"It’s a team effort from day one!"

Interview with Asifa Akhtar, the new Vice President of the Biology and Medicine Section of the Max Planck Society

July 09, 2020

​​​​​​​​​Asifa Akhtar is the first international female Vice President of the Biology and Medicine Section in the Max Planck Society. Born in Karachi, Pakistan, she obtained her doctorate at the Imperial Cancer Research Fund in London, UK in 1997. She then moved to Germany, where she was a Postdoctoral fellow at the European Molecular Biology Laboratory (EMBL) in Heidelberg and the Adolf-Butenandt-Institute in Munich from 1998 to 2001. She rejoined the EMBL Heidelberg as a group leader before becoming a Max Planck Investigator at the MPI in Freiburg in 2009. Since 2013, she has been a director at the MPI for Immunobiology and Epigenetics in Freiburg. Asifa Akhtar was awarded the Early Career European Life Science Organization Award in 2008, EMBO membership in 2013, and the Feldberg Prize in 2017. She was elected as a member of the National Academy of Science Leopoldina in 2019.

What is the focus of your research?

Asifa Akhtar: All cells in our body carry identical genetic information (the “genome"). A fundamental question in biology is how this one genome can give rise to a whole organism containing cells with such diverse functions. We know that different cell types do not activate (or “express") the entire genome but instead choose to only express distinct subsets out of the full compendium of available genes. Epigenetics refers to alterations in gene expression which occur independently of changes or mutations in the genome. How characteristics are inherited across cell or organism's generation without changes in the DNA sequences is a fascinating area of research. Coordinating a gene expression program is like conducting an orchestra. You need all of the instruments to play at the right time and the right place to generate a symphony – if just one of the instruments is out of sync you will hear the difference. In this analogy you can see epigenetics as the orchestra conductor.

In particular, I'm very interested in the epigenetics of the X chromosome. Men and women have an identical number of autosomes, but men have an X and a Y and women have two X chromosomes. So how does the X chromosome get “equalized" across the sexes? In mammals, females inactivate one of our X chromosomes – so we only have one X chromosome active in all of our body. In flies, males double the output of their single X to match up with the two X's carried by females. These decisions are made at the embryonic stages and the decision is then remembered throughout the lifetime. Understanding how chromosomes work and how this regulation is achieved continues to be my prime research focus.

How did you end up in Germany? 

After studying and doing my PhD in London, I decided to go abroad and so I came to EMBL Heidelberg for my postdoctoral research. At the time, I thought that after my postdoc I would either return to the UK or move elsewhere. But I found the research environment in Germany so vibrant that I decided to stay, although I had several opportunities to choose from.

What advice would you give young scientists?

Sometimes people have the impression that those in leadership positions must have had a smooth and rosy ride to get where they are, but that's certainly not how it was for me. But I learned from the setbacks and that's the most important part. When you are a young scientists just starting out, it is important to stay strong and persevere.

Being a scientist is a privilege. One discovers new things every day and needs to continuously refine one's hypotheses. This is exciting but comes with lot of uncertainties that may demotivate you if you are not in the right environment. Generally, the PhD is a fantastic time to learn your strengths and limitations. It is an important phase for reflecting on what you want to achieve. But this phase is also challenging, as you take a huge responsibility for determining your future trajectory. Luckily nowadays, we're so much more proactive about schemes that enable doctoral students and postdocs to gain confidence, like Thesis Advisory Committees and mentorship programs. They should be actively used to build and train people up. That is precisely what I would advise my younger self: be confident, speak your mind and communicate!

Who supported you in particular? Do you have a role model?

My family has always supported me and they are the continuous source of energy I rely on a daily basis. I don't have one particular role model per se, because there were plenty of outstanding women scientists I have admired along the way and continue to do so. But if I have to name one person then it will be Fiona Watt. She is a phenomenal scientist with charisma. She is sympathetic and very open for discussion. All the right ingredients for a role model!  

Which German peculiarities do you find difficult to get used to?

The German culture is very accommodating so I have always felt very comfortable here, but of course what immediately hits you as soon as you arrive is the language barrier. Additionally, although German society is becoming more progressive, some elements remain very conservative. This particularly relates to the traditional roles of men and women. To enable gender diversity in various career domains we need to be more accommodating and understanding. If we want women to progress in science, we need to enable practical solutions such as childcare and time sharing or home office options.

Which areas would you like to focus on while serving as Vice President?

The Max Planck Society is embracing change with enthusiasm and dynamically moving forward on various fronts. I would like to carry on with this very positive momentum. It is an honor to assume this position. I see it as a great opportunity and responsibility to contribute towards shaping the future. Knowing that this is a position with many facets, there are definitely multiple areas that I would like to strengthen further. These include communication, internationality, diversity, career development of young scientists and contributing towards strengthening German science as a whole.

Good communication is key to success. By generating a forum for open discussion, we can tackle the root of many problems and misunderstandings. Mutual respect also plays a fundamental role in this context. The Max Planck Society's success is the sum of all its members. Thus, it is important to listen to various opinions, reflect to weigh out the pros and cons, communicate with transparency and then move forward with conviction.

