15. Feb. 2018
Interviewed by Eliška Handlířová
Šárka Pospíšilová is the Head of the Research Centre for Molecular Medicine, Group Leader and Principal Investigator of several research and institutional grants at CEITEC MU and also works in the Department of Internal Medicine-Hematology and Oncology at the University Hospital Brno. She has contributed to the establishment of CEITEC MU from the beginning, as a coordinator for the Molecular Medicine research area. In her research, Šárka Pospíšilová focuses on applying genomic approaches in cancer research and diagnostics and the role of anti-oncogene TP53 in prognostication of lymphoid leukemias. In her career, she has been awarded for her contribution to science and society many times. Šárka Pospíšilová is married and has two daughters.
You have been at CEITEC from its beginning as a group leader. In 2011, you were appointed as the head of the Centre for Molecular Medicine. What is your story, how did you get into your current position in the institute’s management?
I studied molecular biology and genetics as my specialization at the Faculty of Science at Masaryk University and continued with PhD studies focused on the photochemical and structural analysis of nucleic acids performed in the Institute of Biophysics at the Czech Academy of Science. Then I continued as a post-doc at Masaryk Memorial Cancer Institute and switched my interest to genes and proteins which play a role in tumor development. From the beginning of my research career, I realised how important is to get international work experience. Therefore, I was very pleased to get a chance to spent my EMBO Fellowship at the University of Dundee and later I joined the research team in the Children’s Cancer Research Institute in Vienna. During my postdoc in Vienna, I got a very interesting offer from prof. Mayer, the head of the Department of Internal Medicine – Hematology and Oncology at the University Hospital Brno, to establish my own research group within the Center of Molecular Biology and Gene Therapy. Thus I decided to return to Brno, and from 2003 started the laboratory of Cancer Genomics. Later, in 2008, I was appointed as the Head of the whole Center of Molecular Biology and Gene Therapy in the hemato-oncological department at the University Hospital Brno.
At approximately that time my involvement in CEITEC also started. We started to discuss the possibility of preparing a project for a novel scientific institute in 2005, in wider group of scientists from Brno universities and research institutes. Since then, we have participated in many long-term discussions about the form and focus of the future research institute which were finalized by the application for “VaVpI” project “CEITEC” submitted in 2009. Two years later, in 2011, the CEITEC institute was officially established and in 2014, a novel CEITEC building on the Masaryk university campus was finalized. I am fully aware that the CEITEC project succeeded thanks to an enormous effort from many people, both scientists and managers. And as I had been heavily involved in the preparations of the scientific project related to Molecular medicine, I was appointed head of the Centre of Molecular Medicine.
What does a position as head of centre at CEITEC MU consist of?
Even before I became the head of the CEITEC Research Centre, during the CEITEC project preparations, I helped to define the focus of the research programme for Molecular Medicine and negotiated with the scientists and potential research group leaders about their involvement with CEITEC. Nowadays, since the CEITEC institute has been constructed and is fully functional from both a scientific and administrative point of view, I take care of the Centre of Molecular Medicine’s productivity, predefined research indicator fulfilment, scientific output reporting to the International advisory board, participate on the Director’s Board at CEITEC MU and in Coordinators’ meetings with the CEITEC scientific director and also shape the scientific direction of the Centre (planning novel research groups etc.). At the same time, I also run my research group in the Centre of Molecular Medicine.
I can imagine that sometimes there could be situations when you have different interests as a group leader and as the head of the centre. How hard is it to combine the position of group leader with the position in the institute’s management as head of centre from different perspectives (time, resources, relations)?
My parallel position as the Head of the Centre for Molecular Medicine and Head of one of the research groups (this situation is the same in all CEITEC Centres) brings, in my opinion, many more advantages than disadvantages. I can fully realize the “real-life” problems faced by the group leaders and also actively help my group fulfil the research indicators dedicated to the whole Centre. The main disadvantage is the huge amount of administrative work related to the managerial function which prevents me from practising science.
You must be a really busy woman, which places great demands on your time, mobility, etc. How important for you is to maintain a good work-life balance and so called mental hygiene?
A good work-life balance is definitely very important but at the same time it is very difficult to achieve it, not only for me, but also for many of my colleagues in similar positions. Due to the extreme overload of various administrative tasks, we have nearly no time for real scientific work. Nowadays the grants, which are mostly international but also some local, are connected with a significantly increasing amount of paper work, which could be partially done by project managers but still a lot of input must be provided by the project coordinator. As I am a coordinator of one H2020 project and a participant in two other European projects, there is quite a high load of various partially or fully administrative duties. In addition, I am working on the board of ERIC (European Research Initiative on chronic lymphocytic leukemia), which is a very active organization coordinating many research and clinical projects related to this most frequent leukemia in adults. On the ERIC board, my main responsibilities are involved with the molecular genetic analysis of antioncogene TP53 into clinical diagnostics, including certifying laboratories performing this analysis worldwide. All these activities are very demanding on time, but on the other hand, I find this connection between basic research and the application of the results obtained into the medical diagnostics very satisfactory, directly influencing the outcome of leukemia patients. This awareness of the direct applicability of our work into practice helps me to keep “mental hygiene”.
What do you personally do to achieve and keep “well balanced” and still productive?
I am not sure whether I could serve as a role model in this respect as I am continuously trying to find out how to achieve the right balance between “work life” and “other life”. My major method of changing work environment, at least for a while, is taking care of my daughters, currently especially my younger daughter, who is 11 years old. She helps me to see problems from the completely different angle of a child’s perspective, which could sometimes be a very useful correction for adult ambitions. During the weekends, I try to keep in touch with my friends, which is very relaxing even though most of them are also scientists. I also enjoy travelling to different countries and visiting interesting places to clear my mind from time-to-time – both cultural and natural. And during working days, I would like to modify the distribution of my duties between administrative tasks and research work.
