ATTRACT: The female perspective

 

The FNR’s ATTRACT programme brings promising young researchers to Luxembourg where they receive funding to set up a research group over 5 years. As is the case in most countries, these established researcher-level Fellowships are mainly held by men. Ulrike Kohl, who heads up the ATTRACT programme, spoke to Ines Thiele and Anne Grünewald – the only female ATTRACT Fellows – about the challenges they faced, and what they think can be done to make the programme more attractive to women, such as offering more support for spouses/partners also working in research.

After having received the FNR ATTRACT grant, moving to Luxembourg and setting up their family while being pregnant in an entirely new environment was clearly a challenge for both Dr Ines Thiele and Dr Anne Grünewald. The period of building up a family coincides with a phase that is at the same time crucial for the set-up of the research careers.

Moving with a young family

Being pregnant while relocating to Luxembourg was a challenge. It was particularly difficult in such a situation to move to an entirely new environment without existing support networks. Ines came to Luxembourg with her husband and her two children, with the youngest being six months old. Anne moved alone while she was pregnant, and more than one year later, her husband is still holding a research position at a mathematical institute in the UK, splitting his time between the two countries, a difficult situation to handle especially due to conflicting visa requirements. Unfortunately, the current EU political framework does not make it easy for scientist families in which at least one of the parents is from a non-EU country (and working in a different country) to see each other for an unrestricted amount of time, due to an inflexible visa system.

Anne Grünewald with her young family

Organisation is everything

When asked why not more women apply for an FNR ATTRACT grant or similar excellence schemes, Anne’s answer is straightforward: most of the women are not ready to get exposed to the stress of a highly competitive group leader position in a period where they think about creating a family. Women she knows who have young kids opt for longer career breaks or part-time work. In particular, they do not understand how Anne can organise her life with her baby in Luxembourg, while her husband is abroad for most of the time. “When do you join your husband in the UK?” is the question she sometimes hears from her relatives, although she has a tenured position while her husband is currently still on a fixed-term contract in the UK.

According to the two women, work organisation is everything. They have to plan conference participation abroad well in advance and they need to accurately plan the childcare with their spouses. During weekends, researchers usually do not have a full break. Anne regularly structures the weekend time with her husband in hours where one of the two parents stays with the child, while the other one can work on a publication during 2-3 hours, then hand over and switching tasks. This means that a more relaxed family life all together is only possible during holidays.

Anne remembers well the period when she was pregnant and announced it to the people around her.:“It felt sometimes as if I were ill. People think in boxes, some seem to believe that a future mother does not want to come to sports or meet-ups after work, so they did not invite me anymore. A pity, since during my pregnancy, I still had time. Now, it has become more difficult to do sports or go to after-work events.”

Burden for researchers with children lower for men than women

At the research institutions where Anne and Ines worked, the burden for researchers with kids was significantly lower for men than for women. It is also still common for women to take over the main family chores. Ines reports that she spends less time socialising with her team than, for example, her husband. Not only because she has less time, but also because she wants to spend the little time she has with her two children. All extras such as joint lunches or team retreats then usually get left away.

Since networking is very important for the professional career, women with children are definitely disadvantaged. In the crèche, you do not necessarily find the contacts that are important for a career. If you want to travel, the husband, the babysitter or the grandparents from abroad have to help out. Everything is subject to a certain discipline.

Balancing act between typical working hours and raising a family

As far as work routines are concerned, women also bring changes to the schedules at their research institutions. At the LCSB, for example, the meetings of principal investigators usually took place on Thursdays between 17:00 and 19:00. Since Ines used to pick up her children from school between 17:00 and 18:00 in order to spend some time with them before she continued working in the evening, she could not have taken part in the meetings unless it would have meant considerable rearrangements of her work and family planning. She managed to convince her colleagues that the PI meeting should be organised earlier, a suggestion taken up by the LCSB so that now other colleagues with children benefit as well from the new family friendly timing.

