Welcome to “DANWISE Role Model 2023” an inspiring and enlightening series of interviews that highlights the exceptional achievements and contributions of women in the fields of Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics, and Medicine (STEMM). In this captivating series, we aim to bring you closer to the extraordinary journeys of these remarkable women who have defied societal norms, shattered glass ceilings, and pushed the boundaries of knowledge and innovation.
Zoning off into R and bioinformatics (February 2023)
Through these interviews, we will explore the personal stories, motivations, and challenges faced by these trailblazing women in their pursuit of excellence. We will uncover the diverse perspectives and experiences that have shaped their careers.
By sharing their inspiring stories, these women hope to empower and inspire future generations of women to fearlessly follow their passions and carve their own paths in STEMM. We invite you to join us as we celebrate the achievements of these remarkable women, challenge stereotypes, and foster a more inclusive and diverse future in the world of STEMM. Together, let’s explore the limitless potential and incredible contributions of women in STEMM.
You may know DANWISE’s next role model, Emma Aller, from the podcast “Plantejagten”. That’s right; her and a colleague are co-creaters of the podcast, together with Videnskab.dk, which is funded by the Novo Nordisk Fonden. Hear how Emma artfully balances her career as an enthusiastic plant scientist, working as a postdoc at Copenhagen University, while being a mum of two. Emma’s journey is a thrilling blend of passion and purpose that’s sure to captivate you!
Talking about flowers on BLOOM festival 2023 (May 2023)
Can you tell us about your career journey and how you got to where you are today?
Sure! In a way, it actually started with a rejection letter..! After high school, I applied to study for a bachelor’s in molecular biomedicine at Copenhagen University, and I didn’t get in. I was so disappointed and felt unqualified for this next chapter in my life. I was, however, accepted to the bachelor program biology-biotechnology, and I decided to give this second priority a shot. This turned out to be a good decision because here I found a great study program and the best of friends. I am sure that biomedicine would have taken me to great places, too, but today, I am truly appreciative of that rejection letter.
I continued doing my master’s in biotechnology, which I mostly studied part-time. Working part-time allowed me to devote myself to student jobs. I had two jobs while studying; one was as a science communicator at the museum Experimentarium, and the other was as a laboratory assistant in the same scientific group I work in today. I loved the combination of studying and working. This has had a great impact on my skillset network and shaped much of who I am today still.
After my master’s, I worked as a Research Assistant and continued as a PhD in molecular biology in the same group I had worked in as a student. Actually, I have been connected to this group for over ten years in one way or the other. During this time, I visited my PhD co-supervisor at the University of California, Davis, several times. These visits were incredibly meaningful, and I continue to rely on much of the knowledge I gained here.
Last year, my work life took a new direction. Until then, I had been working with plants in the laboratory only, and I was missing a connection to wild plants and Danish nature. Together with Videnskab.dk, my colleague and I wrote a grant application, and we are now funded by Novo Nordisk Fonden and are producing a podcast series, “Plantejagten” where we hunt for Danish wild plants and tell their interesting stories. I am working part-time on the podcast and part-time as a postdoc and am thereby combining basic research with science communication.
Texting our moms 😀 “We got the grant, mom!!”:D (December 2022)
What initially sparked your interest in your field?
I consider myself a person who could have moved in many different directions. That my career went into plant science is surely interest-based, but I also found an energy at the university that was a major driver for me to stay, irrespective of the topic. The synergy between students and scientists makes a vibrant and interesting workplace.
In group meetings, a presentation is perceived by professors with tons of experience, but that sometimes have blind angles. These can be filled out by students coming with fresh eyes. Everybody serves a role irrespective of years of experience. This I am so fond of. The same gave me a sense of connection to the university from the beginning. I was a valuable member from day one.
What steps did you take to acquire the necessary skills and knowledge for your current role?
From so many places, not from my education only. My theoretical skills are obtained from my education, courses, my visits to the lab in the US, and, importantly, from conversations with colleagues by the coffee machine that ended in long discussions and scientific brainstorms. My job requires a bunch of other skills like project planning, supervising students, writing budgets, applying for funding, etc. How did I learn this? I ask for help. And then, I prioritize to help when I can so that the ecosystem of a workplace keeps its balance in place. I have had good experience with reaching out to people, also people I don’t know. I always make sure to be respectful and properly prepared so that I don’t waste people’s time.
