Make academia more family friendly: Meet Danielle Mersch

DSC_7430Danielle Mersch is currently a Human Frontiers Science fellow at the Laboratory of Molecular Biology in Cambridge. Danielle studied Biology, and almost switched to geophysics after the first year. An internship on dispersal behavior of lizards convinced her to stick with biology and allowed her to discover scientific research. From then on she was hooked and went onto work on vultures, voles, and ants. Currently Danielle studies the brain of the tiny fruit fly to decipher how insects smell the world. Come and learn from Danielle about “Decoding the fly brain” on 2nd July 2016 12-3pm in Cambridge Market Square!


SS: Danielle, how did you get to your current position?

DM: It was a mix of coincidence, timing and advice. After I finished my PhD on ant behavior, I knew that I wanted to learn more about how brains process sensory information to decide behavior. Ants were not a good model, but the fruit fly was. But switching to fruit flies and neurosciences meant starting all over again, a big risk to take in the competitive academic environment where everything is counted in publications. Thus, before diving in, I went to a neuroscience meeting to make sure that was really what I wanted. Once I had sorted my goals out, I looked for labs, and that was the tricky part. I was not familiar with the field and thus could not tell the good from the not-that-great places. From papers and words of mouth I narrowed my selection to a few labs. The decisive moment, however was a chat with a professor from my university who recommended yet another lab to me when I asked him for advice. By coincidence I was about to go to the UK for a conference a week after the chat, and thus visited the lab he had recommended. I had a good impression and decided that I’d like to join, that was 2 weeks after the chat. Luckily for me, Dr. Greg Jefferis was also willing to take the gamble and hire a postdoc without any neuroscience background. I then applied to several fellowships and was lucky enough to get funded.


SS: What, or who, inspired you to get a career in science?

DM: I never thought about a career in science, I just liked science and learning. It sounds ironic, but I was sad when I had finished my masters, because I felt like the time where I could learn new things was finished. Research turns out to be a continuous learning and discovery, and that is what I like most. There are however times, when I wonder whether I enjoy it enough to pay its costs in terms of instability and the continuous uncertainties. After my PhD I thought a lot before continuing with a postdoc, because it implies a long-distance relationship. I still sometimes question it. On the other hand, I realised that I would regret not trying a career in academia, and would in addition contribute to the lack of women in science. I thus took my chances, and time will tell.


SS: What is the most fascinating aspect of your research/work?

DM: Being able to learn more every day. I just spend 10 days learning about microscopy and optics, and loved it. Having the opportunity to work at the forefront of knowledge and contributing to more knowledge is what is most exciting. It’s maybe weird, but it is the pleasure of understanding something that was until then incomprehensible, the satisfaction of having a proof or disproof for something that was just an option on paper, the joy of finally finding a mistake after days or weeks of work. Science is a continuous challenge of our assumptions combined with a diversity of work and to me that is just perfect.


SS: What attracted you to Soapbox Science in the first place?

DM: I was attracted to Soapbox Science because I see it as a means to de-mystify science and share with the general public the excitements of discovery, and also the behind-the-scenes of what scientists do. In addition, because I work in basic research, which is mainly funded by tax payers, I believe it is crucial to share our insights and explain why it is essential that we continue basic research. And deep inside, I believe that anyone can understand and become excited about science, if only we manage to communicate with words that people are familiar with.


SS: Sum up in one word your expectations for the day – excitement? Fear? Thrill? Anticipation?

DM: Apprehension.

I love to share the excitement and thrill I find in science, but I dislike being the center of attention. So, speaking in front of an unknown audience is a challenge for me.


SS: If you could change one thing about the scientific culture right now, what would it be?

DM: Make it a truly scientifically driven and less of a show. I have the impression that scientific research is treated more and more like a business where investments are distributed based on predicted benefits for society. However, most often the biggest scientific advances come from discoveries in fields that were ignored by most. Similarly, the best scientists are not necessarily those who make the biggest shows and have the biggest crowd, but those who are most rigorous in their experiments and careful in their interpretation. Unfortunately, their stories are often perceived as less exciting, and thus often disappear in the mass.

That aside, there is still a need for major improvements to make academia more family friendly. Currently it is impossible for a women, or man for that matter to combine family life and academia if her/his partner also has a full-time job, even more so in long-distance relationships. As a consequence more and more scientist have to choose between having a family, or continuing in academia, and this is unacceptable.


SS: What would be your top recommendation to a female PhD student considering pursuing a career in academia?

DM: Go for it, do your best, don’t question your capacities and surround yourself with people that help you reach your goals.

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