Creating awareness by inclusion: an interview with Petra Rudolf*
Interview by Francesca Arici and Anna Maria Cherubini
- Born inGermany
- Studied inBelgium
- Lives inNetherlands
Petra Rudolf is Professor Experimental Solid State Physics and Dean of Graduate Studies at the Zernike Institute for Advanced Materials of the University of Groningen. She is the creator of the Rosalind Franklin Fellowship Programme, aimed at the advancement of talented women researchers.
Let’s start with your history. How did you become interested in science?
When I was a child, I always liked to observe wildlife, or study the trails that animals had left in the snow. I have always been fascinated by nature, all my life. When I was about eight or nine or so, I wanted to become an explorer and saw myself with a tropical helmet going through the jungle.
And then just a short time afterwards, I had a very inspiring school teacher who would show us that you can model nature by moving his hand in a sandbox to show us how glaciers had made the landscape we could see through the classroom window. That is when it really clicked. You know, there is an English study that shows that most scientists decide to become a scientist before the age of 10 and that they could identify a key episode if they go through their memory. We all have an episode that really triggered us, and this was mine…
What took you to study physics?
I’ve always liked physics in high school, and my decision to become a physicist was against my mother’s advice, because she always thought, I should do something with my talent for languages…
But I did not really have the idea that I would study exactly physics. It was more that I liked all the sciences, and I ended up choosing physics… However, much later my classmates told me at a reunion, that they had known all the time that I would become a physicist. They remembered an episode where the teacher explained the particle-wave duality, and finished by telling the class, “I see from your faces that you have stopped following me”. Apparently, I got up –I have no recollection of this episode, but since 20 people at the class reunion remembered that episode, it must have happened– and I walked up to the blackboard and started re-explaining. Then turned around and said, “Now you got it, didn’t you?”. And that’s when they all concluded, that I would become physicist…
How did you end up studying in Italy, more specifically in Rome?
I moved to Italy when I was 17, I completed my high school studies at the German school in Rome and then studied there at the Sapienza University, also thanks to a scholarship from the German government that could be used in any University of the European Union. I had a very comfortable life the first two years. Then, unfortunately, the regulations changed, and the scholarship stopped. So then I had to work and study. I took much longer to get my Laurea degree but I have never regretted my choice.
I spent the six months at the Argonne National Lab where from day one I was put in charge of a whole experimental setup. It was great: I could really do research… and that got me hooked forever. So that’s how I ended up becoming an experimental physicist.
Your expertise in experimental solid-state physics. What took you to this specific field?
Solid-state physics was inspired by the fascinating atmosphere I experienced during my second year of studies when I visited the research group where my then-boyfriend was doing his PhD. During the last year of my studies, I started becoming frustrated with the fact that as students we were never allowed to touch any instruments. I wanted to be a real physicist and do real measurements! Luckily, I had the opportunity to go to the United States to do an internship. I spent the six months at the Argonne National Lab where from day one I was put in charge of a whole experimental setup. It was great: I could really do research… and that got me hooked forever. So that’s how I ended up becoming an experimental physicist.
During your career you moved countries a lot, would you mind telling us about your story?
After obtaining my Laurea degree, I start to work for free at the university paying for my own insurance. I was teaching German at a private high school to earn a living, and when I was finished with that, I would go and work in the lab. During the weekends I was all happy because I could stay in the lab the whole day.
After publishing my first articles, I won a research fellowship in Trieste. The synchrotron was not there yet, but there was already a training programme for the future staff while building the facilities. So I convinced my supervisor to let me go to the States to work at a synchrotron, and this is how I joined the Bell Labs beamline at the National Synchrotron Light Source at Brookhaven National Lab. My boss liked the way I was working and offered me a postdoc. So I came back a year later for that. During that time, fullerenes were discovered, so I got into thin fulleride films and I came back with a paper in Nature and lots of invitations to prestigious conferences…
When it became clear that my contract in Trieste would not be extended, I had to start looking around: I wrote to more than one hundred people I knew asking them for a postdoc position. I got 12 offers and I accepted the one to go to Belgium, more precisely to Namur. Around the same time, I was awarded funding for an EU Human Capital and Mobility network from the EU and took those funds with me to Belgium.
..and this is where you got your PhD…
When I was in Belgium, after a year or so, I wanted to apply for a researcher position from the national science foundation. And at that time they had the condition – now totally against European rules- that you had to have a Belgian degree in order to be able to compete for these positions. So I took all my research results from the preceding years. I wrote a PhD thesis and I defended it. So I got a PhD after my postdoc, which afterwards turned out very well because there are certain grants you can only get within a certain number of years after completion of your PhD and I could get those afterwards. So I got the position in Belgium and I was extremely successful afterwards with European projects.
