Max-Planck-Institut für empirische Ästhetik, ArtLab Foyer
Growing up in Academia with Christiane Nüsslein-Volhard
What is it to be a scientist or scholar? Growing Up in Academia is a conversation series with academics at different levels of their career focusing on the sometimes short, sometimes long and winding roads behind the “official CV”.
At each event, we will have an open conversation (interview) with one faculty member representing science in its broad spectrum. We will cover topics such as dealing with expectations (your own and others’), the role of luck/coincidence in scientific discovery, impostor syndrome, procrastination, and conflicts with advisors. Join us for a conversation about the human factors that are universal undercurrents of working in academia but that too often remain unspoken.
On Monday, May 13th, Growing Up in Academia features nobel laureate Prof. Dr. Christiane Nüsslein-Volhard
Christiane's Official CV
Study of Biology, Chemistry, Physics in Frankfurt/M, Diploma in Biochemistry, University of Tübingen, 1969. PhD (Genetics) Tübingen, 1973. From 1985 until 2014 Christiane Nüsslein-Volhard was a director at the Max Planck Institute of Developmental Biology at Tübingen.
For the discovery of genes that control development in animals and humans, and the demonstration of morphogen gradients in the fly embryo she received a number of awards and honours, among others in 1995 the Nobel Prize for Medicine or Physiology together with Eric Wieschaus and Edward Lewis.
To support women with children in science she founded the Christiane-Nüsslein-Volhard-Stiftung in 2004.
Presently she is leading an emeritus research group at the Max Planck Institute of Developmental Biology at Tübingen, focusing on the formation of the colour patterns of fishes.
Christiane's Unofficial CV
I grew up as second of four girls and one boy in a liberal non-academic architect family. We were not spoiled, and enjoyed a traditional Family style, in a rich and stimulating protected environment (music, arts, all kinds of handicrafts, classical girl’s education). My parents, who both have been good musicians and artists, left us much freedom. I had an early passion for plants and animals, and within my family was the only one with interests in sciences. I attended an all-girls school with excellent teachers, enjoyed school but hated to do homework and therefore got quite bad grades at the end, although my teachers acknowledged a critical and qualified judgement, and the talent for independent scientific work. My adorable father has been very supportive of my scientific interests (including history, mathematics and philosophy), he died when I finished high school at the age of 19. With my high school training, studying biology at the university in Frankfurt was boring, and after a short excursion into physics and physical chemistry I went to Tübingen to study Biochemistry which did not interest me much, but provided a solid background in science. I did my Diploma and Thesis in molecular biology with Heinz Schaller, an experienced Biochemist, at the MPI for Virus Research. The institute at the time was an exciting place, with Friedrich Bonhoeffer working on the genetics of DNA replication, and Alfred Gierer who had started to work on the developmental biology of Hydra. After intense library studies and discussions with the Hydra group I made up my mind to work on Drosophila with the aim to identify genes encoding morphogens, factors controlling the informational content of an egg cell. I went as a postdoc with an EMBO fellowship to the lab of Walter Gehring at the Biozentrum in Basel, at the time a very famous place.
In the lab in Basel there was an international collection of postdocs and an exciting lab atmosphere. I was thrilled by the new almost unexplored field of developmental genetics of Drosophila, a wonderful experience. But it was hard as well, because to be a beginner after having been on top of things in the old field was sometimes difficult. At the end of 3 postdoc years it was difficult to get an independent position, despite very promising projects, as I did not get much credit for previous work.
Fortunately, it turned out that someone needed a fly group at the EMBL to serve his own purposes. So they appointed me, together with Eric Wieschaus (who I knew from Walter Gehring’s lab in Basel). We had a very small lab together, and shared a technician. Although a lean set up, it turned out to be big luck. We worked more like independent postdocs rather than group leaders, had no other obligations, no students, no group. “Work” was fun, devotion, passion. Initially we each had own projects but soon focused on the big "Heidelberg screen" as a joint project, which (later) turned out a great success (well, it gained us a noble prize). But it did not gain us much recognition at the EMBL, the Drosophila field was new and people were yet unable to appreciate the novelty of our discoveries. There was not much support by the Director of the EMBL who was really glad when we left after three years.
After six years I was back in Tübingen: first as junior group leader at the FML, then, in 1985 as director at my old MPI for Virus research which had been renamed as MPI for Developmental Biology. The institute was by far not as inspiring as when I had been a graduate student, and there was little interaction with the other departments. Probably it would have been better had I stayed longer at the EMBL. But (although my set up initially was leaner than usual) the working conditions at a Max Planck Institute are very good, with no teaching and no grant writing, and I love Tübingen. Further, we had a large number of independent junior research groups which complemented the research done in the departments. And from the start of my own group I had excellent students and postdocs, later also project leaders, many of which came from abroad and most of which later followed up a successful academic career. Usually postdocs chose their own topics, and graduate students was given a choice between several projects. The lab organization was largely done by graduate students and technicians, because I unfortunately failed several times to engage a trustworthy lab manager. I had my own lab bench until my other duties (which involved much travelling) made it impossible to have enough uninterrupted time to do a successful experiment.
In 1988 we discovered the first morphogen gradient which earned me much international recognition before the Nobel in 1995 (actually, quite disruptive and a burden because it made my (male) colleagues, who were about 10 years older quite envious and life difficult). I had started to think about vertebrate development already before our big success in the fly field and chose to establish zebrafish as a vertebrate model organism. We invented much new fish technology, built a Fischhaus and started a new big challenge. With a group of 12 students and postdocs we managed to identify and characterize almost 400 new genes affecting embryonic development in Zebrafish.
I was asked quite early to serve at committees, organize meetings, panels, laboratory courses. I was managing director of our institute for some time, recruiting 3 new directors, planning a new building. I served on the National ethics council, the ERC scientific council, and as Secretary General of EMBO. These tasks have been sometimes rewarding although they took much time and energy, and my own research suffered. But I regarded them as my duty. Now I have no such obligations anymore, but still run a small research group.
My biggest mistakes have been to help founding a company which existed at our campus site for five years, an alien world of business which made me many enemies and was no fun, and writing a cook book, because it took too much time, but this was fun, it is perhaps my most successful publication. Now I enjoy having more time for my non-scientific interests such as music, history, gardening and reading.