RNA + Us

#NCCRWOMEN Portrait - Vera Flück

(Photo: V. Flück)

Vera is originally from a small village in the canton of Solothurn. She gained her bachelor’s degree in Molecular Bioanalytics in the Molecular Life Sciences program at the University of Applied Sciences of Northwestern Switzerland FHNW and then switched to the University of Zurich to pursue the master’s degree in Virology. While being enrolled in the Masters, she also worked part-time as a scientific assistant at the Institute of Pharmatechnology at the FHNW. During her studies she discovered her interest in Bioinformatics and Programming and so she decided to also pursue a Minor degree in Bioinformatics. She has just completed her master’s thesis entitled “Comparison of MERS-CoV infection in human and camelid primary airway epithelial cells with single-cell resolution” under the supervision of Volker Thiel at the University of Bern.

What did a typical day look like when you were working on your Master thesis’ project?
During my Master thesis project, my typical day varied depending on what phase I was in. Typically, I started the day by taking some time for myself: A short walk, going to the gym or reading. Working from home made that easier because you could use the time before work differently. I often started work with planning the tasks of the day and then start with the harder tasks, either coding or writing. I wrote a lot of code during my project, so I sometimes spent multiple days only doing that. On days when I went to the lab, I joined seminars, had discussions with colleagues and my supervisors.

What is the main question that your research tries to answer?
The main question my Master project tried to answer is why camels react so differently to MERS-Coronavirus compared to humans. Humans can get very sick from MERS, but camels only have a mild disease, often early in their life. Using computational tools, we can analyze large amounts of data of infected cells and find patterns in the way the cells reacts to the virus. By comparing patterns of humans and camels, we hope to find certain genes or pathways in the cells, that are responsible for the strong disease. This knowledge could then help in developing medication or vaccination to prevent people from dying from MERS.

How do you stay motivated and overcome obstacles when conducting scientific research?
I realized that the best way to stay motivated while conducting scientific research is to set time limits and take breaks. This break can be grabbing a coffee, talking with friends, or watching a comforting series over the weekend. When you know that a hard situation is temporary, it is much easier to power through or finish that one annoying task. With obstacles you cannot easily overcome, it is also okay to ask for help or mental support.

What would you like to say to your younger self about a scientific career?
Don’t be scared, everyone was new and inexperienced once. I was always worried to be behind in mathematical and chemical knowledge, which made me hesitate to pursue science. Luckily, my curiosity prevailed.

How do you balance your work as a scientist with your personal life, and what strategies have you found to be effective for maintaining “work-life balance”?
To be honest, I sometimes balance it very poorly. It is not always easy to find the perfect balance, because there is always another thing you should do, or you don’t have much energy left to do something after work. During these times, I am very thankful for my partner and family who take me away from my computer. Even doing something little for myself helps me to get back on track. I am still developing effective strategies, but setting boundaries and having hobbies that excite me helps a lot.

What do you like to do outside the lab?
After finishing my undergraduate studies, during which I neglected hobbies altogether, I’ve been spending much time trying new activities. I love to cook, especially when I have time to try elaborate recipes, like making pasta from scratch. During the summer months, I like to go hiking and climbing and since we live in Olten, we swim in the Aare whenever possible. It’s great to have smaller hobbies that you can do on a weeknight and bigger ones that you do occasionally.

Can you describe some of the challenges you have faced as a female scientist, and how did you overcome them?
I think the biggest challenges I have faced came from within myself, rather than from the scientific community. I think many girls are not encouraged enough to be assertive or are shown that they have to be perfect to stand a chance. This can make it difficult to start a scientific career, especially, when there is competition and you work yourself close to a burn-out. I failed multiple times to ask for help because I didn’t want to be perceived as weak or stupid. And the perfectionism I thought was necessary to succeed, held me back, because it’s an unattainable goal. I don’t think this is inherent to women, but I think it’s a pattern that we can tackle from within ourselves. Learning to try new things, without worrying about achieving perfection can be a challenge, but it is a mindset that will ultimately be beneficial in the long run.

Who has been the biggest role model or mentor in your scientific career, and how have they influenced your work?
I have met many different people throughout my career that I later identified as role models. The first person was undoubtedly my biology teacher. She was the first to introduce me to scientific work and sparked my interest in biology. Later, I also had wonderful male supervisors, who had pivotal roles in my studies and career, by primarily believing in me and giving me confidence. I think its enriching to have male and female role models, as it shows you diverse ways in which scientists can teach, research and lead.

What advice would you give to young women who are seeking mentorship or looking for role models in their field of interest?
I did not actively search for a mentor; however, it can be pivotal to actively engage with supervisors or teachers that want you to grow as a scientist. Mentors can be found in many places, and the more you engage with them, the more they will teach you. My advice would be to surround yourself with people that love their research, are willing to teach and are good role models for the kind of life you want to live. Mentors can be more experienced supervisors, but also your peers.

What is your wish for girls studying science in school today?
It is important to keep in mind that no scientist is a perfect human being, so you don’t have to be either. It is possible to pursue science while staying empathic, fair, and curious and doing so can contribute to making academia a better place.




We are sharing profiles of women researchers of the NCCR RNA & Disease as part of the #NCCRWomen campaign. You can find out more about the campaign on YouTubeTwitter or Instagram

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