Every month we ask one individual in our network a few questions about their way into tech, their motivation and their lessons learned.
Let’s start from the beginning. Tell us about where you’re from – let us know different perspectives: geography, academic or professional background and industry and how you made it to your current position.
I grew up in a tiny village close to Ulm in South Germany. I guess one would have described me as quite a curious kid, probably some as a little nerd ;), as I was reading a lot and emptied the shelves in the little library in our village — I loved to to learn and go to school.
During high school, I skipped a year and ended up taking more classes than could be credited in my final transcript. I actually struggled a bit to decide what to study because of my fairly broad interest, although a particular passion and excitement for maths and physics, my two majors, has been always dominating.
As a little child I also loved to experiment and I rather built cars for my dolls out of materials and tools I found than brushing their hair. In the end I decided to study Industrial Engineering at the Karlsruhe Institute of Technology as the program promised to cover a wide range of subjects, from mechanical and electrical engineering over materials science to computer science and economics. I remember well my first lecture in “Microsystems-and Nanotechnology” as part of my engineering block that completely captured my attention. It is an entirely new world that opens up at the nanoscale with plenty of space to explore and come up with fundamentally new concepts.
Concretely, engineering at that scale require us to rethink principles and designs as the we encounter phenomena different from the macroworld. I was fascinated and decided to major in that subject alongside with materials sciences and physics. I was particularly interested in designing systems as new tools in medicine, exactly what I am doing today. However, I honestly never imagined back then to become one day a professor in that field or even to get a PhD.
As a female engeinering student in a male dominated cohort I often encountered bias and doubt — I was even once asked whether I had cheated in an exam as it seemed unlikely for a woman to excel in it at highest level. In the end such encounters only made me want to fight more and proof them all wrong. And I had the luck to be encouraged by many brilliant mentors along my path that helped me in the end to believe in myself that I could and should keep on staying in research and academia. I will never forget how one professor in Microsystems Technology asked me after an oral exam whether I’d know already what to do with my talent in that field. I was puzzled, not having had ever thought about being particular talented in that field before. He supported me in finding project in Japan at Kyoto univserity where I researched on a novel nano material.
This brought me in the end to ETH Zurich where a project was offered on integrating this material for tiny high performance gas sensors. It was the start of my PhD in nanorobotics. I further focused on magnetic micro-manipulation and how to move and assemble such tiny building blocks at the micro-and nano scale, and later how to potentially control them in the body as medical nanorobot. This work an interest brought me to MIT asa postdoc were I researched for 3 years on diagnostic and therapeutic devices at the nanoscale for oncology.
What valuable advice did you get from your parents?
Mmh, I grew up basically with my mum and grandparents and I don’t have a particular advice in my mind to be honest. I learnt a lot from my grandmother and she valued honesty and humbleness, which definitely has impacted me.
How did you become interested in tech?
I started my studies at the English Seminar because I find the complexity That is good question! I honestly have no idea and neither does my family. As mentioned earlier, I just found it more exciting to build cars for my dolls and found my way to make this happen. Later during my studies, I became fascinated by the idea to build something completely new, potentially invent something that could change how we do certain things.
What aspects of your work are you proudest of?
I love the fact that the tools we built could be used one day in a clinical routine and improve how we diagnose or treat a patient, ultimately yielding in better medical outcomes. The importance and relevance of it makes my team and me push really hard at work.
What was your biggest disappointment (challenge) in your career and how did you overcome it?
I guess that time during my undergrad when I was so young and confronted with lots of doubts and bias against women in engineering and I needed to hang in there and continue to push. Luckily my passion and drive for it was always stronger and as mentioned earlier, I was fortunate to have mentors and role models on the way who encouraged me. That being said, I see it as a particular task to ensure I step in as mentor wherever I can to help foster talented students.
How does digitization impact your and other women’s career opportunities?
Greatly, as it gives us more flexibility and as a silvering of the pandemic, we got lots of opportunity to proof it! For me, as an expecting mum running a lab and teaching, this means I can work partly remote, save time and be more efficient, while making more time for my family.
What advice would you give other women in tech?
Follow your passion and look inward rather than outward. Don’t compare yourself, just be yoursel — and be proud!