How I learned to stop worrying and enjoy a career with Esther Kühn

Dr. Esther Kühn is a group leader at the Institute for Cognitive Neurology and Dementia Research (IKND). She regularly writes science communication articles for InMind—check out Why are we creative, Wenn sich das Gehirn selbst zerstört, and Warum Altern glücklich macht among other articles. Her group’s research focuses on Microstructural Aging and Embodiment and they have recently published a scientific article looking at the effects of aging on visual-tactile integration of bodily signals and the feeling of bodily ownership.

Dr. Kühn was kind enough to give a presentation at our kick-off young neuroscientist association of Germany meeting about her own career path and her advice for those seeking fulfilling careers in academia, science communication, and beyond. Joey and Katrina from SimpleNeuro got in contact for a followup interview because they considered her advice to be worth sharing further. Below is an edited transcript of the interview conducted in person. 

Edited Interview Transcript:
(Interviewers in Italics)

We wanted to thank you for letting us do this interview with you. We were both at the jNWG event last weekend and found your talk motivating and inspirational. We reached out to ask you more about this, specifically from the perspective of where you are now and how you built up two careers at once.

Ok perfect

An introduction

To start, could you tell us what you’re currently working on and what your priorities are?

Right now I’m a group leader at the IKND which means that supervising a team of people, mostly research assistants and PhD students. Interestingly, in this kind of position I also have a representative function – representing my own research and increasingly my institution and even this city. More and more, the communication of scientific results to the public is a part of the job. For example, this morning I had a radio interview with DeutschlandFunk. So in one way or the other, science communication is also part of my job description. 

For such an interview, do they search you out because you’re an expert on a topic or do they ask you because generally you are a scientist?

They mostly find me via my non-scientific work. They rarely read the scientific literature because it’s too much—so I think they mostly target people from the scientific field who write articles. When they contact you, they mention that they read the blog article and then they ask to follow up on it. That means it’s a good idea to write blog articles on your own research topics. 

This morning, though, they asked me about the impact of the combination of sleep and coffee on your productivity… and it’s not my research topic! *laugh* I mean, nevertheless it was no problem, there were certain studies that I could site to talk about it. It’s useful to know some fun science facts.

On the making of a science and science communication career

In the talk you gave us at the jNWG meeting, you described a dual career in science and science communication. How did you get into both of those? Which was first and how did you decide to enter these fields?

It was during my Master’s in New Zealand that I got into both. Already at that time I was studying Neuroscience and I worked in a science museum where I got some basic teaching in science communication. They offered scientific groups and events for young people to learn basic science and they also did science birthday parties. It was an amazing museum. They had science days with small displays where someone stands to explain them. They asked me at one point to help with the science shows that they offered.

The science shows were usually about one of their current displays. Once they had a display on Galileo so I did a show to explain how an airplane flies and how a propeller works because Galileo also built many machines. It was about very basic aspects of science, however,  it was a really great challenge to explain it in a way that people would enjoy. Your audience are just whoever are around in the arena—they don’t pay extra fees so they can just come and sit there to listen. It’s often children who are sitting there or older people and, if you are not able to catch them in the first minute, they will just go off or laugh or start to talk. It’s actually a real challenge to have a basic topic and to start so interestingly that you will  not lose them. After that I went on in scientific communication with workshops on scientific writing.

There were actually a lot of workshops offered in that field. They were sometimes offered by newspapers agencies because they wanted scout out who could write well. I was asked to write an article for an online newspaper twice due to this.

About the science museum, why did you take that job in the first place?

Yeah this coming back to the question “why did I write a stipend in the first place?” also. It was more about getting money at that point. I think as a masters student you just need a student job and at that point I was extremely happy to get it. A friend actually said I should apply. And I said “Are you serious? In a foreign country in a foreign language they will never employ me as a science communicator. It will never happen”. At that time I had this crappy student job cleaning tables. And then I got this interview and I said “Okay, now I will try my best to get it”. I prepared a lot. I went to the museum before to see what they do. So yeah, I got it. Even though it started off  as a student job, I had the feeling that it was one of the best jobs I ever had.

Was there any point in your career path where you thought about focusing on just science communication rather than having both?

Yes, in two situations. The first one was when I briefly worked in general management of InMind. It was as a test phase with the chance to continue—to see if it might have been worth getting funding for this job rather than for a scientific position. Then it turned out to be too… yeah, it’s mostly voluntary people working for this, so it’s not an easy job. I thought, perhaps I wouldn’t want to do it full time. It seemed like a difficult challenge to motivate people all over the world.

The second situation was when I was offered the job at the Max Delbrück center, and the position was also science communication related. For that one, I asked a few people about their thoughts on it, and I think I got good advice in that moment. Sometimes you think you have to choose what gives you the most security, or seems most predictable in the future. So it can be in the back of your mind that one path is more secure and that’s not always helpful. In the end, you don’t always know where the path goes and it can be an illusion to think otherwise. The good piece of advice was someone saying, “just assume that in both career paths you could reach what you want to reach. Which one would you choose?” And so I chose the science path. It was more of not thinking about what is most likely, but if both were to work out, which would be your favorite one. At that point I thought, perhaps, scientific is a bit more my favorite one.

