Always following her nose

October 15, 2015

Ilona Grunwald Kadow is leader of the Chemosensory Coding Max Planck Research Group at the Max Planck Institute of Neurobiology in Martinsried. The scientist spoke to us about her research, her independence and the difference between a career in science in Germany and the United States.

Humans can distinguish between at least a trillion odorous substances. This ability relies upon our sophisticated nervous system. Nerve cells, which have special odour recognition molecules, activate specific centres in our brain. “What I’m particularly interested in is how we perceive odours and tastes depending upon how we are feeling or what we are doing and act accordingly,” explained Ilona Grunwald Kadow.

Since the end of 2008, the mother-of-three has led a 10-strong team at the Max Planck Institute of Neurobiology. She has had links with the research institute since her doctoral thesis at the European Molecular Biology Laboratory (EMBL) in Heidelberg. Her doctoral supervisor Rüdiger Klein moved from Heidelberg to Martinsried. Ilona Kadow went with him to complete her research project. After a postdoc at the University of California in Los Angeles, she undertook a further postdoc fellowship in Martinsried.

Ilona Grunwald Kadow greatly appreciates the independence she enjoys here as a Max Planck Research Group Leader. “I can use the institute’s infrastructure and administration but also have my own staff and resources which enable me to carry out my research project independently.”

As the research groups are initially limited to a five-year period, there is nevertheless also an element of uncertainty “which can prove difficult for research group leaders with families and for women in particular.” In contrast to the US, there are no clearly defined career paths in research, such as assistants, associates and full professors. In Germany, there are considerably more fixed-term contracts and therefore also less job security. If Grunwald Kadow’s contract, which has been extended by two years on account of her children, were to expire in 2016, her next career step would not automatically follow on from this. “I’m already looking around for a new position,” revealed the scientist.

She believes this is why it is all the more important that tenure-track models continue to establish themselves. Candidates who wish to remain in Munich can apply for tenure track professorships at the Technische Universität München (TUM) as Max Planck Research Group Leaders. If they achieve a positive evaluation, they are promoted to a W3 professorship at the university of excellence after six years.

Developing good instincts is therefore already important when applying for research group leader positions. “What are the institute’s facilities like, can I use equipment and what access do I have to shared facilities?” summed up Ilona Grunwald Kadow outlining the key questions to consider beforehand. “The availability of good childcare” is an extremely important consideration if you have or would like to have children. The provisions offered by universities can be just as good as those at non-university research institutions, such as the Max Planck Society, the Helmholtz Society and the Leibniz Society.

Ilona Grunwald Kadow successfully manages to reconcile family life and her scientific leadership position as she is able to freely organize her working hours at the institute and can rely on good childcare during the daytime. “I usually collect them in the late afternoon from the crèche, kindergarten and after-school centre,” explained the scientist. When the children are sleeping in the evening, she works on the computer at home to finish off specialist articles, for example.

Working on committees – as the spokesperson for research group leaders, for example - has provided her with an insight into research policy and the processes of a research organization which she regards as vitally important for her future career plans. She can envisage, for example, working at a university in two years’ time. “Experience of committees and teaching is definitely advantageous and is also often expected.”

Moreover, it is important that younger scientists demonstrate commitment to improving conditions in research over the long-term. “Doctoral students and postdocs often opt against a career in science as it entails too many risks, such as temporary contracts, low income and the difficulty of reconciling it with family planning and achieving a good work-life balance. Companies are often much better positioned in this respect.” Science therefore loses “lots of good people” to business and industry. 

Interview by Barbara Abrell

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