Andrew Straw left the IMP in early 2016, when he became professor at the University of Freiburg. We talked to him about his experience at the IMP.
How would you describe the “essence” of the IMP?
The IMP provides an environment where junior group leaders can launch their labs surrounded by scientists at a similar career stage - this is very different from what a university could offer. Also, the fact that IMP does not offer tenure means that this competition is gone. In the sense that the juniors are often working with each other, rather than against each other, the IMP is different in a good way from other places where there is competition between juniors for a limited number of more permanent positions.
In an interview with Nature Methods, you recommended young scientists to take a “long view” on their career with regard to establishing themselves as group leaders. Can you tell us a bit more why post-docs should not rush into group leader positions?
Starting your own lab comes with certain pressures. You need to be able to sustain your lab intellectually when you still have to set up things experimentally. You need time and ideas and data for talks or grant proposals, but it may take years to finally get to a position where you can publish a complete scientific story. The beginning of a scientific career as a group leader is a pretty harsh reality in which the institution can only do limited amounts to help. You suddenly have additional, very substantial responsibilities compared to the postdoc you were before. And it is getting harder – funding is more difficult to secure than in previous years.
Americans pursuing academic careers in Europe is rather unusual, the opposite route is more common. What would be reasons for American scientists to consider IMP?
When I started at the IMP, that may have been true, and working at the IMP was the perfect entry point into the German or Austrian academic world for me. I didn’t need to speak the language, because the IMP’s working language is English and yet I had opportunities to learn German. My wife being German was the first reason for considering a German-speaking country – then the work of Barry Dickson and the standard of his research drew me to the IMP. Today, however, considering Brexit and Trump, I would argue that German and Austrian academic institutes of all sorts should optimistically cast a wider recruitment net because many international scientists will be looking to pursue their careers in continental Europe.
Did you benefit from the Vienna BioCenter beyond the IMP?
Oh, absolutely. Apart from the intellectual and social exchanges, I continue to collaborate closely with Kristin Teßmar-Raible [a group leader at MFPL].
Your appointment at the end of your IMP assignment has been highlighted by other IMP scientists as a major achievement. Did you feel the encouragement from your former peers?
All young group leaders will recognize that professorships are extremely limited in any given field – suitable opportunities arise only a few times per year world-wide and then competition is tough. So yes, all IMP Group Leaders were thrilled when I got this position.
About Andrew Straw
Andrew Straw studies neural circuits as the basis of visual behaviors such as navigation in the fruit fly Drosophila melanogaster. Following undergraduate studies and PhD in the US and Australia, Andrew became a post-doctoral researcher at the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) before joining the IMP as a fellow in 2010.
First published in 2017.
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