What is the end goal you were thinking of in this scientific path?

Basically the end goal is to actually establish a certain research field. I mean, you always do it in your everyday work because you are apart of establishing something, but to do it on a bigger scale. In science communication, you want to do something similar: you want to establish a medium or a communication forum that you think is a good forum.

At that point did you have a scientific question that you knew was worth investigating?

I think there are different motivations for why one would want to do science, they could have this one question perhaps for a greater good or just as a scientific question that they want to solve. It’s not exactly my motivation however. It’s more like the general topic that I find interesting where I have different questions that one could target. So its more the feeling that you are working in a field, a field that is going forward with your contribution. I also think that many scientific insights have been found by chance and playing around with data. And you only do it if you like the field you work in—to have this kind of playful attitude. 

On self reflection and career anchors

Speaking about the career motivation, you introduced us to career anchors in your talk. That was something I hadn’t heard and I was really excited when you brought them up and explained them. You expressed that it’s good to understand your own anchors, especially when considering your career. Can you tell us when you found out about these career anchors and how they have informed your decisions?

When I was a post doc, I already had the feeling that at some point I would like to manage and lead a scientific team. I asked my supervisor to offer me the possibility to attend a management course offered by the Helmholtz society. They were one week courses, so 5-6 days in total. Those management courses actually also offer a lot about your own individual career or career path. They believe you can only be a good supervisor yourself if you have your own choices right. If you know where you are or what you want to do, then you can also be effective in leading a team. They spend a lot of time in communicating to the managers or leaders that they should be conscious about their own goals in their scientific field. They taught about career anchors and helped develop an individual profile of working style, personality style, leadership style, etc. We developed an individualized profile on how we usually behave in conflict conditions. It was a lot about self reflection in those courses.

On self funding

So most of your career was self-funded. Do you recommend doing this? I think in your talk you said that if you can you should.

Yeah so I think again it depends on your personal personality type. Because having a self funded position is perhaps a little more stressful sometimes rather than having a paid position. Because if it works it’s your own benefit. But if it doesn’t work out, it’s also that you have to fight for your justification. So I think it’s to be recommended for a personality type who would really like to pursue their own research ideas. Perhaps someone who wishes to look a bit left and right within this career. I think this is for sure very helpful. Yeah, for a personality type who is more into a secure position, it is perhaps more challenging because those postdoc contracts that you get self funded are mostly 1 or 2 years. So you have this constant pressure to be ready for the next application. I personally got used to always applying at a certain point.

Do you think someone should self reflect (for the personality type) before trying to self fund? Yours came as you started your journey and then you learned about these different career anchors, but if someone had the opportunity to do some self reflection it would help in the long run.

I think it’s important to see the field a little bit more differentiated – that’s the thing. Because at the beginning you have a certain supervisor and perhaps you know some senior people and this is perhaps how you think you should be like to be successful. Therefore the decision on whether or not to pursue a scientific career may be based on whether you can imagine yourself like him or her – or not – which is perhaps not the best basis for the decision. Because there are many different profiles on how people are. There’s the modern manager type of researcher or the postdoc type of researcher who really stay postdocs through their scientific career because they like this “expert” identification. I think to be conscious about you’re own profile and to be more targeted towards who may also have this profile within the research community – where’s the person who I could imagine being like – for this I think it’s important because one always searches for role models when one starts and when one isn’t aware about one’s own profile, it may be more difficult to find good role models. I would say before the PhD, it may be difficult to know where you are, because you haven’t yet in a sense started, but by the end of the PhD, I think one should have a feeling.

You said at some point that you got used to it. But in the beginning was it very difficult for you to get into this really risky method? 

This is also something to consider, it’s about balancing the risk also. One big mistake that I made at the beginning that I didn’t make later one was that you always need to have a plan B if the grant is not accepted. And this is something you need to learn a little bit to organize always a secure option in parallel. And at the beginning it’s something that you’re not so aware of. So you can always think about the case that the grant is not accepted. 

For example, when you’re interested to work in a certain lab, and they say ‘yea you can come if you get your own grant’, then there are two possibilities. Either you really organize yourself a second option at your home institution, or if the lab is already asking you to come and organize everything, which is often the case, you can ask what happens if the grant is not excepted – if they tell you ok I can then offer you a position, think about having that written down. Ask for plan B for a security option written down. That was something I didn’t do in the beginning which was a mistake.

On forging your own career path

Speaking of mistakes, you said in your jNWG talk to not make decisions based on anxiety *E laughs*. I love that, it really resonates. Do you have a personal experience that led you to understand this or was it something that you had already learned and known to avoid. 

