Interview: Dr. Andrea Grafmueller
Andrea is a group leader at the Max Planck Institute of Colloids and Interfaces in Potsdam. Her group works on multiscale simulations of biological and biomimetic molecules. Currently, they are particularly interested in the development of reliable models of biological carbohydrates. The diverse and complex functions of these molecules for cell biology are only just beginning to emerge and open up a multitude of questions related to their molecular interactions and structure-function relationships.
1. What inspired you to pursue a career in physics?
I have been interested in natural sciences ever since I was a kid, and physics held the most fascination for me. In high school, I had a great physics teacher who invested a lot of effort in designing creative experiments to make the different topics more ‘touchable’. Therefore after graduating School, I set out to study Physics with visions of myself discovering the great secrets of the universe.
2. How did you get to where you are in your career path?
Besides science I was always interested in languages and traveling, so after graduating from school, I went on to study physics at the University of London, with an Erasmus exchange year in Paris. During the final years of my Master’s Degree I discovered the field of Biophysics and the many possibilities for application of statistical physics to Biological systems. After completing my Master, I returned to Germany to start my PhD on the subject of membrane biophysics and computer simulations at the Max Planck Institute of Colloids and Interfaces in Potsdam. After completion of my PhD I moved to the USA as a postdoc, first to Salt Lake City and then to Chicago, as the group that I had joined moved there during that time, giving me the chance of experiencing these two completely opposite places. After two years in the states, I moved back to Potsdam, as a postdoc and later group leader at the Max Planck Institute of Colloids and Interfaces.
3. What is the coolest project you have worked on and why?
At the moment, I think that our carbohydrate projects are really cool, especially as this is still such an open field, with things to explore in all directions. These molecules play very diverse and complex roles in cell biology and for natural materials, which are only just beginning to emerge and open up a multitude of questions related to their molecular interactions and structure-function relationships. From a modelling point of view, there were so many things that did not work to begin with, but we have solved a lot of them – and now have many more ideas of things to try. So right now this is a very wide playing field, which is very exciting.
4. What’s a time you felt immense pride in yourself / your work?
One recent moment that I has made me feel proud of myself, was caused by really a quite insignificant event: A female postdoc told me, in passing, that I was an inspiration to her, for showing how it is possible to manage both a family and a scientific career.
5. What is a “day in the life” of Andrea like?
A typical day for me starts with getting my kids and myself ready, followed by COFFEE (“there is no life before coffee”) for the adults and a snack for the kids. Though this is typically only 10-20 minutes, I value these moments because in a normal work day this it is often the only time that we are all together as a family. I drop the kids at the Kita (daycare) around 7.30 and get to work. Being a theoretical physicist, a lot of my day is spent in front of the computer – recently, unfortunately more often dealing with emails manuscripts and proposals than with any “real” scientific work – or talking to students and collaborators. So I have come to much enjoy the days when I have time to actually do some programming myself. Three days a week I pick up the kids at 3.30 pm and we go home or to the playground visit friends etc. On the other days I have lunch with my colleagues then continue to work until “bedtime”. After stories and lullabies I try to go for a run or some form of exercise and spend some time with my husband or work a little longer when there are urgent things to do.
6. What are you seeking to accomplish in your career?
From a research point of view, I want to contribute more to the understanding of the complex roles of carbohydrates and the modelling possibilities to achieve this. To continue along that line, I am pursuing some sort of “career” in academia, which will allow me to continue with my research, but not at all costs – so it remains to be seen for how long.
7. What do you like to do when you’re not doing research?
I spent time with my kids – doing craft projects, gardening or excursions - and I enjoy sports – I play soccer and love swimming.
8. What advice do you have for other women interested in physics?
If that is what fascinates you go for it. There are many opportunities for physicists, both inside and out of academia.
10. What should be done to increase the number of women in physics?
I belief that the most important points would be to introduce the possibility of more stable positions earlier on in the scientific career, and improve the possibilities of dual careers. In the current system, permanent positions are not often reached before the age of 40 – which can be very intimidating, if you would also like to have a family – and the chances of solving the two body problem are often small.
Foto-Rechte: (1) Andrea Grafmueller, (2) Andrea Grafmueller (on the soccer field)