Growing Up in Academia with Daniela Sammler
What is it to be a scientist? How does one become a scientist? 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”.
Each event features an open conversation (interview) with a different faculty member, representing the broad spectrum of academic life. 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 universally inform the profession, but that too often remain unspoken. These events will be hosted and presented by Lucia Melloni (Max Planck Institute for Empirical Aesthetics).
On Monday, May 10, 2021, Growing Up in Academia features Daniela Sammler, Research Group Leader Neurocognition of Music and Language at our Institute (MPI for Empirical Aesthetics).
The online application for this event is Zoom Webinar. You can register for the event by using this link.
The Official CV
Dr. habil. Daniela Sammler is Head of the newly founded Neurocognition of Music and Language research group at the Max Planck Institute for Empirical Aesthetics. After studying psychology at the University of Leipzig and the Université Louis Pasteur in Strasbourg, Dr. Sammler completed her PhD—summa cum laude—on the neural similarities of music and language at the Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences in Leipzig. Following the doctorate, she advanced her interdisciplinary research during post-doctoral residencies at the University of Lille, the Pitié-Salpêtrière Hospital in Paris, the University of Glasgow, and Western Sydney University. In 2010, Sammler was awarded the Otto Hahn Medal for outstanding scientific achievement by the Max Planck Society, as well as the prestigious Otto Hahn Award, which allowed her to establish her own independent research group, Neural Bases of Intonation in Speech and Music, at the MPI for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences in Leipzig. In 2018, she successfully completed her habilitation at the University of Leipzig with a thesis that describes the interplay between language and music at various cognitive levels, from the perception of simple harmonic and speech-melodic relations to complex social interactions via their linkage during speaking and singing. Daniela Sammler’s research has been published in high-impact journals such as Current Biology and Brain and has been cited around 2000 times (according to Web of Science); her work has also received substantial media coverage both in Germany and internationally.
The Unofficial CV
Daniela Sammler grew up in Meerane, a small town on the border of Saxony and Thuringia known for its proud history of textile mills (with their world-famous export, the Meeraner tartan), its car industry, and its 13%-grade “Steep Wall” loved and feared by all professional cyclists. Her mother was a teacher and her father a foreman in the car industry. From early on, they instilled in their daughter a great interest in books (Sammler soon knew the shelves in her local library by heart), as well as a deep curiosity and a practical sense for solving problems. It was probably no surprise that she was a bit of a Hermione Granger in her school. By age nine, she had discovered, in addition to mathematics and singing, a new passion: foreign languages. Whether in English, Italian, or especially French, she would try out her skills on any of the rare native speakers she was able to spot in her hometown.
After finishing school, Sammler might have chosen any number of professions—architect, mathematics teacher, physician—but she imagined herself most vividly as a simultaneous interpreter in Brussels. It is not fully clear why she chose in the end to study psychology, but just before taking the admissions test for the program in French–German simultaneous interpreting, she realized that just repeating what others had said wouldn’t be much of an intellectual challenge. While this may not necessarily be true, the decision turned out to be a good one because it brought her to Leipzig, the cradle of experimental psychology, and—eventually—to many unforeseen opportunities.
But before she finally discovered her career path, Sammler learned how to combine psychology and French thanks to a brand-new program, today known as ERASMUS, in which she secured one of only two psychology places offered at that time in France—in Strasbourg. Although not far enough past the German border for her taste, this move turned out to be yet another stroke of good fortune. A new professor had just started in the department, teaching a most “exotic” specialization: neuropsychology. Her courses were tough! But they were exciting, enriched as they were by real case studies and the hands-on development of new diagnostic tools. As a result, Sammler’s career path soon became crystal clear: She would become a cognitive neuropsychologist.
And on one ordinary Saturday in July 2000, shortly after returning from France to Leipzig, she finally set sail on this course: A bunch of cream-colored tents scattered on the main university campus attracted her attention; one of them had a sign: “Max Planck Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience.” She had heard about this institute before and so she entered the tent, not yet knowing that the step she was taking would be life-changing; for inside she was to meet Dr. Stefan Koelsch. She asked him for an internship, which she started on 1 October 2000 in his new Neurocognition of Music research group. Eventually she turned this into a student assistantship, earned her degree in Psychology, and in 2008 completed her doctoral degree in the field. Nobody, least of all Sammler herself, could have imagined on that July day that her future doctoral thesis would win a medal and—more than that—an award that would provide not only another seven years of funding for her own research but for her own independent research group!
Did she have a secret recipe for success, apart from being in the right place at the right time? It certainly was not any particular brilliance or world-changing discovery. But perhaps the vibrant scientific life at the Institute, the trust her supervisors put in her, and the long evenings and weekends in the lab formed the perfect combination of freedom, inspiration, and effort, and this in turn taught her to take responsibility for her own actions, to maintain her focus, and to grow with her tasks. It was not a matter of structured curricula or detailed instructions, but of using one’s common sense; of attentively observing the ways one’s scientific heroes act, think, work, and write; and of trying to model oneself after them.
Before launching her research group, the newly minted Dr. Sammler felt she needed more independence, and as she also wanted to see more of the world, she decided to work for a year in Lille/Paris (this time a bit more solidly inside France), and later used the Otto Hahn award money to spend two years in Glasgow (in a lab run by a French PI, as it turned out). Nothing can replace the experiences she had during these years of meeting new role-models, establishing new skills, and building new professional networks and deep friendships (that still hold). And nothing can replace the experience of building one’s own research group from the ground up; of bringing together so many like-minded, talented, and enthusiastic people; of popping champagne corks with them for each new paper or successful defence; and of kindling the priceless feeling of cooperation, of “this is us.” Sammler’s responsibilities and workload changed entirely with her new role as research group leader: She had to keep track of thousands of projects (sometimes not remembering what was discussed in the last meeting); to give feedback on matters that were often completely new to her; to find ways to responsibly secure funding for students; or simply to provide emotional support to her team. The biggest challenge, however, was the battle for a faculty position, as this requires not only the endurance and hard work we’re all used to, but also faith, strong mentors, a functioning professional network, good timing, and a little luck...
This is how Daniela Sammler arrived at the Max Planck Institute for Empirical Aesthetics in Frankfurt, exactly 20 years after embarking on a simple internship in Leipzig... Today, she looks forward to working with a new generation of engaged and energetic scientists from around the world, to discovering with them the mysteries of the musical brain, and to helping them do everything they can to meet and surpass their own goals.
On a final note: Sammler has of course noticed that Frankfurt is only a two-hour train ride away from Strasbourg—where out of her passion for French she first made the leap to neuroscience...