Against all odds, into science: Meet Anna-Maria Getoš Kalac

Prof. Dr. Anna-Maria Getoš Kalac, University of Zagreb – Faculty of Law; Max Planck Partner Group for Balkan Criminology, is taking part in Soapbox Science Munich on 7th July with her talk: “Violence Research Lab; Gewaltforschungslabor”




SS: Why did you choose a scientific career?

AMGK: I would not say that I planned or even deliberately picked a scientific career. It was more the other way around. Science somehow chose me. I always knew exactly what I did not want: a career as a female crime investigator in the Croatian police, after finishing my criminalistics studies, or a career in the Ministry of science and education… Out of this “avoiding” of my “don’t wants” I slipped, really by chance and against all odds, into science. After graduating in Croatia I got a scholarship and enrolled in a master study program in Germany. I was really good at it, I mean really good, and excelled at all tasks. One thing lead to another, and a few years later I got my PhD, was already heavily involved in teaching at my law faculty in Croatia, while doing research at the Max Planck Institute for Foreign and International Criminal Law in Freiburg.


SS: How did you get your current position?

AMGK: My current position as Head of the Max Planck Partner Group for “Balkan Criminology” I got, again, by avoiding what I did not want. And that was to limit myself to teaching and sporadic mediocre research at my “academic home” at the Zagreb Law Faculty. After having obtained my PhD and a couple of months resting from this exhausting and seemingly never-ending mega-task, I felt somehow empty and in search of a “meaningful scientific occupation”. I actually missed my PhD project, or better to say the scientific challenge it posed and all good and bad that comes with it. Discussing this “emptiness” during one of my brief “scientific wellness holidays” at my “scientific home”, the Max Planck Institute for Foreign and International Criminal Law in Freiburg, with my PhD mentor Prof. Dr. Albrecht, we decided to apply for a Max Planck Society funded own research group for me, that would enable us to “build up” criminology in Croatia and the whole of Southeast Europe. I was basically frustrated that there was no one at my “academic home” in Zagreb and only a hand full of people in my whole region, whom I could jointly work with and conduct criminological research. Instead of settling with this situation or moving abroad into a more appealing research setting, I chose to change something. I got lucky, and the application was approved.


SS: What do you do in your everyday work life?

AMGK: That really depends on the season and my whereabouts. When at my “academic home” in Zagreb and during the winter semester, I teach. I teach and teach and really teach a lot. The time is focused on faculty work and students. The little time that remains I spend on project management and finalizing far overdue papers. But, then the summer semester starts and I am free to focus on science and research. Then I work on new project ideas, organise data collection in the field, analyse the data once its available, go to conferences and project meetings, network with fellow scientists, discuss new ideas and findings with peers. Basically that is the time of the year I am most creative and do what I like best: research.


SS: What is the most exciting aspect of your research?

AMGK: Currently and with the focus on violence research, it is the discovery of the complexity of the concept and phenomenon of violence itself. It is exciting, even thrilling, to see how your own understanding of highly complex issues, that at first seem incomprehensible and a complete mystery, slowly but steadily evolves. First you think, based on what other scholars before you have been doing and found out, that you understand what violence is, why it occurs, how it might be prevented etc. Then you outgrow this phase and start critically questioning what you think you know, typically inspired by a paper or talk you heard or by a case you came along. Then you think you know nothing. And this is usually the most frustrating, but also most exciting point in my own research. What is violence? Is it only physical or also psychological, verbal, sexual, political, institutional? If you want to empirically research it, how will you define it? What do you include, what do you exclude? You struggle with the concept and construct of violence, think about new angles from which to approach it and so on. Then you discuss your ideas with peers and expert practitioners from the field (prosecutors, police officers, judges), get feedback, look at real cases, adjust your concepts and definitions etc. Basically, I would say this is the most exiting aspect of my research – detecting new areas of engagement and finding the best way to tackling them. The process of acknowledging how little I actually know about the “how” and “why” of one person injuring or killing another, while finding a way and the means to enhance my understanding of human violence and still my own scientific curiosity.


SS: What challenges do you encounter in science?

