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Entries in women in science (32)


Prof Susan Schlenner: making a career in science

Next week Dr Susan Schlenner starts as a tenure-track professor in our laboratory.

Growing up in East Germany, Susan started her scientific training with Prof Hans-Reimer Rodewald at the University of Ulm. From 2003-2008, Susan worked on her PhD on protection from the toxicity of snake venoms (J Exp Med, 2007). Dr Schlenner stayed in Hans-Reimer’s lab for a mini-post-doc on T cell development, generating IL7Ra-Cre mice to trace the fate of early T cell development (Immunity, 2010). These mice have become one of the key tools of the field, leading to dozens of high-level middle authorships.

In 2009, Dr Schlenner left to Harvard, to post-doc with Prof Harald von Boehmer. At this point, she entered the regulatory T cell field, again creating new mouse strains to redefine the basic biology (J Exp Med, 2012).

We were lucky enough to recruit Susan in 2012. We had just decided that we needed a top-level molecular biologist when Susan turned up. She immediately solved our problems on a transgenic that we had been struggling with for years, and set up a molecular biology platform in the lab. Susan designed her own high-level projects, and secured independent funding for them, which she is now pursuing with her own team. However Susan has always been ready to drop everything to help out the lab, playing a pivotal role in getting our diabetes story in Nature Genetics, and spending her last days before giving birth generating the key preliminary data for an ERC grant for the lab.

When CrispR editing of mammalian cells first burst onto the scene in 2014, Dr Schlenner spend several years learning the new technique, importing all the tools to Leuven and optimising the process for high throughput genome-editing. The creation of the MutaMouse Core facility was the outcome of this patient work, and will revolutionise biomedical science in Leuven.

With Dr Schlenner achieving the hard-won honour of a professorship, I see lessons in her success that other post-docs could learn from:

1) Train with the best people. In the Rodewald and von Boehmer labs, Susan was surrounded by top scientists doing exciting work. An excellent environment is essential to blossom as a scientist

2) Learn how to do proper experiments. “Controls, controls, controls”, is Susan’s motto, every experiment needs the right controls to understand the result, otherwise it is just expensive play

3) Be prepared to work hard and work long. Experiments often don’t work; it takes grit and determination to tear the hidden secrets out from nature. To create her IL7Ra-Cre strain, Susan generated more than 3000 ES cell clones to screen, before finding the one single clone that set her career on a roll. Others would have given up early, and switched to an easier project, but Susan stayed the course. Persistence is a virtue.

4) Always keep on learning. So often we are scared to enter a field we don't know, or pick up a new technique. It is comforting to stay doing the experiments we already know how to do. Susan has always been prepared to start from scratch as a beginner, learning new techniques such as CrispR.

5) Publish top papers. Immunity and J Exp Med papers as first author, a Nature Genetics as co-last. It sounds obvious, but the top papers are the bed-rock upon which your career is built. If you ever get the opportunity to push a story into the very top level, you seize it and put in whatever effort it takes.

6) Make yourself valuable. Susan has always been a team-player, spending her time teaching others and rescuing difficult experiments. Susan always made sure that the people around her could succeed, rather than only looking out for herself. This was not just rewarded in her dozen middle-authorships, it also meant that she was always someone that her promoters were willing to support in return. Susan’s professorship is in no-small-part a direct consequence of the MutaMouse facility that she was building for the university – she made herself so valuable to the university that they needed to give her a position to make sure she stayed.

7) Stay in the game. It can be depressing looking at the odds of success in academia, but if you are not willing to put in the years, then you have no chance. Susan post-doc’d for nearly 10 years before achieving her professorship: don’t give up on your ambitions.


As seen in the Malaghan Institute, New Zealand  


Research hall of fame

"Hey, whatever happened to that really good tech you had?"

"Sad story, really, she got married".

Getting married as a woman in the 1940s - literally equivalent to career death.


Congratulations to Dr Emanuela Pasciuto

Dr Emanuela Pasciuto was successful in obtaining a highly competitive FWO post-doctoral fellowship to continue her neuroimmunology research in our laboratory.

She is a wonderful role model as a young mother who is a highly successful scientist. Congratulations Manu!


Good luck to our Masters class of 2017!


Congratulations to Prof Schlenner!

Our very own Susan Schlenner was just announced as a winner of the BOF-ZAP competition for a prestigious research professorship at the University of Leuven!