At CEITEC MU, we have about 54 % female postdocs but only 23,5 % female group leaders – the same situation, also called a “leaky pipeline”, exists at almost all research institutes worldwide. You are one of those female researchers that were successful and continued to the top (being group leader and part of the management). What are the causes of the leaky pipeline, in your opinion and experience?
Well, in my opinion it is quite difficult to find a main reason for the “leaky pipeline”. I have many young women researchers in my team, most of them excellent scientists, but usually they do not have ambitions to become group leaders and get another leading position. They prefer the “quiet” laboratory research and combine their work with family care. On the other hand, they want to avoid the aggressive work environment, with the high levels of stress factors, frequently connected with higher scientific or managerial positions. Many women also could not afford to extend their working hours, which is mostly necessary in the scientific field, and therefore they leave for other types of positions, in our case to the field of molecular biological diagnostics. Women researchers also usually cannot be so flexible with travelling and have many difficulties with arranging doctoral and postdoctoral stays abroad, especially if they have children. And many grant schemes prefer only applicants with international work experience, which means a great handicap for women researchers and this dashes their chance of establishing their own research group.
Being successful in a career is not always only about positive things...
As I have mentioned before, it is always difficult for women researchers to keep the same track as male researchers, in case they want to have families and children. At least in our country, I see many examples of my male colleagues who accepted different positions abroad and their wife followed them, giving up her own career. On the other hand, I know very exceptional or even no opposite settings, in which a female scientist would accept a position abroad and her husband would follow her and take care of their children, at least partially. But hopefully the situation will improve, we can see good examples, for instance in some Scandinavian countries. And at least in our group, we have the first male scientist staying at home on his “paternity leave” for the second year.
You are a principal investigator of MEDGENET Project (H2020-Twinning) that, besides other activities, offers joint mentoring for young researchers; in 2017 you were also successful in appointing a new junior group leader, Michal Šmída, in your research centre. How important, in your opinion, are mentors for researchers at the beginning of their research career, particularly junior group leaders?
First I have to say that I believe that mentoring has to be informal and not some kind of duty (for either mentor or mentee). For me, talking with members of my group or with group leaders in the Molecular Medicine Centre is just a natural part of my job. And I wish I had much more time for such meetings and discussion, not only about administrative and managerial issues but also about scientific questions.
You are also involved in the “ALKATRAS” project, where a consortium of 13 research institutes (including the University of Cambridge) and 8 companies established a programme for PhD students to provide interdisciplinary training focused on developing new oncology therapies. These days, PhD training is not only about lab work and doing research but also about soft skills training. How do you work with this trend in the ALKATRAS PhD programme? And how is the programme implemented directly at CEITEC MU?
Thanks to the ALKATRAS project, the consortium managed to recruit 15 talented students who passed through a highly competitive selection process. In the frame of the ALKATRAS PhD programme we provide them with research-based training focused on studying ALK-related malignities. In addition, our students get valuable experience during the secondments in another academic partner’s lab and also at the company involved in the project. The ALKATRAS consortium organizes a whole array of transferable courses to help our students develop their presentation skills, teaching skills, entrepreneurial skills; they also receive training in ethics-related issues and learn skills in clinical trial design or biobanking. Just to mention an example, Naked Scientists, a radio station based in Cambridge, organized a one week-long media course for our students, where they were filmed while giving an interview, prepared a podcast about their results and learned how to present their scientific project to a lay audience. I believe that the ALKATRAS training programme will equip our fellows with competences and valuable experience that could be applied throughout their future careers in research or outside academia.
From your position, do you work with members of your research team in order to help them in their work-life balance? Can you describe it in more detail?
My research group has a lot of women researchers and I often offer them part-time jobs after their maternity/parental leave and they can stay in my group as staff scientists. After their return, it is usually a different method of cooperation – despite them only having limited time for work, they are really motivated and grateful to be here, even for a part time position. Generally, the institutions need to react to the specific needs of parents, not only mothers, but also young fathers, I think it is just natural part of managing a team if we want motivated people.
A colleague of mine mentioned that she does not know any female group leaders having more than one child. What would you respond to her?
I could respond to her that we should meet :). But seriously, it is obviously very hard to build a research career and combine it with a role of parent, especially in the case of women in the existing culture, where it is expected that the mother will be primarily at home with small children. I do not have any 100% solution but what was a good model for me was to hire a nanny who took care of my daughter from 5 months of age until now, and after 11 years she has nearly became a member of our family. I am also very grateful for my parents’ help, who also spent a lot of time with my daughters during my working duties and trips abroad. This helped me a lot to combine my research projects, managerial duties and family life. Of course, it costs some money and for example during my postdoc, I had to spent almost my whole salary on babysitting services. But I definitely do not regret it, despite the many difficult life situations, and I am very pleased that nowadays I have both skilful daughters and also many great colleagues who have helped me to build an internationally competitive research group producing many interesting scientific results.
Imagine you can implement one to three things to improve the work environment and/or support work-life balance of researchers at CEITEC MU. What would you do?
Firstly, a very practical issue, I liked the idea of one group leader from our centre who proposed having a cafeteria in the A35 atrium. Maybe we could consider extending this idea and have a small canteen there where we could go for a quick lunch and meet other researchers from various groups and centres.
The second idea is that I would establish a fund to support parents and offer them a financial contribution for a nanny or kindergarten, based on their decision. Research shows that barriers related to preschool care for children is one of biggest barriers for young female scientists to enter postdoc and PI positions and I remember it very well from my personal experience.
Thank you for the interview!