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#STEMStories: Dr Sofia, Scientist, Germany

#STEMStories: Dr Sofia, Scientist, Germany

1. Introduce yourself, who are you what do you do?

I’m Sofia. I head a small research team at the MDC in Berlin that use computational methods and high-throughput sequencing to understand health and disease, especially how interactions between human host and gut microbiota interact to affect this.

2. How did you arrive at this career (or point in your life/work)? Was it always something you knew you wanted to do?

I went through childhood dreams of being carpenter, engineer and inventor, teenage rebel dreams of being poet, philosopher, psychology researcher, architect or physicist. Then I decided the most important thing for me is to try to make it possible for us to live longer, so I went into biological sciences, but from an engineering/computational angle as that is what comes easiest to me. I basically followed (although not at great speed) the academic career track – MSc degrees, PhD, post-doc and now I am on something not entirely unlike a tenure track, hoping that if I achieve enough in the next few years I can obtain a professorship. The way that career path works was never fully made clear to me though.

3. What about your job makes you jump out of bed in the morning, especially on those cold, dark mornings?

The feel of achieving something complicated. Lately that is more often the pride that comes from seeing my students and team members find a clever solution to something which I never would have come up with myself.

4. What is your personal cure for stress or how do you raise your spirits in times of doubt? Can you share a Story?

I do want to get better at this. But I feel there is a virtuous cycle going. I look back at past accomplishments, and they help me push myself further to gain new accomplishments, and each time I have gotten more convinced that if I try, I can reach further. (Always at some cost, but still.) So focusing on either what has gone well in the past, or the steps needed to go further, as a way to try to not think of all that can go wrong or of my doubts, that has worked. Basically, putting myself down serves no purpose, if I have the time to do something, I should spend it constructively, whether I believe that actually will work or not I should act as if I believe it will. Fake it till you make it. It is not easy but it is like any skill, the more I use it, the easier it gets to access that mindstate again. That said I have not found the perfect solution yet, and I am exploring strategies in therapy for how I can try to live a less stressed life, or rather, be less vulnerable to the stress I inevitably will end up exposed to. I think the wisdom I will eventually have to learn, is how to decide which struggles are worth the effort, and which ones are not – strategic rather than tactical prioritization.

5. Who is your role model? If no one, any thoughts on this?

I have lots. One is my grandfather, from whom I learned by example to always be patient with anyone who has less power than I do in a given situation. One of my first memories are from his PhD defense, quite late in his life – his subject was teaching. There are also a number of scientific leaders I look to and draw strength from – Dannie Durand, Sabine Oertelt-Prigione, Siv Andersson, Karissa Sanbonmatsu, Anne Ephrussi, Olga Troyanskaya, many others. Other openly trans people, especially the Wachowski sisters and various science Twitter mutuals. Several past or present mentors I work with from whom I also learn practical strategies where I see myself emulating them involuntarily. Really, I collect role models all the time, and wish I could connect with each of them more!

6. What advice would you give to yourself if you could go back in time?

Well, in my case as someone who only realized quite late she was a transgender woman, I would probably tell my teenage self to look closer into that direction and not be afraid to take the step. More generally, as a scientist, I think perhaps addressing mental health/work-life-balance earlier, and learning to be more structured, more effective a prioritizing, and better at setting boundaries, might have been a good idea, though I still am not sure where to draw the limit there!

7. Top 3 tips for girls starting out in STEM?

  • Men in STEM exaggerate and oversell their knowledge and achievements and approaches, with every breath. Since you compete with them, it is wise to consciously listen for your modesty and do the exact opposite of what it suggests. When you feel out of your league, or lost, or that you do not know enough to request participation and recognition, that is patriarchy talking to you in the language of impostor syndrome. Do the opposite and, in many situations, be bolder than you think you get to be. Apply to everything. All technicalities count, always.
  • Collaborate! Whenever someone does something which can benefit from your help, offer it. Expect recognition (authorship) in return. The same goes in reverse – wherever you can benefit from what someone else can offer, ask for it, and similarly give recognition in return. Mutual wins give energy whereas conflicts just drain it. Take commitments seriously and ensure you deliver reliably. It will be remembered that you do, just as you will remember to ask again those who do.
  • Last, no-one gets to define who you are, but you. No-one gets to say that because you are one thing, you somehow have to be something else as well, or that there is something else that you cannot also be. Similarly, recognize for every sister that the same applies to her – each of us defines who we are, and there are no paradoxes. Support and lift up, never shame.

8. How do you measure your success?

Sadly enough, largely by formal milestones! Defending my PhD was the hardest thing I did so far. Getting to something tenure-track like was major. Each paper (and their bibliometric conglomerates as h-index or Highly Cited Researcher status, and taking into account things like authorship position and if they go into prestige journals) counts too, as does every student I take on and all of their achievements and the independence they grow into. Grants awarded. Responsibilities, recognition. But the measure I am hoping for beyond this is eventual security (so actual tenure) to start doing more risky stuff that might have real potential to change outcomes of health trajectories. When I can tell I helped someone on their path, that is success. Ultimately I hope to know success in the form of having changed what is possible within the world, both by medical discoveries and their eventual implementation, and by becoming a role model widening the norm for who gets to be recognized as a scientist.

9. Where can we find out more about your work?

Our lab webpage is here: which includes my published work. Another in-depth interview here: has more detail on my goals.

10. Are you social? Will you share your Twitter handle, or LinkedIn profile, or Facebook so that young women can connect with you?

Fairly inactive lab twitter: @forslund_lab;

Fairly active mix-of-personal-and-professional twitter: @inanna_nalytica