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Leaving the comfort zone

November 2019

Leaving your own comfort zone can sometimes be quite daunting but above all it is one thing, enriching and in any case a chance to try something completely new. Catherine Brun speaks from experience. The Biozentrum’s alumna has not only ventured overseas but also set foot on new ground professionally.

As a postdoctoral fellow, you lived in Canada for a while. To what extent was this a challenge?
At that time, I assumed that life in Canada would not be so different from ours here. However, I quickly realized that I had to step out of my comfort zone. To be honest, it certainly was a culture shock in the beginning. In Canada, you have to sell yourself more and constantly show how good you are. Although it wasn’t always so easy, overall it turned into a very positive experience for my partner and me. Canadians are very open minded and welcoming. This helped a lot.

Did others have a similar experience?
My colleagues from Portugal, Germany, Holland and France, we Europeans, all had the same feeling. It made me aware, for the first time, that we have all been shaped by a very similar culture in Europe. If you want to think and feel European, you have to go abroad, beyond the European borders. Then you recognize that much more unites us than separates us.

After completing your postdoc, you returned to Switzerland and have been working for the ETH Board ever since. How did this come about?
In Canada, it became quickly clear to me that I did not want to stay active as a researcher. I had lost my interest in going deeper and deeper into detail. My dilemma was that I found the questions in science and the big ideas very fascinating but in the end, in the lab you are faced daily with the question of why the experiment did not work. Since I had long been interested in science policy, strategies and funding, I looked for jobs in this field. I am still happy that I got this position as a staff member of the ETH Board because when you start a completely new job you never know what you will meet.

It is not that easy to find alternatives to research. How was it for you?
A colleague, who had left research, advised me to look at what my earlier fellow students are doing now. I used my LinkedIn profile to get information and to help decide which direction I should take. I met with a lot of different people and asked them about their job. I also tried out some things myself, such as being part of a public science blog, which was run by the Canadian Cancer Society.

And what is your job at the ETH Board?
I am part of the academic administration; we work behind the scene to make the academic and scientific world run smoothly. As staff, we prepare all the business for the ETH Board. I belong to the Science unit and I deal particularly with the areas of professorships and equal opportunity. In addition, we ensure that the ETH Board can perform its controlling tasks. This includes ensuring that appointed professors will fit into the planned strategy and that the funds provided by the Federal Parliament are properly used. We intervene when guidelines or standards are not being met.

Which institutions belong to the ETH Domain?
Included are the ETH Zurich, the EPFL in Lausanne, the Paul Scherrer Institute (PSI), the Swiss Federal Laboratories for Materials Science and Technology (Empa), the Swiss Federal Institute for Forest, Snow and Landscape Research (WSL) and the Swiss Federal Institute of Aquatic Science and Technology (Eawag). The ETH Domain is subordinate to the Federal Parliament. 

What are the ETH Board’s tasks?
The ETH Board is the ETH Domain's strategic management and supervisory body. It is at the interface between the federal authorities and the ETH institutions. Nevertheless, the individual institutes enjoy a large degree of autonomy. They are independent and manage themselves. The Swiss Federal Council defines the strategic objectives for the ETH Domain. The ETH Board is responsible for their implementation, allocates the federal funds, is responsible for controlling and makes recommendations. For example, it defines the research focuses for the coming period, deals with large research infrastructures and publishes evaluations, financial reports as well as position papers on specific topics. 

What interests you the most?
Above all, the new things that come with each strategy. The area of equal opportunity was completely new to me before I started my job here. 

Do you also need to do research on what other institutions do?
Absolutely. And interestingly, I would never have thought that I would use so much of what I had learnt as a researcher still today. New questions or problems always arise and I have to find a suitable solution. I do research into the law and read manuscripts. I work closely together with my team, we are eight, but also communicate with colleagues from other units such as Real Estate, Finances, Communication, Human Resources and Legal Services. The mix of people is very important in order to reach good solutions.

How did you gain all your knowledge?
Learning by doing! Of course, my colleagues actively supported me and gave me enough time to learn the ropes. I became familiar with diverse scientific institutions, first in Fribourg, then at the Biozentrum, later at the ETH Zurich and finally in Toronto. I don’t find it difficult to get involved in new things and the political arena has always interested me. I think that this combination has made many things easier. But it still remains a challenge, in a positive way.

You studied Biochemistry in Fribourg. Why did you choose the Biozentrum to do your master’s? 
I was looking for an exciting project for my master’s and came across Mike Hall’s research. The topic grabbed me immediately. The research group was very international and we only spoke English. I felt very free and it didn’t feel like work at all. That’s when I realized that I also wanted to do a PhD.

Has anything in particular remained with you from this time?
My partner (she laughs). Our paths crossed for the first time in Basel at UniSport. He was studying Architecture in Muttenz at the time. Now we have a son and our second child is on the way.

And so you went together to Canada?
Yes. My boyfriend also wanted to go abroad and try out something different. It is easier to get a visa for your partner in Canada, even if you are not married. But this open visa is coupled to the job of the partner.

Could your partner work there as an architect?
No, that was not possible. It was not easy at all for him to find a job. However, he was lucky. A small company, where the boss’s wife was Swiss and was familiar with the standard of education here, took him on as a carpenter, a profession which he had previously learnt. 

How do you manage family and work these days? 
I work 80 percent and commute four days a week to Bern and on occasion to Zurich. My partner also works 80 percent. This helps us to share the childcare.

Was it difficult for your partner to get a foothold in the work force when you returned? 
Fortunately, that went well. If you follow your partner abroad, you have to live with the risk of not finding a job. But you are completely free. When we returned, my partner opened his own architecture business. Starting from scratch is something we both have experience in.

Curriculum vitae
Since 2015, Catherine Brun has been working as scientific advisor in the Science unit at the ETH Board. She studied biochemistry at the University of Fribourg and completed her master's degree at the Biozentrum under the supervision of Prof. Michael Hall. Subsequently, she did her PhD at the ETH Zurich and then worked as a postdoctoral researcher at Mount Sinai Hospital in Toronto, Canada.