So I think that most people who are unsure about their scientific path and career have looked to other people’s advice rather than what you want because you just aren’t really sure at that point. And those advices are often looking at what is the most likely way to success, for example. People gave me recommendations on what they would think it the most likely career path and that was advice that was for sure people just wanting your best at that point. But I felt less and less that I didn’t anymore look at what my personal career path would be. And this discrepancy between what external people thought would be my best career path and then the feeling of what my best career path would be – when this gets out of balance, I had the feeling that I would base my decisions on anxiety and that it isn’t good to base decisions on those kinds of rationals. I decided at that point to say that I would more go for what I’m interested in rather than what people thought would be best for me. 

So would you recommend not asking other people for advice on those types of decisions?

I think it’s really knowing about your career anchors *all laughs*. Because at some point I knew my own profile, what I like about my job. When you understand that you also like to follow your own interests and you really enjoy to create your own ideas, then it’s not a good idea to go to a lab where you just carry out an idea from a supervisor. Whereas if you’re the kind of person that really likes to learn a new method, then you might be find it ok to get the ideas from someone else. Everybody else will tell you their own preference in your situation, which is fine, but finally you have to see what is your own profile. This is the most important thing. If you follow this then you base your decisions on your own motivation and not on anxiety. 

On science communication topics and opportunities

Switching now to science communication. You write for InMind and you managed it for a little while you said. What kinds of things do you like to write about.

Good questions. So I write about psychology and neuroscience – so I stay in my expert area. Sometimes I also write a lot about topics where I have the feeling it relates to your everyday life. Like topics that are offered by movies or that may just passed unnoticed. Because it’s an effect of science that people just don’t know that can’t interpret. So I write topics that are relevant for people but just might not have been noticed so far. The intention is to bring a little bit more science into the discussion of everyday realities. 

We actually have several people that are writing for the blog and there’s one person writing a series on science and movies and discussing stereotypes vs reality.

Yea sometimes it’s also about what fascinates you personally. For example, I really like the blog about the penalty shootouts. There was this current biology paper that showed there was a certain irregularity in penalty shootouts, how goal keepers react. I just found that so funny – related to everyday football experience. And it’s those sorts of things where you can bring more science into the football community for example. 

What do you think about the science communication community in Magdeburg? Do you see that there are outlets for people who want to get into this type of thing?

There is the Long Night of Science – what I like is that you have a lot of freedom there. So you can just think of something fun and you will have your room and your space to do it. So that’s really fantastic and there are many people there per year. I think there’s also the Open Day with the Mouse (Sendung mit der Maus) for kids.

For sure there are also radio stations everywhere. I would say get in contact first with the stations you like most. Mostly in this field they’ll ask you for things that you did well. With science communication, given that it’s not your main job and you don’t get much training, it’s best to look at your personal abilities and go with what you’re already good at. So if you’re good at speaking for example, go for radio shows and if you’re good at writing, just start writing blog posts about your science. Having a personal webpage may also help where you can link all of the small things that you’ve done you can link it.  If you’re involved in other networks, they can then also link your home page with any of the work you do for them to get more visibility.

A good photo is also a good idea for science communication, you have to think more about appearances in that field.

So all of this and then you can make yourself visible for people to start getting in touch with you.

Mmhmm I think also if you write your own blog for your own website—nothing official—it’s always good to write about topics that are not so present in the internet. That way people may find your page when they google for it. I think it happened recently for this interview on rumination—there was an aspect on the story that they did a radio show on. They found my article about it because about this specific topic there wasn’t so much. For example if you write an article about depression and anxiety, there are like 100s and 1000s of google hits. But when you write about something specific, like a small disorder or something new or about a new finding or a trend, that can be helpful. 

So it kind of sounds like doing as much of the science communication yourself, as much as you can, opens opportunities for you. 

Yes. Always when you go to those events, people ask you for further things as well so it can snow-ball. 

Do you think that science conferences are a good place to network in the context of science communication or are these things separate. 

I would say they’re separate. There’s a small branch in the scientific field who do it but there’s not a major branch and therefore you may have to search for some time at a conference until you find this network. So I would say it’s easier to go directly to those network. 

Networks for science communication?

Yea it has its own network – it’s many scientists who went into scientific journalism as well for example. They may have a career path similar to you where they started in science and then went to scientific journalism. They may have good advice for you on, for example, how to get a paid article written. So for example a friend of mine is in science communication and she knows my research profile so she once asked me to write an article which was paid. So given that you know you have a similar basis, it’s a good way of communicating – sometimes easier than communicating with people that come from the media where you have to first find a common language. 

Parting advice

I just have one final question: If you had one piece of advise to give an early science career mentee, what would it be?

I would say have fun with what you do. 

That makes sense – it ties in with a lot of what we talked about today already. Just having the passion for it and self-reflecting so that you can make a good career and have a good time doing it. 

You only have fun if you do things that meet with your personality so it comes together with these career anchors. And if it comes together, the rest goes naturally. 

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