Finding Equality Again


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My story could be summarized with the following words: I came to the U.S. as a postdoctoral fellow unsure of my own abilities, became an empowered woman scientist, and stayed.

Great Science, But With a Broken Heart

Scientifically, I was in heaven. Humanly, however, I had a broken heart, for two reasons. The decision to go did not come easy to me, and my then-husband didn’t help. In good old marital and German tradition, I had asked for his consent before applying for the fellowship. Naively, I had hoped he would support me, just as I had supported him. This hope was smashed the instant I came home beaming with joy with the great news that I had been awarded the fellowship. His words are burned in my mind: “Oh, I thought you belong to the 66% who don’t get it.”

I am formed by my past, which includes a happy childhood and a great education in East Germany. Today I can even say I am proud because many of the principles I was taught in the East German system I find realized here in the United States. Surprised? I was!

In East Germany, I grew up with near-perfect gender equality. I say “near-perfect,” because I don’t remember a woman as professor during my college time there. However, I grew up with both parents working, both scientists. Only one girl in my elementary school class had a mother who did not work. After the unification, a decline in equality was immediately imminent. It was all too visible in the West, where I followed my husband, who had found a graduate position in Marburg.

More Support for and Acceptance of Working Parents

Fascinating, to me, is the acceptance level within the U.S. society for parents having both children and careers. That having children is not considered a roadblock in a parent’s career was just as new to me as the encouragement to have children. The Livermore Lab, for instance, has numerous support mechanisms for working parents, with flexible work time being the most important. Joining the Livermore Lab enabled me finally to move my children to the U.S., care for them, place them in excellent public schools, obtain green cards (sponsored by the lab), and pursue my scientific career as part of the Element 116 discovery team. By now I had built up my confidence to the point where I would master both family and scientific career. Now it’s time to move on to the next stage. Thanks, LLNL!

One last aspect I would like to note here, again one I grew up with that got lost during the unification to West Germany: Here in the U.S., much is achieved because people voluntarily put themselves and their time behind the cause. This might be normal to you, but was and is incredible to me. Now, living, working, and researching for nearly 8 years in the States, I have not forgotten where I came from or where I live today. In my spare time I am focusing on two main projects. Remembering and honoring my heritage, I am vice president of the Northern California Chapter of the Alexander von Humboldt Association of America, where I help integrate new generations of Feodor Lynen Fellows. My other focus is the Skyline 50-kilometer Endurance Run, for which I am the race director. With those activities, I hope to contribute to both societies, American and German.

Perspective: Joining NSF’s Culture of Communication

Arbeidsmarktnieuws december 2003: Wetenschapsbudget 2004