I don’t need to know everything. But I must be smart at identifying what I don’t know and seek the relevant help.
Did you face any significant challenges or obstacles along your career path? How did you overcome them?
I surely had to refigure out my daily work life after I got my two children. But that was more of a rescheduling, like working hours at night to prioritize picking them up from daycare, etc. Having children challenged me to juggle my hours for sure, but for me, it was also like getting extra gear. I got much better at pinpointing my tasks.
Bringing my family to my stay abroad during my PhD had its own obstacles. We went to the US and had a fantastic time, both in terms of work and family time. My husband was taking care of our son while I was working at the university. Living on my salary only was obviously more difficult. I got a travel scholarship and worked an extra job up until the visit while being pregnant, so that period required extra gear from my side.
Walk-in chamber with > 1000 plants at University of California, Davis. Covid hit and we rushed home, had to leave this behind (March 2020)
Were there any specific individuals or experiences that influenced your career decisions or served as mentors to you?
Yes! People that are passionate with an infectious enthusiasm are very inspiring to me. My high school biology teacher was just that, and she had a big impact on my direction in biology. In general, I feel very lucky to have many inspiring people around me, and I feel influenced by many. That is not only at work; I have some real powerhouses in my family and among friends. I actually think my life could have taken many turns depending on whom I met. Instead of having one role model in my life that I try to copy 1:1, I like to think I have many that I instead cherry-pick a bit from.
How do you approach goal setting and career planning? Do you have any strategies or tips you can share?
I am not motivated by 5-year plans and long-term goals. In general, I rely on ending up somewhere good. So far, this has been the case. I am more the type who looks at the paths that lie right in front of me, and then I take the one that looks most fun and rewarding. The fun path can require a lot of work, but it has been worth it It’s not that my work is funny every day, and I do have less fun tasks, of course. But interest, and heart-based decisions have always been in control of my direction.
I deliberately live in a smaller apartment than what I could theoretically afford, and I am at times tempted by the house I could buy if I took up a big loan. My husband and I prioritize not to be dependent on a big income. We want to be able to say yes if the right job comes along and to have the option of going down in hours while our kids are small. So, I guess career advice is actually to challenge your budget and how much you need in terms of salary.
From the first outdoor recording of our podcast series. Out finding seaweeds! (April 2023)
Have you had to make any difficult career decisions? How did you navigate through them?
This question represents my life at the moment! I have stayed in academia until now, and soon, I will have to decide if I want in or out. I love research and the atmosphere at the university, but I also feel strongly about the science communication I took up recently. I am honestly in doubt whether my CV qualifies me to become a group leader at the university, so the decision may not be for me to make after all. I’ll get back to you with an answer.
What do you find valuable in your work life, and what is your favorite aspect of your job?
My work comes with impact and flexibility. And then it has variation. Some days, all I do is analyze data on my computer. I love coding and finding patterns in data, and I can zone completely out when working with it. But being in front of the computer can’t stand alone, and I appreciate also having days away from it attending meetings, organizing, etc. With my podcast project, I travel a lot around in Denmark. This has been so fantastic, and I have met incredible people and (re)discovered what a fantastic country I live in. Communicating plant science is a lot of fun. It’s a real challenge to cover a topic in a 20-minute episode, and I am learning a lot from this process.
How do you manage to disconnect from work and find a work-life balance?
I would say that a work-life balance happens more naturally because of my kids. Work can still occupy my mind when I come home, but there is a natural limit to how much I can focus on it. It works well for me to really leave work, also mentally, and come back the next day. Having time for friends, however, can then be tricky these years, juggling a career while being present at home. My friends mean a lot to me, and it feels bad that I can’t always keep up, not because I don’t want to, but simply because of time and energy.
Family time during my visit to UC Davis, California (February 2020)
How do you define success?
I think success comes in many shapes. It is tempting to only consider success as “climbing the career ladder,” and I have a lot of respect for those who manage that. But success is also having a work-life balance in place. It can be choosing a job on interest over salary.
If you could give advice to your younger self, what would it be?
Follow your instinct and do not feel obliged to take advice you did not ask for. Haha, oh, the irony of traveling ten years back and giving myself the advice I didn’t ask for to not take the advice I didn’t ask for… Just follow your instinct, then… And allow yourself to follow your heart. Super cheesy but nevertheless important.