People behind the science

Who are the scientists at the ZNZ? In this post, the second of this new series initiated by the ZNZ Gender Equality Committee, two scientists talk about their motivation, inspiration and how they manage their “Work / Life balance”.

Dr. Yulia Sandamirskaya, Junior Group Leader, Institute of Neuroinformatics, University and ETH Zurich

From Minsk to Zurich via Bochum, Yulia navigated between Physics, Robotics and Neuroscience. Yulia is combining these different fields to develop biologically inspired computing architectures for robots at the Institute of Neuroinformatics, where she is a group leader. There is also no time to get bored at home with two kids entering their teenage years.

What motivates you to get up every morning?
First of all, my children, at the very least because they have to be woken up very early to get ready for school (and are not big sleepers on weekends either). Next thing is my work, which drives me throughout the day. There’s always a lot to do and I enjoy most of it. Finally, there are my friends and colleagues — both local and remote — who give me the real pleasure of human contact and exchange.

Who inspired you in your career path?
There were many, starting with my parents — both are physicists and have spent their lives in research (my father playing a more active role than my mother). In high school, I won a physics Olympiad and got a chance to attend a few classes with university professors, which were very different from science classes in school: much more exciting and inspiring. Later, my professors at the Physics department of the Belorussian State University in Minsk were excellent science pedagogues, conveying scientific method and thinking in a deep and engaging way. Finally, hundreds of colleagues from all over the world keep inspiring me.

How do you manage your work-life balance? Since I bring my kids up alone, my work-life balance is particularly challenging. The solution is discipline, planning-ahead, ability to accept compromises and to “take it easy” — I don’t need to be perfect all the time. What would make it easier? To have more friends and colleagues with children, who are as easy-going and out-going as my childfree friends.

What is your philosophy in life?
Enjoy every moment of it. Don’t judge. Be kind. Take everything with a grain of humor. Do you know the verse “If” by Rudyard Kipling? I learned it by heart in high school and took as my life credo.

Dr. Wolfger von der Behrens, Junior Group Leader, Institute of Neuroinformatics, University and ETH Zurich

After his studies in Bonn, Lund and Frankfurt, Wolfger joined the Institute of Neuroinformatics where he is leading a group investigating how perception takes place and can be modulated. Beside science, Wolfger always finds time to optimize his “Butterzopf” protocol with his daughter.

What motivates you to get up every morning?
For me it is the fact that our work has an almost infinite number of levels and challenges. Every day you have to do so many vastly different things. You may start a normal working day with surgery, do some programing and data analysis afterwards, and finish the day with reading papers and thinking about problems. I still find this diversity amazing, challenging and highly rewarding.

Who inspired you in your career path?
On the one hand there were two high-school teachers who supported my interest in biology. One of them was actually a scientist (who interrupted her very successful career for her family). Nevertheless, she introduced me into what ‘doing science’ actually means. On the other hand there were the books of Konrad Lorenz and John Eccles that showed me that even something as complex as animal behavior or their nervous systems are experimentally accessible and can be described quantitatively.

How do manage your work-life balance?
This will always be a challenge. The best thing you can do is to have some placidness and believe that things in life are actually pretty resilient. In general, working in academia helps a lot since you have more control over your time than in other areas. For most scientists at my level the single biggest issue actually is career planning and its uncertainties.

What is your philosophy in life?
Et hätt noch emmer joot jejange (Rhenish constitution, article 3: ‘It has always gone well’)