Teatime with Caro…

Caro is an enthusiastic physicist and loves bringing people together for the sake of good science. I always enjoy Caro’s company and over a few cups of tea she talked to me about her journey of self-discovery from the lab to science management at DESY in Hamburg, and how sometimes, a lifelong dream isn’t all you think it’s going to be.

“I was sure quite early on that I wanted to do physics. As a kid I was very much into ‘Star Trek: The Next Generation’. I thought it was great that they were on a peaceful quest for discovery and exploring what is unknown out there in the universe and the astronomy background fascinated me too. Originally I wanted to be an astronaut, but soon figured that studying astronomy with both feet on the ground would not only be safer but, to me, a lot more fascinating! You can’t just study astronomy though – first you need to study physics and then specialise in astrophysics. So from the age of 11 or 12 that was really what I intended to do, and that continued to be my plan right up into university. At the University of Munich, however, the astronomy lectures seemed to attract many old-timers, people already retired who went back to university to attend classes more or less for fun and for certain reasons primarily the courses in astrophysics. They would ask a lot of questions which were otherwise dealt with in other physics courses that they didn’t attend. So it felt we never really got anywhere. It must have been quite frustrating for the professors who wanted to inspire the next generation of scientists, and it definitely put me off. At the same time I also visited a number of different courses, trying out a range of subjects, and that was how I came across the topic of extremely cold atoms, close to absolute zero at around -273 degrees Celsius. Instead of 40 people there were only 5 or 6 people in the course, so it was a really private and familiar atmosphere. The professor was an enthusiastic teacher and a leader of the field having made several seminal contributions himself, (he was actually awarded the Nobel Prize a year later), I was hooked! I went onto to do my Diploma thesis in his group and later a PhD in a related field. It was a privilege to work in this environment and definitely a formative experience in my life.

But honestly, I wasn’t as happy during my PhD as I could have been. I began to get the feeling that although I liked physics, physics didn’t like me! I felt I had too many other interests that I would have to give up if I wanted to stay in the research. It was a painful and difficult process. This is what I had wanted to do since I was small, and now I was here, I realised it wasn’t what I wanted. That was hard. But in the end I chose to leave research, and sooner rather than later, so I even turned down a very tempting postdoc offer from sunny California. Instead, I started to work towards my qualifications as a patent attorney. I figured I would still be near to research and development and could translate and facilitate between scientists and industry. I started in a small and wonderful office right at Viktualienmarkt in the heart of Munich, but it soon became clear I was not going to be happy there either in the long run. As a patent attorney you actually have very little face-to-face interaction with clients – most of the time you sit in your office all by yourself, work on your files and talk to your Dictaphone. This made me realise how much I missed having contact with people. I don’t think I had ever thought much about that before since team work and communication was always an important part of research life, which I somehow took for granted. After a while, I really missed that interaction. In addition, I was also spending so much time reading during office hours, that I didn’t want to see another printed letter after the end of the day. That made me sad because I really enjoy reading. I was afraid that if I kept doing that job, I would become so boring in a few year’s time that I would not want to hang out with myself anymore. So I quit.

It was a jump into cold water – everything up to that point had been planned, organised and ran seamlessly from one chapter of my life to the next. It was exciting, but also frightening. I knew now I wanted to do something that involved communication – that was now clear. I spent the next few weeks, months reaching out to my network, writing emails and calling people, travelling. I was sure someone could use someone like me! But nothing happened and with every passing week the worry increased, and my financial buffer got smaller! But then I saw the position here at DESY as executive assistant to  the director general and sent in my application. 5am in the morning a few days later, I was just spending time at a friend’s place in New York City, the telephone rang asking me to come to interview.

 

In the end it all went very quickly. I have never regretted the decision – it has felt right from the start. Most of the time, my job doesn’t really feel like work at all, so that must mean that it’s right! I’m still near to the science that I love and can get to occasionally do little experiments which is a lot of fun, without having the pressure of having to publish or find my next job. My job as executive assistant involves supporting my boss as much as possible by doing all the things that he does not have time for, from researching and compiling information for him, sorting his emails, organising his schedule and that for our guests, organising, preparing and following up on meetings, and generally being the communication interface between him and the staff. I love that no day is like the other, I get to do the stuff I really enjoyed during my PhD like organising, travelling, meeting new and interesting people, and communicating why science is important and worth doing. I appreciate now that I am good with people and at establishing structures and processes that others can use to build up projects and networks. Lately, my focus has shifted to more strategic work, which is a step I am enjoying very much. And after all that there is still scope and the freedom to do things such as evening lectures at the DESY Science Café and organising aid for refugees. It’s just a lot of fun!

I didn’t leave research because of the lack of women in physics – I almost never felt disadvantaged. I guess every woman experiences some moments that are uncalled for, but then again I would argue that the occasional idiot can be found everywhere, not only in physics. However, I’m well aware that I only ever worked with one female professor during all of my studies and never shared the lab with another woman. And that does make for a different kind of working environment. After about two weeks at the patent law firm, I suddenly realised I hadn’t had a single comment in that time about the way I dressed. While I was doing research there was always some comment about what I was wearing (if it wasn’t jeans) and I know others who never would wear a skirt to work because of that. And that’s a real shame. Of course, we all have our prejudices, even as women, but I think once we have more women in science, and physics in particular, it will help. That’s another reason I like to talk about my science at the Science Café. Hopefully they will go home afterwards and think about quantum physics and not that a woman was giving the talk.”

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