Ines Thiele with her young family

Ines sums up the idea of ATTRACT, which is to integrate an entirely new country context: “You have no network and the likelihood that the husband or partner does not come from Luxembourg and that the parents live far away is high. In fact, if you have a family with children, ATTRACT necessarily brings along a balancing act between the typical working hours of a researcher and a family. In particular a backup for emergencies is complicated, especially when the children are ill.”

Anne just had a situation where she could not bring her kid to the crèche due to illness. At the same time, she had an important meeting scheduled, which required her to be present at the LCSB. She managed to deal with the situation only thanks to her mother, who is still working full-time herself, but who drove 850km by car to Luxembourg to support her at the last minute.

The most important challenge is to build up a functioning network with friends in Luxembourg, on which you can rely in cases of urgency. This obviously takes time. Ines reports that she has gradually build up her local network. It consists of much more international people than Luxembourgers.

Support for partner job search needed

Asked what could help to make ATTRACT more attractive for female researchers, Anne suggests a better support for the job search of the partner. In fact, very few men would abandon their job to follow their wife and family if they do not have an equivalent job in the new environment.

If you want to attract women on the long run, you have to help find a job for their partner as well. Ines and Ronan negotiated this directly with their ATTRACT application at the LCSB: it was clear that if one of the two received an ATTRACT grant, the partner would also get an open ended position at the LCSB.

However, this is rare and only possible if there is understanding and open negotiation opportunities as was the case at the LCSB, and Ines and Ronan happen to work in the same research domain. This kind of deal would have been much more challenging to achieve for Anne’s husband who works in Physics/Applied Mathematics.

According to Anne, this is especially the case since her husband didn’t (and still does not) know much about the research environment beyond biomedicine in Luxembourg. It would be good for couples if the FNR helped provide such information and would put people in touch with other research institutions in the area; offering a so-called professional dual-career service would be helpful.

Ensure transparency

Ines recommends that FNR should ensure transparency for all those who come to Luxembourg to indicate exactly what people can expect. For example, the support received by the relocation agency paid by the FNR was incredibly useful.

The service offered covered child placement opportunities, support to find the right school and an apartment. Few people know that Luxembourg offers a very good health insurance system and free public schools. The Luxembourg system is extremely attractive for young families, there is a good child care system, there are beautiful playgrounds, wonderful nature, most Luxembourgers speak and understand English, children learn the Luxembourgish language from the very beginning, etc. All this could be better promoted.

The system however is much less attractive for very young researchers at doctoral level to whom Luxembourg often appears as rather small. In addition, the University of Luxembourg does not yet have the same reputation as prestigious universities abroad, while equipment and research possibilities at the University of Luxembourg are excellent compared to other places. Although it should be possible to slowly build an own reputation, collaborations with established institutions abroad may help to accelerate this process.

Concerning the FNR ATTRACT scheme, transparency should also be promoted by the FNR in terms of salaries to expect in Luxembourg. There are, for example, significant differences between institutions, even for comparable positions. If the salary scales were more transparent, the candidates would have the opportunity to better negotiate. Institutions are insufficiently clear about salaries, so the FNR should provide this type of information together with the ATTRACT call documents, for example, indicating the range of salaries applied according to the category of researchers in the different institutions, i.e., for FNR ATTRACT ‘Starting Investigators’ and ‘Consolidators’ in Luxembourg.

