Blanche Schwappach

Head of department of Biochemistry I, University Göttingen

I started out as an undergraduate in Konstanz (1987-1992) focusing on Biochemistry and Biophysics, a subject that I liked for its clarity and its capacity to link fundamental scientific laws to processes in living cells. For my PhD I decided to work in a laboratory that investigates ion transport processes in a physiological context. My PhD project with Prof. Thomas Jentsch at the Centre for Molecular Neurobiology, University of Hamburg allowed me to gain experience in molecular cell biology and physiology 1993-1996). For my postdoctoral period I joined the laboratory of Prof. Lily Jan at the University of California, San Francisco (1996-2000). The time in San Francisco was one of the most interesting and determining times of my life. I started to shape my own research program devoted to the biogenesis and cell surface expression of ion channels, in particular the ATP-sensitive potassium channel, a major drug target in diabetes. Lily was a wonderful role model and mentor although you might be surprised to learn that the subject of women in science was not once brought up once between us. Her authority as a leading and eminent scientist is so strong that her example simply inspired me. Having been part of her lab was an incredible opportunity that I deeply appreciate to this day. Returning from California I had the unique chance to launch my independent research group at the Centre for Molecular Biology, University of Heidelberg (2000-2007). The position allowed me to acquire the skills expected of a principal investigator. Surrounded by experienced and charismatic senior colleagues I was able not only to build my research group, mentor my first PhD students and postdoctoral fellows, publish my first papers as an independent researcher but I was also presented with opportunities to discuss aspects of institute organization and management with my senior colleagues. They naturally acted as mentors without ever interfering with my independence. This phase of my career endowed me with self-confidence and provided benchmarks for almost any situation likely to occur in the scientific community or academic life at large. I respect both career paths that we find in Germany – complete independence as a young investigator or being embedded in a department that serves as a host for an independent group with some shared infrastructure and common teaching duties. However, my personal experience has convinced me of the major assets that a completely independent young investigator group brings to the developing scientist. Given the choice I would always try to implement this model in institutions that I may have the chance to contribute to as a senior scientist. Next I moved to the UK as a Welcome Trust Senior Research Fellow at the Faculty of Life Sciences, University of Manchester (2007-2010). Again the new environment allowed me to polish certain aspects of my training – in particular my writing and communication skills – and enabled a highly productive and enjoyable collaboration with Prof. Stephen High. To me collaborating with scientists in different countries continues to be one of the most cherished aspects of my profession. Since November 2010 I have been appointed to a chair in biochemistry at the Medical School, University of Göttingen. My new position has come with many challenges, mostly related to teaching and academic management tasks. Living up to these challenges whilst rebuilding and maintaining an active research group is a daunting task. However, turning back to look at the past year I feel confident that things are developing in the right direction and begin to enjoy the substantial opportunities provided by my new role as a senior professor.

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