The Opposing Thumb

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Media Roundup

Visitors: Christiane Nüsslein-Volhard

Last Friday we had the pleasure of receiving Christiane Nüsslein-Volhard at the IGC. Dr Nüsslein-Volhard shared the 1995 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for her work on deciphering the genetic instructions on how to build a fruit fly embryo, the result of a tour-de-force mutation screen in collaboration with Eric Wieschaus (work she described as done by “just the two of us in a small room”). Her lab at the Max Planck Institute, Tubingen, currently studies the genetics and development of color patterns in zebrafish- the seminar included a beautiful gallery of colorfully named mutants- asterix, obelix and seurat among them.

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Photo: Vanessa Borges/IGC.

The shift in model systems should not come as a surprise, given that Dr Nüsslein-Volhard had already moved from a more distant field: “I had been a biochemist before coming to genetics, and there is nothing really to look at in biochemistry. But the flies were living animals and embryos—I saw them whenever I closed my eyes.”  (Her direct style can reach the heights of deadpan. Here she is in her Nobel bio on an earlier decision: “To find out whether I could be attracted to studying medicine, I did a one month course as a nurse in a hospital. This experience greatly supported my conviction not to become a doctor.”).

What was surprising, at least to me, was to learn that there is also a Christiane Nüsslein-Volhard Foundation, dedicated to helping female scientists- especially when it comes to the challenges of being a working mother: “I think that it’s tough for many parents. And there’s a lot more work for mothers than for fathers, because the women have the children, and they also do much more for them when they are very small. That’s the concern of the Foundation—not so much to encourage all women to take interest in the sciences, but to make life easier for women who are already there. Then in ten years or so more women might be scientists.”

EMBO Director Maria Leptin, who worked with Dr Nüsslein-Volhard and is now also one of the Foundation’s Directors had this to say about it to The Node:

Janni Nüsslein-Volhard was extremely helpful when I had my first baby. My husband was still working in England so I was more or less a single mother. There was no kindergarten in Tübingen and Janni supported a colleague and myself to set one up. Later, she also noticed that young women who had kids found it hard to come to seminars in the evening or come in at weekends. She appreciated that you love your kids and need to spend time with them, but what really irritated her was when she found out that postdocs or students with kids couldn’t be in the lab because they had to do household chores. She said ‘This just won’t do. Let them have children and spend time with them, that is a good thing. But doing housework is not for a trained scientist’. She set up this foundation to provide that extra bit of money to pay for someone else to help around the house.

The great thing about this foundation is that it is not just about the money. At interview, there are people who tell us ‘Whether I get the money or not, just being told that it’s okay to get a cleaner is already good’. Similarly, with the mother-in-law who thinks that the daughter-in-law should stay at home and take care of the family- if they hear that she got an award from this organization, they start appreciating the research work that she does. So the foundation is also re-educating female scientists and the people around them.

The Foundation’s activities are limited to female scientists working in Germany. Let’s hope that it inspires individuals and institutions of other countries to take similar initiatives.

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