Interview with Erin Schuman and Gilles Laurent

Erin Schuman and Gilles Laurent about cooperation and the advancement of women at the Max Planck Institute for Brain Research

May 27, 2014

Erin Schuman and her husband Gilles Laurent have been working as researchers at the Max Planck Institute for Brain Research in Frankfurt am Main since 2009. On the centenary of the Institute’s founding, the two Max Planck Directors talk about why they came to Germany and what excites them about the Institute.

What prompted you to come to the Max Planck Institute after almost 20 years of research activity at the California Institute of Technology?

G. L.: For me, personal as well as professional reasons played a role in my decision. On the one hand, I wanted to return to Europe after such a long time away. At the same time, the Max Planck Institute grants its scientists maximum freedom to carry out their research. And of course it was also a huge opportunity to play a pivotal role in steering a research institute like this one in a new direction.

How important was it that the Max Planck Institute offered you both a job?

G. L.: Of course that was an important factor. If we hadn’t been able to carry out research in the same place, we would never have left California. Such models will become increasingly important in the future for any research location that wants to be attractive.

I also think it was advantageous for the Institute’s reorientation that the two department Directors knew each other well. Like all married couples, we don’t always share the same point of view, but such differences of opinion are sometimes easier to overcome as a couple, than with someone you don’t know well.

What makes this Institute so special for you personally?

E. S.: Firstly, it’s the way we approach brain research, namely at all levels: whether its proteins, synapses, neurons, networks or entire areas of the brain. We want to know how the brain perceives sensory stimuli and stores information, how this gives rise to behaviour patterns, and, above all, how the system functions as a whole.

We also have the privilege of being able to work in a unique building. It’s an example of how architecture can make people happy. When planning the new premises for the Institute, we felt it very important to provide lots of common areas where employees can meet to exchange information. Because, like the brain, science thrives on communication. That’s why, for instance, we’ve built a bistro that students from the university campus can also frequent.

I think great things will be possible here in the future.

You also made every effort to ensure that the Institute is as attractive to women as possible.

E. S.: Yes. Although approximately equal numbers of women and men set out to study the natural sciences, the percentage of women declines steadily the higher you go up the career ladder. The reason given is always the difficulty in reconciling career and children. We wanted to address this problem. So, for example, we built a nursery in which children from the age of three months can be looked after during the day, so that mothers don’t have to give up work for such a long period after giving birth and can take up their research again relatively quickly. Another example is our “kids’ room”, in which older children can do their homework after school. In general, we try to integrate children into the life of the Institute wherever possible. We invite them to all the parties and hope that we can pass on our enthusiasm for science.

This is all designed to send out the message that female scientists can have a career and children too!

The interview was conducted by Harald Rösch.

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