia Iannicelli/FAU)

FAU wrote her a letter: Please apply!

And Castiglione, now 39, has experienced that in the past as well. She was already awarded quite a number of scholarships during her degree in molecular biotechnology at the Technical University of Munich (TUM). That was where she completed her doctoral degree and habilitation, having briefly stopped off in Japan as a postdoctoral researcher. She came to Erlangen or, to be more precise, to her full professorship, through FAU’s proactive recruitment of women. ‘That was great. FAU sent me a letter asking me whether I’d like to apply for the post. Without this letter, I wouldn’t personally have had the courage at that time because I hadn’t yet finished my habilitation.’ She was promptly invited to give a lecture and was able to convince the appointment committee. ‘I hadn’t planned my career strategically, but instead always pursued subjects that interested me, and ultimately I was also lucky to be in the right place at the right time,’ says Castiglione. Today, she is committed to recruiting young female researchers: ‘I look specifically for women in their final year and advise them to do a doctoral degree or support their initiative.
What she appreciates about FAU is that CBI is a department strong in research and outstanding beyond Germany too – as well as its practical outreach through its many industrial contacts. She says that networking with medical research institutions is also ‘a great thing’ – for students, but also for teaching staff.

Time management: afternoons are family time!

She appreciates in equal measure the fact that Erlangen, in contrast to Munich, is a more family-friendly city with everything on the doorstep and that she can work flexibly at the university. Castiglione is married and has two children of nursery and school age. ‘I’ve developed my own time management: I often work from morning until 3.30 pm. After that, it’s family time. Everyone in the department knows that too and adapts accordingly.’ In the evening, she sits down again to her university duties. ‘My husband is very supportive. That makes it much easier to reconcile family and an academic career. Otherwise, the congresses, lots of official travel, appointments in the evening and at the weekend, which are also all part of a professor’s life, would be difficult to achieve.’

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.