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Angelika Feldmann

© Jutta Jung / DKFZ

Angelika Feldmann, Junior Group Leader of Junior Research Group Mechanisms of Genome Control, talks about her research at DKFZ, her career and women in science in general.

I #EmbraceEquity by promoting excellent female scientists because we need each brilliant mind in our society.

I am fascinated by the question of how one single cell can develop into many different cell types that ultimately form the organs and tissues of the human body. This is a complex process, which requires different genes to be switched on and off dependent on the cell type. Indeed, genes are regulated at multiple levels, which involve the DNA sequence itself, proteins that bind to DNA and at a higher level the way in which the genome is folded at any given time point, the so-called 3D genome structure. It is now evident that genome folding is an integral part of development and is often altered in diseases, such as in cancer. Understanding its underlying mechanisms is therefore essential if we want to understand what goes wrong when these processes are disrupted.
My lab studies the relationship between 3D genome structure and gene activation during cell differentiation and carcinogenesis. The key question that we are asking is: In what context does genome folding regulate genes and what are the molecular mechanisms? Using mouse embryonic stem cells and cancer cell lines, we investigate how the dynamics of genome folding is regulated and how this relates to switches between gene activation and inactivation.
For me, the most fascinating aspect of our research is the multitude of mechanisms that a cell uses to regulate genes. How are these mechanisms integrated to achieve correct development? How are they hijacked in disease? To answer these questions we need decades of thorough studies using multidisciplinary approaches and collaborations. The scientific environment of the DKFZ, with great diversity of groups and expertizes, is one of the reasons I consider it an ideal place for pursuing such long-term questions.

The planning for my faculty job applications was very intricate: I wanted to time them after the publication of my papers and around my second son's birth. In the end, all of these events happened within a month of each other and just a few weeks before the lockdown. That it all worked out makes me very grateful and I consider it my biggest success that I have received the opportunity to pursue my passion as a Junior Group Leader at the DKFZ.
Leading a group and setting up a lab proved a bigger challenge than I have expected. Not only was I suddenly having the equivalent of five different full-time jobs, but the responsibility for other people's careers is something that I do not take lightly. I am striving to provide a supportive, productive and stimulating environment to my lab, such as the one I experienced myself. Balancing different expectations and requirements has not always been easy. Now, after a little more than a year, it is amazing to see my lab coming up to speed and to observe how its members are growing as scientists.

I believe one big step towards making a scientific career more attractive for women is increasing their proportion in faculty jobs to a degree that it becomes natural to associate women with academic careers. While this has been partially achieved at the junior level, senior faculty is still mostly composed of males.

Two things are critical for increasing the proportion of women in more senior positions:

  1. We need to normalize and equalize not only maternity, but also paternity leave across all employment sectors. Only then will mothers be able to take maternity leave without a bigger disadvantage to their careers.
  2. At the present, scientists are expected to move approximately every 5 years until they obtain a tenured position. A typical CV would include moving away for your PhD, changing location for postdoc and then again for your first faculty job, followed by a final move to a potentially tenured position. These moves (especially the last two moves) are expected to occur during the prime family-building time in a situation where both partners often work full-time. It is equally relevant for male scientists, however their family-building time is not as constrained as it is for women, making these conditions especially detrimental for females. This mobility often means breaking off the roots of an entire family, finding two new jobs, new day care or school placements and a new supportive network for families. This often entails many compromises and many scientists, particularly young women, are not comfortable with uprooting an entire family, especially if their partners are happy and satisfied in their current situation. Often, this leads to compromises that are detrimental to careers and well-beings of young scientists and, moreover, are disruptive for their research. I hope that this requirement for mobility will be reconsidered in future.

It is difficult to determine the factors that contributed to my success, but among others I believe these are important: (i) I grew up with the idea that maths and sciences are extremely important and that I should strive to be excellent at them. Already as a child this gave me lots of confidence in my skills. I know that many young girls do not grow up this way. (ii) My mentors were across the board equally supportive towards their male and female staff. (iii) My partner is similarly driven in his career, we make long-term strategic plans and support each other in work and at home as much as we can. (iv) I was very fortunate to always have had access to excellent day care near my work, allowing me to maximize the hours spent in the lab while still having a quality relationship with my children.

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