Scientific work versus other occupations: Why did you choose science?
I got interested in chemistry during my early high school years when I build my own little laboratory in the basement of my parent’s home. There I mixed my first gunpowder, cooked up fruit esters and started crude chemical separations. This motivated me to take part in some science lab competitions where I started to love the creativity and fun to plan your own experiments. Later in my teenage years, I also got interested in genetics and biotechnology that finally convinced me not to study chemistry but biology, thinking that there are more open basic question to answer. At that time I was sure I would end up in microbiology or basic genetics. The brain seemed to me excessively complicated to understand. Sometimes I am still daunted by the amazing complexity of brains and I think that I was at least not totally mistaken at that time. But can there be anything more fascinating that that strange organ between your ears that makes you think, feel and dream.
What do you like about your work?
Few professions can give you as much intellectual freedom as science. I feel blessed to have a job that allows me to think independently and not worry about an immediate application. It is also a privilege to work on a daily basis with interested and smart younger people. They keep me on my toes and make me feel younger than I am. The common interest in the understanding of nature is a deep connection of scientists that transcendent cultures and nations. Science is a truly global enterprise and I enjoy being part of an international effort that brings me in contact and friendship with the most interesting people from all over the world.
Have you experienced dry periods or failure in your career? How did you overcome them?
There is probably no scientist that has not suffered through dry spells at several time in his/her career. Having to be original and be at the forefront is not always an easy task. Building frustration tolerance is an essential part of staying sane as a scientist. For me it is important to have satisfying social contacts and keep things in perspective by enjoying the arts, reading and sports.
Who has supported you the most in your professional environment? Who privately?
There are probably too many people to name. I feel to be part of a tightly knit group of scientist that helped me at various stages in my career, by both moral and scientific support, but also by all those recommendation letters that accrue during an academic career. My mentors and peers during my time in the US where probably the most formative influences that I still rely on.
Privately, my first scientific influence was my oldest brother who answered all my science questions and from whom I also inherited by first Erlenmeyer flasks.
Did you have role models who influenced your career? Who were they?
I do not have one particular role model, but strive to achieve some qualities that I see in some of my (sometimes famous) older peers.
How do you ensure your personal work-life balance?
It is probably inevitable that in science work is so much part of life that the concept of balancing these two does not really apply. Therefore, I find it impossible to distinguish between work and hobby, say when I read a book on data science. I try to do mostly fun things on the weekends, maybe some science reading but no writing of animal protocols. I also do a fair amount of sports and biking, and enjoy recreational reading, going to the movies and the opera.
What tips would you offer a young researcher who is considering an academic career?
I think it is important to be fascinated by the subject one wants to study and strive to do something original. I feel it to be important and most gratifying if one does something that is somewhat off the beaten path. A lot of stamina and will is also required, but one should never forget to also have fun and enjoy the work involved.