We should continue our efforts to be highly international: Academic science is a beautiful example of integration because you have people from all over the world exchanging knowledge beyond boundaries, cultures or prejudice. At the same time, we also need to be prepared for the challenges that come with international hirings. For example, the use of a bilingual platform for communication in German and English simultaneously should become the norm! It doesn't help if we do top level recruitment internationally, but then put them in an environment where they can't understand half of the conversation. We should embrace bilinguality on as many levels as possible to show that we can make this difference.

Scientific excellence is the core mission of the MPG. At the same time, as a premiere research institution, it is also our responsibility to assess and improve gender diversity. Gender equality needs to be worked on continuously and it's important that we don't have this mindset that hiring women is compromising quality. There are outstanding women in science and we should make all the efforts and use our resources to find them. It should be one of our goals to make the society richer this way -- many changes have already been made, but they need to be nurtured even further.

My heart beats for the young scientists! I can totally relate to the problems they face in the different stages of their career, the insecurities et cetera, so I'd really like to push forward the new schemes we are working on for establishing career tracks in the society. The success of young scientists goes to the core of the society's aim to provide a scientific home for outstanding scientists and mentors!

The Max Planck Society has an amazing reputation and credibility in the world. We should be generous with our time and effort to contribute towards the profile of the German scientific landscape as a whole by engaging with local educating bodies. I hope to put in some positive energy on these fronts.

Which results of the employee survey did you find particularly frightening?

Any form of discrimination or misconduct should not be tolerated. We have the responsibility for every single person that works under the umbrella of the MPG. Although in the global picture the MPG fares well in the survey, sexual discrimination or bullying is simply not acceptable. Even one case is one too many. In the Biomedical Section we are proactive on this front. We've already implemented in our recruitment schemes to assess, help and guide new recruitments in leadership positions. The awareness training offered through the Max Planck Academy is also the right way to go. Being aware is the first step towards solving a problem. Opening up channels for all members of the society to communicate their concerns will enable us to identify and address issues before they escalate. This is another aspect where communication plays a crucial role. There should always be somebody one could go to in times of need! We need to be proactive about offering a listening ear, both locally as well as at the leadership level.

Do you have an idea why many employees from abroad do not feel integrated? What are you doing in your institute to integrate employees from abroad?

Learning the language is definitely the first step towards integration. German courses, of course, help on that front. But at the same time, integration should not just be a box you tick on a form. Our institute has a very international composition and English as the operating language, facilitating the professional integration of those coming from outside Germany. But there is more than language. For instance, we started with welcome guides to assists PhD students and postdocs through bureaucratic hurdles during their stay.

But we learned that it is often the seemingly simple things that can be so demanding when you arrive in a new country. This ranges from opening a bank account to looking for an apartment and encountering landlords who only speak German. Thus, you need somebody to talk to about your struggles onsite. At our institute, we now have an International Officer who supports staff with getting set up in Freiburg.

We should work at individual institutes to help integrate international staff and students into the Society. However, I know this is an area we need to work on further within the Society, because integration doesn't stop after the first few weeks. I'd certainly be interested to learn more about additional ideas to improve integration at the MPG and to enable practical and tailored solutions as we move forward.

What are you doing in your own research department to promote women?

I am very proud that both male and female researchers from my lab have progressed to follow academic and non-academic tracks. I do understand that the competition out there is tough and many young scientists worry about their future. The long time that it takes until a career in academia is “secured" does not help the situation either. This is not unique to women but if one looks at all the statistics, many fewer women move forward. We need to seriously and actively work on decreasing the gender gap in science and other professions.

Escorting someone through a career track is not completed with just publishing a paper! It's an investment where regular feedback is needed. For example, to prepare your mentee well for talks at conferences, institute seminars, and job interviews. I really believe that if people in my lab shine, I also shine. Seeing people who have been in your lab succeed and flourish after they leave is the best reward a PI can have. Of course, they have to be self-motivated and passionate about what they do. Luckily, this is indeed the case in my lab, for which I feel very blessed. So, my job is to keep them motivated and lift them up when they're down. It's a team effort from day one!

What challenges have you experienced yourself as a manager?

First of all: Hierarchy doesn't automatically gain someone respect, they need to earn it through their actions. As a manager I find it very important to listen and be open for discussion. When problems arise, it's much easier to understand and find appropriate solutions when you have maintained an open professional relationship with that person. I find that people go out of their way to help, if they feel appreciated! It is important to not take the motivation of our employees for granted. There is a whole cohort of people in the MPG that amaze me on a daily basis with their devotion, hard work and loyalty. We need exactly this kind of positive energy to bring the next generation of MPG forward and I am very much looking forward to driving this team effort.

Is the scientific culture misogynistic?

No. If anything, science is very open to new ideas and change, because we live for that. But at the cultural and societal level, we need more awareness of gender diversity. Multiple issues arise from the different perceptions of the roles of men and women in the society as a whole, and some of these views percolate into the scientific establishment. As scientists, it is our responsibility to show that it is possible for things to be different! It's time for a change and I am here to facilitate that change.

In times of a pandemic, how could researchers with families be supported better to maintain productivity?

Obviously, the pandemic was not planned and therefore everyone is going through a learning process. However, one thing is clear: We need to encourage flexibility. These are difficult times for everyone, and families in particular -- I've been living through this myself -- and therefore we need to be tolerant and generous in what we offer. I was happy about the statements the President made regarding being flexible and generous. However, this is still a slow process at the local institute level. We should not forget that a happy employee is a productive employee.

The interview was conducted by Birgit Adam.​

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