AMGK: Far too many I would say, with the most frustrating probably being the challenge of research funding. Working at a faculty or outside of an already existing research project with acquired funds for research work, it is very difficult to do empirically based criminology. During the years I had to become a “genius” in getting project funds and/or motivating others as well as myself to do a lot of volunteering. And in order to get your research funds you most commonly have to fit your scientific visions into the funding priorities of those you would like to pay for it. This is usually a difficult compromise, especially when you want to do basic research in social sciences, where the focus is predominantly on applied research. I guess the other challenges, like finding and keeping good staff, acquiring and keeping your independence, getting access to data etc. are not really unique to science as a work field. I would however say that being and working as a scientist is unique in one particular aspect, and that’s the working hours. You constantly puzzle around one or several research questions in your head and cannot limit this to some conventional working hours. It needs some time in the morning when I get into the office “to think myself into the problem” and to start “puzzling”, writing and working. And this “puzzling” does not stop when I leave the office to pick up my kids, or when I am on the playground or leave for the gym late in the evening. It is like a parallel side-show in your head to everything else what you are doing, and you constantly switch back and forth between off-work activities, like life, and your scientific “puzzling”. I believe it is like that because I am truly engaged with my science, not my work, and genuinely curious about the questions I study.


SS: What are your most promising findings in the field?

AMGK: My most promising findings in the field of violence research are, that it is possible to scale violence outside of the context of human behaviors, normative classifications, or justifications, purely based on its physical impact. People, if presented with several actual cases of violence, are able to intuitively ‘rank’ these cases merely on the basis of information about the physical aspect of the violence (e.g. the time the incident lasted, the injuries that occurred, the weapon or means used etc.). Their ‘rankings’ are frequently along the same line of though: how much suffering or pain did it cause? This indicates that it should be possible to design a universal “measure for violence” based purely on the “physics of violence”. Eventually, this might enable us to discover violence types and interrelationships that we have so far missed, because we have been preoccupied with normative classifications, motives, causes, justifications, vulnerabilities and a general outrage about violence.


SS: What motivates you to give a talk in Soapbox science?

AMGK: To show to the general public that what we are doing in science, even if basic research, has a potential impact on everyday life. To fascinate young people to consider a scientific career and to meet my peers in a casual environment. It is a great opportunity to promote my research and to popularize science. Of course, the Croatian Science Foundation, who is funding the “Violence Research Lab” in Croatia and the Max Planck Society that funds my Balkan Criminology research group will be very happy with the PR as well.


SS: Do you have a few words to inspire other female scientists? What can we do to attract more women to STEM fields?

AMGK: I would say go for it and never accept a “No”! I am the living example of fighting my way through very unfavorable research settings, firstly as a criminologist at a law faculty, but also as a young female scientist in a highly conservative academic setting, where back in 2013, when I was a “fresh” assistant professor, it was unheard of at my faculty (and even broader at my University) that someone on that level independently lead their own research group, let alone autonomously picked and employed their own research staff, or even disposed with their own research funds. It has been a constant struggle, and in many aspects still is, even as an associate professor, but it gets easier and in the long-run pays off. The whole challenge gets much more complex once you have kids, and here I believe is much space for improvements. In societies where it is still commonly accepted that the mum has the lead-role in child care and general housekeeping affairs, it is virtually impossible to keep up in the competition with our male peers. You “loose” not only the time(s) spent on maternity leaves, but with wanting to be a “good mum”, even if you are lucky like I was and find a temporary stay-at-home dad, always are torn between being a scientist and a mum. It would be much more attractive, not only for female scientists with kids, but for our male colleagues as well, if the scientific setting in general were a bit more family friendly. The MPI in Freiburg, where I currently am for an extended research stay of one year, is a good example, with reserved places in a nearby kinder garden. Good child care possibilities, flexible hours, or a financial support for babysitters and house-help are as important as strategically enhancing the share of female scientists in all fields of science and scientific management, esp. at top positions. Compared to 10 years ago, a lot has been accomplished with special scholarships for female scientists, trainings for women in science and raising awareness for the issue as such. But we are still far away form a scientific setting in which STEM fields are as attractive to women as they are to men.

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