Between 2002 and 2006, Andrea Hutterer was a PhD student at Jürgen Knoblich's lab. Now a platform coordinator at the Institute Curie, she recalls an intense, but highly productive academic environment at the IMP.
I was at the IMP and IMBA from 2000–2006, working in the lab of Jürgen Knoblich, first as a diploma student and then doing a PhD. Looking back, those years were an exciting and fun time in my life and I have mostly positive memories of my time there.
I was born in Lower Austria, not too far from Vienna. Despite attempts by my father to get me interested in the fine arts I was more inclined towards the natural sciences. So I decided to attend a school with a strong focus on chemistry, biology and physics. I really enjoyed chemistry and it was therefore a natural choice to continue studying this subject at the University of Vienna. There, I soon realised that theoretical and physical chemistry were not my thing but rather biochemistry.
Towards the end of my studies, I had to do several rotations - "Wahlbeispiele" - in life sciences labs, and a friend recommended the lab of Jürgen Knoblich. There, I got really interested in the topic of asymmetric cell division, so I was keen to stay on to do my diploma work.
Luckily, Jürgen accepted me. Because I really liked my project and the scientific environment at the IMP, I applied to the Vienna Biocenter PhD programme and got accepted. I also interviewed for other PhD programmes, but, in the end, decided that I would have the best opportunities continuing in Jürgen’s lab at the IMP. This decision proved to be a good one, as having completed my diploma there gave me a massive head start into my PhD. I was fortunate enough to work on several, rather diverse projects ranging from epithelial polarity to cell cycle control which resulted in decent publications.
Life as a PhD student at the IMP was intense - many of us worked very hard. I have fond memories of late night discussions and fun conversations with colleagues, either in the staircase or at the Old Oak. Back then, smoking was still allowed - being a smoker meant you were part of a social circle that connected people from different labs and floors. It was also an advantage to be a ‘smoking buddy’ of Peter Steinlein when doing a lot of imaging.
Many of my colleagues from back then are still very close friends. I have countless positive memories of those six years, but also a terribly sad one: A very dear friend and colleague, Kirsten, to whose memory the annual Kirsten-Peter Rabitsch award is dedicated, tragically died during that time.
Throughout my PhD, there were times when I was not completely convinced of my pursuit of a career in academia. At first, I did not take this too seriously because most of my colleagues had similar doubts and, in principle, I did enjoy my work and was relatively successful. So I decided to go to the Gurdon Institute in Cambridge, UK to do a postdoc on a different subject and in a new environment. Well, it wasn't completely different since I joined the lab of Masanori Mishima, who is himself an IMP alumnus, to work on cytokinesis. I managed to get funding from EMBO and HFSP for a total of 4 years and had a great time. The scientific environment and culture in Cambridge are incomparable.
Changing country has had a huge positive impact on my personal and professional development and not for once did I regret this decision. However, around the third year into my postdoc, I started to seriously think about my professional future and the next career move. I had to decide whether to apply for independent group leader positions, extend my postdoc or leave research altogether. Once I started to weigh up all the pros and cons it became very apparent to me that staying in academic research would not be the best choice.
My scientific CV was strong and I believe I could have secured a PI position. For me, however, the problem was that I was not sufficiently fascinated by one particular biological problem - I was simply lacking the passion, which I believe you really need in order to succeed and have fun in science.
After considering several career options, I decided to move into science management. That way, I would still use my scientific background and keep abreast of scientific progress and emerging fields, and also be in direct contact with scientists. The first job after my postdoc was with the Medical Research Council, MRC, one of the biggest funders of biomedical research in the UK. My post was based in the head-office in Swindon, a town famous for its magic roundabout, consisting of five mini-roundabouts, and voted one of the scariest junctions in all of Britain. As that was the only interesting thing about Swindon, I decided to move to the beautiful city of Bath and commute.
I was well over-qualified for this position as it did not even require a PhD degree but it was a ‘foot in the door’ job, and I learned a lot during my time there. My plan was to stay in the UK and climb the career ladder either at MRC or one of the many other funders and learned societies. By pure chance however, I stumbled across the job-ad for manager of the EMBO Fellowship Programme before my probation time was even over. Being a former EMBO fellow, I had a good idea of what the job would entail and realised that this was a great opportunity.
I applied, got offered the job and relocated to Heidelberg in May 2011. I very much enjoy my role at EMBO. Together with a team of administrators, I look after the general administration of EMBO fellowships, i.e. I read proposals, find referees, and so on. I also travel frequently to career events at institutes or conferences and attend workshops, which cover different aspects of the program, such as researchers' employment conditions or tracking researchers' careers.
Since I am in charge of the entire program, it is down to me to try to improve it and write grant proposals to try to get more money. This is both very motivating and challenging at the same time! My other enjoyable duty is to organise and attend the EMBO Fellows’ meetings in Heidelberg and the US. So it’s a very diverse job and I am rarely bored!
The experience I gained at IMP and IMBA from being exposed to high-level science from many diverse areas is invaluable and prepared me well for my current position.
By Andrea Hutterer, first published in 2012
Alumni Stories: quick links
Angelika Amon - Jörg Betschinger - Sarah Bowman - Rafal Ciosk - Greg Emery - Silke Hauf - Christian Häring - Konrad Hochedlinger - Andrea Hutterer - Claudine Kraft - Christoph Lengauer - Marieke von Lindern - Mark Petronczki - Walter Schmidt - Camilla Sjögren - Andrew Straw - Giulio Superti-Furga - Frank Uhlmann - Hartmut Vodermaier