Interview with Wrangell-Fellow Kerstin Feistel
From Hohenheim to the USA and back again
Kerstin Feistel always wanted to understand how our world works – whether it concerns a motor or an organism. She studied biology at the University of Hohenheim and eventually specialized in developmental biology. Since then, she has been researching what happens at the cellular level during embryonic development and how the central nervous system is formed.
Why she returned to Germany from the USA, how she became a department head with two children, and what has still not changed for female scientists in 14 years, she reveals in the interview.
“Having done my PhD was like having a driver’s license. I knew I could get started – so I did!”
When did you discover your passion for science?
There wasn’t really a specific moment. But even as a child, I found biology fascinating. Around the age of ten, I asked for a garden pond for my birthday. That was the first time I heard the word “biotope,” and I thought, “That sounds great, I would love to have a biotope of my own!”
Soon after, I was sitting in front of my own pond, was allowed to put in plants and goldfish, and observed frog spawn, dragonflies, and water striders.
I believe I inherited the urge to get to the bottom of things from my father. He was a trained blacksmith and car mechanic, and together we always took things apart to see how they worked – from ballpoint pens to four-stroke engines (especially when they weren’t working anymore).
My joy in understanding how a machine works is similar to understanding how an organism works. Back then, I had wished for a picture book from National Geographic called “The Incredible Machine” that presented the human body. I could relate to this analogy – it really appealed to me.
Interestingly, mechanics also play an important role in my research today, even at the cellular level. How are cells connected to each other? How do they move? How do tissues form and deform?
The urge behind it is still to understand how something works – from the entire animal down to individual proteins in a cell.
“It has become much more difficult to gain a foothold in science today.”
What was the biggest challenge on your career path?
There wasn’t a particularly outstanding challenge for me, but the whole journey is not easy. It was constantly about moving from one position to the next and raising third-party funds. You have to enjoy writing research proposals – but writing is also always a creative process in which you channel your ideas in the right direction.
For me, basically, one step led to another because I followed my passion. After studying biology, I thought to myself, now I’m really fascinated by the subject, now it would be a real shame to stop, so I continued and started my doctoral thesis. After the doctorate, it was as if I finally had the driver’s license for science in my pocket. Now I could drive, I thought to myself, and continued.
Then came the postdoc in the USA, and my fascination remained. I believe I am quite good at recognizing opportunities and seizing them.
One such opportunity was when I learned about the Margarete von Wrangell Fellowship from my doctoral supervisor. At that time, I was at a crossroads: either stay in the USA with a granted scholarship from the Multiple Sclerosis Society or return to Germany with the Fellowship. I chose Germany, and I also believe that it was the right decision for my family, as I was already pregnant with my first daughter at the time.
I had never actually planned to come back to Hohenheim, since I had studied and done my doctorate here. But here, with the help of the Margarete von Wrangell Fellowship, I was able to establish my own working group at the Institute of Zoology.
In the last two years, I have taken over the temporary professorship of zoology. This has allowed me to gain a lot of experience in what it really means to be a professor in practice.
„The biggest problem for women in science is still the same as it was 20 years ago: childcare.”
Did you have a mentor or role model?
Actually, I didn’t have a scientific role model. I grew up in a family without an academic background. Understanding what studying, scientific work, and pursuing a doctorate really meant was something I had to figure out on my own over time.
Looking back, I realize that my father’s attitude helped me a lot: He never questioned that I, as a girl and woman, could understand everything I wanted to know. He always enjoyed explaining things to me – which surely laid the foundation for my belief that I can understand and know everything, as long as it is well explained!
My main scientific mentor was my doctoral advisor, Martin Blum. As a father himself, he knew exactly how difficult it would be to balance family and science.
Therefore, he allowed me a lot of flexibility. I believe that without this understanding for my family, it wouldn’t have worked out for me.
Unfortunately, at the time when I had my children, there were no female professors with children in the biology department at Hohenheim whom I could have looked up to.
But through the Margarete von Wrangell program, I was in contact with other female scientists, and this community – knowing that there are women from different disciplines and with different life plans, for whom it somehow works – I found to be a great support.
„At that time, I had no role model of a professor who was also a mother. But I notice that young scientists now see that in me.”
Has the path to a scientific career changed?
I feel that a lot is changing in science right now. When I started, I didn’t have a finished career plan in my pocket and didn’t think much about what would be in ten years. I followed what gave me the most joy. I may like the Swabian saying “There’s always a door opening,” but it does require a certain willingness to take risks.
