SS: Why did you choose a scientific career?
MS: I have always been drawn towards science. I made my first plant taxonomy book with my Grandma when I was 4. My parents got me a real microscope (not just one of the pocket ones) when I was 10. Just for fun I would observe plants or pond water samples. My family always supported and promoted my curiosity, and so it was just natural to pursue a degree and then a career in scientific research.
SS: How did you get your current position?
MS: I did my postdoc at the Max Planck for Biochemistry in Martinsried, Germany. I established connections with the university and when I started to apply for positions, I also sought out a group at the LMU that could host me for an Emmy Nother application (start-up funding from the DFG). I also had an offer in Sweden, and the chair of my department, Andreas Ladurner, made me a competing offer to keep me in Munich. I ended-up accepting that offer to be an independent group leader.
SS: What do you do in your everyday work life?
MS: A lot of my day is spent on the computer, either writing grants, writing papers, reviewing papers, correcting presentations and documents written by my students, researching or keeping-up with the literature. I also spend a lot of time mentoring my students in lab, demonstrating techniques, going through their data or planning the next steps in their projects. Finally, I teach Biochemistry I to medical students in the summer.
SS: What is the most exciting aspect of your research?
MS: I love discovering new things and solving puzzles. I my research we use genetics to try to understand how muscles are built and what goes wrong in muscle diseases. To use an analogy, it is the equivalent of first identifying the pieces in a computer and then figuring out how to put them together and how they interact with each other to make the computer work. We have one gene in lab we work on that we recently discovered plays a role in neurons as well as in muscles. No one knew this before, and now we have many new questions to answer, like does the gene have the same job in muscles and neurons, or does it have different jobs in those two cell types?
SS: What challenges do you encounter in science?
MS: I feel I work with two main challenges. The first is finding funding. Much of the financial support in Europe is linked to a timeline, and if you come from a different system (I’m originally from the USA) or if you get unlucky and your project takes a year or two longer than planned, it can make you ineligible. You also have to learn how to spin your proposal to match the interests of the reviewers to get funded, which can be tricky.
Second, I find it a challenge to focus on a single topic and simplify my research questions. I am interested in many different things and many different questions, but we don’t have the time or the personnel or financial resources to investigate everything.
SS: What are your most promising findings in the field?
I just published a huge paper that is the culmination of 8 years of work. It is a resource paper looking at every gene expressed in a muscle cell at 8 different points in development and tracking how different groups of genes change their expression. We discovered a large change in gene expression in the middle of muscle development, much to our surprise, that lead us to a deeper understanding of how muscle fibers mature and achieve their specific contractile characteristics.
SS: What motivates you to give a talk in Soapbox science?
MS: I really love what I do, and I like the chance to share our findings with the public. I do basic research, and many people do not understand what that is or why it is important. I hope that talking in Soapbox science might allow me to reach more people to convince them that science is worth the investment, and to help them better understand the biomedical research and development process.
SS: Do you have a few words to inspire other female scientists? What can we do to attract more women to STEM fields?
MS: I find research a rewarding and fulfilling career. In my field it isn’t so much attracting women, as retaining women that is the problem. Work-life balance is difficult when you have a demanding career and children, but not impossible. The biggest thing is you have to believe in yourself, trust your own instincts and realize that you don’t have to do everything. At the same time, you need to be willing to dig-in, stick-it-out and compete with the boys when necessary. From my perspective, to help women you need to provide daycare that actually matches working hours and give support options to allow women to travel to conferences and attend evening events. Being flexible without lowering expectations and removing time limits or adding exceptions without penalizing women who use them would also help.