No regrets

At the end of the interview, Ines and Anne both state that they do not regret any of their decisions, although they sometimes struggle with everyday problems. They refer to a BBC News Live interview of a journalist who, in the middle of a video session with BBC, was interrupted by his two children entering the room. This is exactly the situation that occurs when you struggle between job and family, things sometimes simply happen differently from what you plan…

Dr Anne Grünewald, Associate Professor at LCSB, University of Luxembourg

In 2016, Dr Anne Grünewald joined the University of Luxembourg with an FNR ATTRACT fellowship. She did her undergraduate studies in biotechnology engineering at the University of Jena and her PhD at the University of Lübeck in Germany in 2008, followed by a 3-year postdoc position at the University of Lübeck and a 3-year research grant at the Wellcome Trust Centre for Mitochondrial Research at the University of Newcastle, UK, before joining the University of Luxembourg. Anne is married to Todor Kondić, a postdoc researcher at Leeds University, UK; the couple has a child, one-year, Eva Katarina. Her ATTRACT project ‘Model IPD: Modelling idiopathic Parkinson’s disease-associated somatic variation in dopaminergic neurons‘ started in January 2016 and will continue to April 2021.

Anne leads the Molecular and Functional Neurobiology group at LCSB. One of the research objectives of the group is to explore how changes in the integrity of the mitochondrial genome contribute to respiratory chain deficiency in Parkinson’s Disease. As the mitochondrial genome exists in multiple copies per cell, somatic mtDNA mutations, copy number variations and consequent respiratory phenotypes may arise at varying levels. To investigate this link between the mitochondrial genome (mtDNA), mitochondrial dysfunction and neurodegeneration, single-cell analysis techniques are required. The group specialises in single-cell proteomic and DNA analysis approaches, which will be applied to post-mortem brain tissue and cell cultures.

Dr Ines Thiele, Associate Professor at LCSB, University of Luxembourg

Dr Ines Thiele has joined the University of Luxembourg as Associate Professor in April 2013. She did her PhD in bioinformatics at the University of California San Diego in 2009, followed by an Assistant and Associate Professorship at the University of Reykjavik, Iceland, before joining the University of Luxembourg’s Center for Systems Biomedicine (LCSB) in 2013 with an FNR ATTRACT grant.

Ines is married to Dr Ronan Fleming, also a group leader at the LCSB, who joined the LCSB together with her and the family in 2013, they have two children, Maximilian and Aelish, 7 and 4 years old. Her FNR ATTRACT project: ‘An integrated multiorgan reconstruction of human metabolism: connecting diet to healthstarted in April 2013 and continues until March 2018.

Ines leads the Molecular Systems Physiology group at LCSB. The group aims to improve our understanding on how diet influences human health. It uses a computational modelling approach, termed constraint-based modelling, which has gained increasing importance in systems biology. In this approach, comprehensive computational models are assembled in a bottom-up manner from literature and genomic information. These models describe in a stoichiometric accurate format biochemical transformations occurring in a target organism. Once assembled, various omics data sets can be integrated and analysed with these models, expanding currently available analysis tools and thus providing mechanistically based insight into complex multi-dimensional data sets. Moreover, these models can be used to predict the impact of genetic alterations (e.g., enzyme deficiencies) and of changed environment conditions (e.g., changes in diet composition) on the metabolic state of the target organism. The molecular systems physiology group builds comprehensive models of human cells and human-associated microbes. The group then employs these models together with experimental data to investigate how nutrition and genetic predisposition can affect one’s health. In particular, they are interested in applying the computational modelling approach for better understanding inherited and neurodegenerative diseases.

ABOUT ATTRACT

The FNR ATTRACT programme is designed for researchers not yet established in Luxembourg who demonstrate the potential to become leaders in their field of research. The ATTRACT grant shall enable them to set up their own research group in a domain of strategic relevance to the host institution. ATTRACT candidates are employed by the institution either in a tenured position or in a tenure track, with predefined conditions and criteria for career development based on a final assessment of their achievements at the end of the ATTRACT funding period. Proposals selected under the ATTRACT programme have a lifespan of five years and the financial contribution by FNR can be up to EUR 1.5M€ or 2M€ for ‘Starting Investigators’ or ‘Consolidating Investigators’ respectively.

The 2017/18 ATTRACT Call for proposals is open, deadline for pre-proposals is Wednesday, 15 November 2017, 14:00 CET. Note that institutions have internal deadlines, the University of Luxembourg’s deadline is 12 September 2017.

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