Today, I see only a few students doing exactly that. Most of them have a great need for (financial) security, perhaps because we live in such uncertain times. Maybe that’s exactly the right thing to do: to have a strict plan, including a plan B. But that also prevents taking the step into the unknown, and as a result, women may fall back into a more traditional role model again. Simply because the uncertainty has increased.
With the planned reform of the Wissenschaftszeitvertragsgesetz (Act on Temporary Scientific Contracts), this risk could become even greater, especially for women.
Female scientists in particular might consider the chance of getting a professorship in an even shorter time after completing their doctorate as too low, because it conflicts with the desire to start a family, and they might say that they couldn’t endure this uncertainty and the tremendous stress during this time. This promotes a strong selection of the best.
But there are not only the very best, there are also the best and the really good ones. And they might fall out of the academic system. Today, the path basically envisages moving directly from a postdoc position to a junior professorship in order to stay in the tenure track program.
I understand the idea behind it, but in this transition phase, where the traditional German academic system is being restructured, where there used to be permanent positions in the academic middle level, the system is experiencing some turbulence. At the moment, the leeway in the postdoc phase, which is so important for science, has narrowed.
Looking back, how do you evaluate the Wrangell Fellowship, also in terms of visibility?
The Margarete von Wrangell Fellowship has enabled a lot for me, but I certainly have mixed feelings about it. On one hand, it gave me the opportunity to return from my postdoc position in the USA. Maybe that was a good decision, maybe not. In any case, I was able to re-enter the German scientific system when my children were still young. Otherwise, I might not have managed to do that.
One problem with the Fellowship was that natural scientists have a much higher financial need for laboratory equipment than, for example, humanities scholars.
To be operational, natural scientists in the Margarete von Wrangell program naturally had to raise a lot more third-party funds in addition, in order to be able to work scientifically at all. That takes a lot of time.
As far as visibility or prestige is concerned, I have had different experiences. At the University of Tübingen, for example, the Wrangell Fellowship seems to be highly regarded. There, women who had successfully applied were congratulated. But I myself have also heard completely different comments in my environment. “Oh, that’s just this program for women with children,” was said ignorantly.
Outside of Baden-Württemberg, no one knows the program anyway. This is of course quite different with the Emmy Noether Program. Everyone knows what that is. That’s a pity, because the community of Wrangell Fellows is really great.
It would be nice if the Wrangell Fellowship were more popular.
Balancing family and career in other countries
I still remember my postdoc mentor in the USA saying, “It’s unbelievable how backward the system in Germany is in terms of childcare, and how many prejudices still exist in people’s minds.” He couldn’t believe that many women here are not employed or only work part-time.
In the USA, it is much more common for women to return to work soon after giving birth. I regularly saw mothers there pumping milk in specially set up restroom areas. That was normal. Whether it’s optimal is questionable, as the regulations on maternity leave and parental leave are of course quite different there. But at least the choice to return to work soon after the birth of a child was not frowned upon.
Here, it was the case that the daycare center didn’t open until 8 a.m. – and that was already early for a daycare center. But I often had to be in the lecture hall by 8:15 a.m., and that just doesn’t work. Once you have a daycare spot, the next problem is the opening hours. 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. would be ideal. That doesn’t mean I would use it every day, but I need to have that flexibility. Unfortunately, a system like the “Kinderfeuerwehr” at the University of Hohenheim wouldn’t have helped with my children, because I would have had to leave them with completely unfamiliar caregivers – my girls wouldn’t even accept the really nice babysitter from next door.
It would be ideal if every university had a daycare center and kindergarten on campus or at least nearby, and could staff it with good personnel.
“Functioning childcare is the most important thing to be able to pursue one’s passion and profession.”
Do women still need special support programs or assistance?
At the beginning of my doctoral thesis, women’s programs rather annoyed me. I didn’t know what good they were supposed to do. My mostly male mentors (father, doctoral supervisor, postdoc mentor) enabled a lot for me, and I didn’t have any negative experiences and never felt that I was at a disadvantage as a woman.
However, I now see it with somewhat different eyes. It is extremely important to pay attention to gender equality and diversity, because if we enable different life plans in science through this, we demonstrate what is all possible, and that enriches the way we conduct science over time.
With children or additional care responsibilities, it is often simply more difficult to achieve the necessary amount of publications and third-party funded projects. And this is indeed also dependent on the environment. At non-university research institutions, at universities with excellence clusters, or in large collaborative projects, the support is often quite different.
That’s why I think today that it is right to consider the achievements of individual scientists also in light of their individual paths, as the DFG, for example, does quite naturally.
