Institute News

"Female scientists should trust themselves, to have faith that they will make it" - Interview with Dr. Bettina Schnell

Since September 2017 Dr. Bettina Schnell leads the research group "Neurobiology of Flight Control" at caesar. We interviewed her to mark the International Day of Women and Girls in Science, occurring annually on Februar 11.

Who are you and what is your job?

Schnell My name is Bettina Schnell. I lead one of the research groups at research center caesar and investigate how the brain of the fruit fly controls flight behavior.

How do you perceive the current situation of women in science?

Schnell There is no simple response to that. Well, I think that there has been a lot of improvement in regards to the position of women. There are already so many options to combine a career and a family with each other. The numerous examples for successful women in science are proving that. But there is still the issue, or rather the fact, that the percentage of women on the level of professors or Max Planck directors is relatively low. At some point, women just decide against a scientific career. The higher you climb up the corporate ladder, the lower the female percentage will be.

Why do you think this is?

Schnell At a certain point you have to prove yourself against the competition and this happens exactly at the moment when most women are about to start their own family. I think, a lot more has to be done here. To relieve women of that pressure, career paths should be more flexible. For example, it should be possible to take a break from the career to be a full-time parent at home and then resume work without limitations. It should be possible to loosen up the career path.

You are a single mother yourself. How do you arrange your career with your child?

Schnell I receive lots of support from my parents. They care for my daughter when business trips or important appointments are coming up. You just have to focus on the momentary priorities. In other words, at work on your career and at home on your children with your undivided attention. I have to add that I experience this as something generally rewarding. I would not want to miss any of it. Neither my career, nor the absolutely fascinating time with my daughter.

How do you explain that there are many female biology students but only few female research group leaders?

Schnell I think that this is not only due to starting a family, but is also caused by the competition. A lot of young women doubt themselves or the career itself and tend to choose a safer, more promising path.

What could be done to enable more female group leaders?

Schnell We have to provide women with clearer perspectives. Also, the childcare needs to be expanded, for example at conferences. It should be possible to loosen up the career path to relieve women of the pressure to return to the lab right after giving birth. Maybe women could even help themselves by supporting each other for example in mentoring groups. To be able to follow the example of a role model helps a lot.

Looking back, would you have done anything differently?

Schnell I think I would have taken advantage of additional advanced training or education opportunities more often. I was always very focused on my career. But I would have liked to have participated in more courses, which are definitely available, to have a broader set of abilities.

What would you tell young scientists aspiring to follow your example?

Schnell I would advise them to trust themselves, to have faith that they will make it. And to not be bothered by external influences. They should follow their own path and never be discouraged by others. There is a lot of pressure to behave like a flawless scientist. And it is still commonly expected to resume work right after giving birth. But everyone has the right to decide that for themselves. You are not less of a scientist just because you needed time for your family.

Interview by Alina Gebauer, Press & Outreach Dpt.