International science

This is a time when the international nature of science is under threat - from Brexit, Trump and war, the movement of scientists is being restricted, and with it the scientific advantages of 'brain circulation'.

Just how international an endeavour is science? At the moment, our lab has 21 researchers: 12 are international (from 12 different countries) and 9 are Belgian. 

Over the past 8 years, our lab has trained 113 young scientists. 52 have been Belgian, 61 have been international (31 from the EU, 30 from outside the EU, from 32 nationalities). Belgium has benefited from this international talent, our researchers benefited from being trained here, and the country of origin benefits from the additional training they receive. Immigration is a win-win!

While I am discussing demographics, it is worth noting that 65% of my trainees have been women, so if any departments are struggling to hire female Professors just ask - there are lots of amazing women coming out of my lab. 



Interview with Science Minds

Recently I was interviewed by Vinoy Vijayan for his excellent Science Minds podcast. 

You can download the interview here, if you are interested in a discussion on science careers, different pathways to take in science, mentorship and diversity in science.


Congratulations to Erika Van Nieuwenhove

Congratulations to Erika Van Nieuwenhove for winning the Best Poster prize at the recent Leuven Regulatory T cell symposium!

Extra credit for managing to win with a poster that barely mentioned regulatory T cells.


Inbreeding in Flemish academia?

A newly released study of Flemish PhD graduates has found that fully 20% of Flemish PhD graduates go on to get a professorship in a Flemish university. This compares to perhaps 2% of American PhD graduates, so great news for the Flemish system, right?

I would argue the (unpopular) position that this is too high a rate of PhD to professorship transition. This is not to say that good PhD students shouldn't be given good jobs - just that most should find their niche outside academia. In my experience in the Flemish system, I would say perhaps half of PhD students really shine during their PhD (the system does not formally differentiate, but there are "good PhDs" and "average PhDs"). Many of these stars have talents that are not especially well aligned with remaining in academia - perhaps they are more interested in industry, law, journalism or the myriad of other jobs that a PhD is great training for. So the 20% figure is, to me, far to high. A 5-10% figure would be a good success rate based on my experience.

The other pertinent question is whether this system, with such a high success rate, produces the best outcome for Flemish science. Currently, 97% of all professors obtained their PhD in Belgium, and 75% even obtained their PhD at the same university! These are astronomical figures, especially for a tiny country with close neighbours that are also producing amazing PhD students. These numbers are not based on ancient history either, they are from the 2010 professorship appointments. 

My point is not that Flemish universities are producing sub-par PhD students that should be replaced by foreigners. Far from it - we are producing some outstanding PhDs that should be snapped up for prime positions around the world! My point is instead that an institution that is based almost entirely on internal hiring is going to have severe intellectual inbreeding. One great unique thinker is worth a fortune - clone them a 100-fold and have them work together and you get diminishing returns. It also shuts out the brain circulation that you get when externally recruiting. I'd love to see a hundred Flemish PhDs go out into the world and spread their exciting ideas, and (simultaneously) a hundred foreign PhDs come in and bring their exciting ideas with them. It can happen for people who post-doc abroad instead, and truly creative people can be generated in any system, but the numbers are an indication of openness.

Another staggering statistic from this report: 40-50% of professors (appointed 2001-2013) obtained their professorship within 1-3 years of finishing their PhD! This is mind-blowing. A PhD is the entry point to the academic pathway, and in most countries there is a good 5-10 years of further training before you get a professorship. Also keep in mind that in most countries there is a tenure-track process, so you then have 5-7 years to prove your ability as a Professor before you get tenure. In Flanders for all intents and purposes there is immediate tenure. So we are taking new graduates, who would still be considered junior post-docs in the American system, and instantly granting them tenure before we know if they are good at the job, and before they know if they even enjoy it!

So that's the system Flemish universities are operating under. Lots of professorships, given out at a very early career stage. And who does it favour? The internal hire (especially those who did an FWO PhD at the same universities) over the external hire, and men (19%) over women (16%). Top candidates are plucked out at the undergraduate stage and ushered through the system. Almost the definition of a boy's club, wouldn't you say?

This is not to say that the whole university sector in Flanders operates under these conditions. There are segments that are as merit-based and international as the very best American university. There are also segments where external hire is impractical (most notably, clinical appointments). But this is a clear sign that Flemish universities have a long way to go.