Private Lecturer Kerstin Feistel with her team
Scientific career and family
A generation of scientists, many of whom did not prioritize combining science and family, is now retiring or has already retired. Nowadays, many scientists are committed fathers. However, it is often the case that care work still primarily falls on the women. This was also the case with my husband and me, even though we had not planned it that way at all. This was partly because when we returned to Germany, he only found a job further away and had to commute.
So when our children were young, he simply wasn’t there when it came to taking the kids to daycare and school, picking them up early when they were sick, going to the doctor, or other things. Without the tireless support of my mother-in-law, many things would not have been possible.
Here in Hohenheim, a lot was done for me. Rotraud Konca and Ute Mackenstedt from the Equal Opportunities Office really put in a lot of effort. They said at the time that if a female scientist is coming back to Hohenheim from the USA with the Wrangell Fellowship, it can’t be that we can’t offer her a daycare place. Then I actually got a place for my first daughter quite quickly, initially only three days a week, later five days. However, a full daycare place still doesn’t mean that the working hours are covered that you actually need. And this problem continues: How is a great technical assistant, who might want to return to work fairly quickly after the birth of a child, supposed to get a daycare place? The argument “scientist” doesn’t work here – yet so much in a research group depends on such employees.
So the biggest problem is still the same as it always was: childcare. I tried to get my older daughter into daycare 14 years ago, and today I see young colleagues facing the same difficulties. I didn’t even get a daycare place for my younger daughter. So I had to take her to the office with me as a baby. After all, I was a group leader and couldn’t just say, I’m taking a year off for parental leave now, because I had employees. So my daughter stood in her crib next to my desk, or I held her in my arms when I gave a lecture. Many people thought this was great and pragmatic – but in retrospect, it was a stopgap solution and a precarious situation. I wouldn’t advise anyone to do it that way today. In retrospect, I now hear from younger women that they find it great to see how it worked out for me. Of course, I’m happy to be a role model, but reliable childcare is essential to be able to work as a scientist.
It simply has an impact to have less time available. It wasn’t until the Corona pandemic and the shift to working from home that the tables turned in our household. Since my husband’s employer realized that it also works with home office, we can divide the family tasks much better among ourselves. However, the children are now older and much more independent.
“Actually, every university should be forced to build a childcare center on their campus and staff it with good personnel.”
In my research group, we are trying to understand how the central nervous system forms during embryonic development and how the brain and spinal cord come into being. The earliest steps involve cells of the so-called neural plate changing their shape and migrating. From a flat tissue, a closed tube is formed – the neural tube.
In humans, this step occurs during the third week of pregnancy – and if something goes wrong here, so-called neural tube closure defects can occur, which are among the most common congenital malformations in humans. For example, they lead to severe defects of the brain or to spina bifida, also colloquially known as “open back”. For a long time, we have known that, for example, alcohol at the time of neural tube closure can be very harmful, but also that the intake of folic acid has significantly reduced the number of neural tube closure defects in many countries.
Unfortunately, it is still not clear what actually happens at the cellular level. This is where our research comes in: we use tadpoles of the African clawed frog Xenopus laevis to decipher the mechanisms of neural tube closure. The frog’s eggs develop into a tadpole within five days after fertilization, and the neural tube closure is already complete after one day. We can wonderfully observe, manipulate, and analyze this in the Petri dish. We investigate how certain cell movements and changes in cell shape contribute to neural tube closure, and ultimately want to understand both what initiates and coordinates the movements, and how the movements are actually implemented by proteins within the cell.
Of course, it is fascinating in itself to analyze these processes and gradually understand the absolute basics of the formation of the central nervous system. At the same time, it is nice to know that the results we achieve can be crucial for preventive measures and the possible treatment of developmental defects at any time.
“I generally live by the Swabian saying ‘There’s always a way'”
Name: Kerstin Feistel
Research Field:Developmental Biology
University and Chair: Institute of Biology, Department of Zoology at the University of Hohenheim
Children: 2 (14 & 12 years old)
Kerstin Feistel’s career path
Studied biology at the University of Hohenheim (1997 – 2003)
PhD at the University of Hohenheim (2007)
Postdoctoral Fellow at the Division of Neuroscience at the Oregon Health and Science University, Portland, OR, USA (2007 – 2009)
Group leader at the Institute of Zoology at the University of Hohenheim (since 2009)
Wrangell Fellow (2009 – 2015)
Habilitation and teaching qualification (Privatdozentin) (2018)
Acting professor and head of the Department of Zoology at the University of Hohenheim (July 2021 – August 2023)
Interview with Kerstin Feistel on 19.07.2023