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Against the current

November 2013

High over the roofs of Tübingen, at the Max Planck Institute for Developmental Biology, is where Christiane Nüsslein-Volhard carries out research. In 1995, she was awarded the highest distinction a scientist can ever receive: a Nobel Prize. The first German female Nobellaureate also made a stop at the Biozentrum along her career path. ALUMNInews has been tracing her footsteps.

How did it come about that in 1975 you began to research in Basel?

As a postdoc I worked for Prof. Walter Gehring: that was from 1975 to the beginning of 1977. I had just graduated in Tübingen in molecular biology and wanted to do something new. After speaking with many people, it soon became clear to me, that I wanted to study the developmental genetics of Drosophila. At that time there were very few opportunities and Walter Gehring struck me as a modern developmental biologist. I asked him at a meeting if I could do my postdoc in his lab and subsequently applied for an EMBO Fellowship.

What do you remember in particular about this time?

I very much appreciated, that the Biozentrum was so international already at that time. And that Walter Gehring had the knack of gathering so many ambitious scientists around him. Among others, it is here that I also met Eric Wieschaus. We later shared the Nobel Prize. We used to work very hard and the group developed a very strong team spirit. Sometimes we went into the city for dinner and afterwards back to the lab. Eric and I always remained in contact over the many years, even when he took on a professorship in Princeton. And I remember all too well the fabulous and amiable secretary, Erika Wenger. We still meet from time to time.

You are still involved in research. What questions are you addressing at the moment?

In the last years, I have concentrated on the work with zebrafish. We are currently investigating a very interesting problem of evolutionary biology: How fish develop the striped pattern. In evolutionary terms, the patterned design of the adult fish plays a major role. Already in closely related species there is much deviation. It is therefore interesting to see, which genes are responsible for the divergence.

How was it for you when you won the Nobel Prize?

At first I wondered, why me?

How did you find out about it and how was that moment? 

The Committee called me at 11 o’clock on a Monday morning. When I received that call, I was at first stunned. I felt hot and cold. Then I was struck with awe; could I really be one of them? Although I already knew that the Nobel committee may have an eye on me, I was overwhelmed. I rang Eric straight away.

Did you go to Stockholm?

Yes, of course! The ceremony was wonderful. Eric brought his whole family and I had my brother and sisters with me.

At the time did you already sense that your findings were so significant?

We were aware from the beginning that the things that Eric and I initiated were important. We were doing something exceptional: We identified the genes which during the embryonic development of the fly represented different developmental decisions. With our discovery we opened the door to a huge wealth of knowledge that was also interesting for other research scientists.

After so long, does one still hope to receive such a prize for an earlier discovery?

We began the experiments in 1978 and in 1980 we published the findings. We received the prize 15 years later. This is actually a short time span for this prize, in comparison with many others. I was considerably young for a Nobel Prize laureate, just 53. Sometimes I think it may have been better for my research, had I won it somewhat later.

How do you see yourself as a scientist?

The research itself and my curiosity, as well as the intensity with which I approach my projects, are incredibly important to me. I have an inner drive to do something important that has an external impact. I did not want to make any compromises in my scientific career. I learnt that one must take one’s career into one’s own hands. One needs courage to swim against the current, to do something different from the others.

With your Foundation, you provide financial support to female research scientists. What is still necessary, in your opinion, for more female scientists to choose a career in research?

We support talented female researchers that have been slowed in their path due to starting a family. Our Foundation pays for domestic help, who assists in coping with the daily tasks. Besides the financial contribution, our scholarship holders also appreciate the moral support that they experience from the Foundation. What we still need is family friendly institutes as well as good and enough childcare services. Here at the MPI we have a child care center (Kita) that was opened in 1991. Just as important is that all are treated equally whether male or female, with or without a family.

Were there also difficult times in your career?

Many. My first big challenge was my position as a research group leader at the EMBL in Heidelberg. That was already tough; for the first time I had leadership duties plus the responsibility for my team. This is not something that one learns during the studies. Sadly, I also had to learn, that generally as a woman you really have no advantage.

Do you still have contact with your former colleagues?

I have, over time, established many close friendships; perhaps a rather “motherly” one to my students and postdocs. Last year I celebrated my 70th birthday. It was amazing that so many friends and colleagues joined me. Furthermore, at meetings I am constantly running into former colleagues. I have also organized conferences so that these people can again get together.

If you are thinking about something other than science, it is music. How important is music in your life?

Music is my way of relaxing and my second passion. I loved to play music already as a child. I could also have become a musician – in regard to both the intensity and talent. And, as with the research, songs and poetry whirl around in my head during the night.

You live in Tübingen, not so far from Basel. Do you sometimes come to visit the city on the Rhine?

Yes, one of my singing teachers lives there, just around the corner from the Biozentrum. I just enrolled for singing lessons again. Once I drank a coffee at the Biozentrum after my lesson – the cafeteria is still there.

Curriculum Vitae
Prof. Christiane Nüsslein-Volhard, Director of the Max Planck Institute for Developmental Biology in Tübingen, was born in 1942 in Magdeburg, Germany. She studied biochemistry, and in 1973, earned her doctorate in genetics at the University of Tübingen. She then began carrying out research in the field of developmental biology, initially as a postdoctoral fellow at the Biozentrum and subsequently at the University of Freiburg in Germany. From 1978 to 1981, she led a research group at the European Molecular Biology Laboratory (EMBL) in Heidelberg, together with Eric Wieschaus. Jointly with him she was distinguished with the Nobel Prize for Medicine und Physiology for her investigations of the genetics of embryonic development of Drosophila in 1995. Since 1985, Christiane Nüsslein-Volhard lives and works in Tübingen. For her scientific achievements, she has received many prestigious awards and prizes. To support talented young female scientists, she founded the Christiane Nüsslein-Volhard-Foundation in 2004.