How did you end up in the Netherlands?
I heard of a position in Groningen, which was the position of a very famous professor in my field who retired. I applied and I got on the shortlist, which, I thought was the best I could hope for. I was totally relaxed when I came to Groningen for the interview because I had already achieved to be on the shortlist which was what I wanted because I thought that would help me with other applications I had running… I ended up doing the best interview I have ever done in my life! I was confident and made clear requests, and negotiated a fantastic position… The funny part is that while I was on the train on the way back to Belgium, thinking back at the interview, I was sure they would not take me anyway, because on the shortlist there were other people who had more publications and who were older than I was, and I thought that I was not attractive.
What I did not realise back then is that the way people look at your profile when you apply for a professorship is completely different compared to when you apply for a postdoc.
Now I’m giving workshops to young people, explaining to them how people will look at their CV, advising them what they should do to have the right profile to be attractive.
Can you tell us about your work on diversity and inclusion?
Since moving to Groningen, I have engaged a lot in diversity and inclusion. When I came here –we are talking of eighteen years ago– I was the third woman in the whole Netherlands on a chair in physics. The first step was creating awareness and talking about the issue of under-representation. On top of that, I also worked on making Groningen more welcoming to foreigners. At the time, it was quite rare not to be a Dutch person in the department. Many of my colleagues had done at most one postdoc abroad, or even just a year abroad when they were very young, and did not realise what it meant for a person to come into a new country and to have to find their place in the national research community and to learn how things work locally and nationally.
Nowadays we have more than 50% internationals among the staff in the faculty of Science and Engineering. The landscape has changed a lot, we switched to teaching fully in English a few years ago, and our student population is very, very international.
Any particular measures you have implemented?
Young people can choose mentors in their own faculty, and in the Zernike Institute for Advanced Materials, every new member of faculty gets assigned a guardian angel.
Are there measures supporting researchers with childcare duties?
Internationals that move to the Netherlands from abroad may not have a family close by. So when going to a conference or a research collaboration abroad, they will need extra childcare, which is not easy to organise. So we started a program in this direction, and in the beginning, I helped to secure funding from the Elsevier Foundation.
Basically, if somebody from our faculty goes abroad for a short period or if we have a visiting scientist coming to visit us, this program pays for the child care. Or if we organise a workshop, our conference, there’s always standard childcare offered, paid from this fund. The costs of such a programme are minimal on the budget of the university, but having such a fund gives a lot of peace of mind to our employees.
In the past years, in several appointment committees, when we were interviewing a woman candidate and we asked them, why do you want to come to Groningen? Of course, they talked about their research and how well it fits in, but then they said the wonderful sentence “and I know that it is a good place for women”. And it is in those moments that I say to myself: “yes, we made it, people know it!” and that is a big satisfaction, I must say.
Groningen is also known for the Rosalind Franklin fellowship programme. Can you tell us more about this?
This all started in 2002 before I came. We had a very enlightened dean heading the faculty of science, Douwe Wiersma, who, after reading all these statistics that the EU was starting to produce back then about the percentages of women in sciences, came to the conclusion that “special circumstances require special measures.”
Very soon we realised that we were losing some of these wonderful researchers because of the two-body problem: their partners got offers somewhere else and they decided to follow. So then we set up a partner programme, which saved many from long-distance relationships.
Another strong point is that the profile in the call has always been vaguely defined. Our call said: “you have to be an ambitious woman who wants to become a professor at our university in this tenure-track scheme”. Already from the first round, we had more than one hundred women who applied for just five positions. The candidates we got in these eight rounds of the programme are absolutely fantastic. What we took as a criterion to choose women with a research profile that fits in and enrich the profile of the research institute. And that has worked very well. However, very soon we realised that we were losing some of these wonderful researchers because of the two-body problem: their partners got offers somewhere else and they decided to follow. So then we set up a partner programme, which saved many from long-distance relationships.
In your experience, what can be done to further address the under-representation of women in fields like mathematics and physics?
I think we should start early, at the school level. I have been participating in speed dating sessions with middle-school pupils, organised by the Dutch Association of Women in Technical Professions (VHTO). The events take place at the beginning of February because that is the time eighth-graders choose their high school profile, whether it’s the strong math profile or the weaker math profile. In my experience, most of the girls who attend those events say that they do not want to go into science and mathematics and we can only convince them of the relevance of the hard sciences when we tell them that they can’t study medicine if they don’t take the scientific high school profile…That’s the argument that works in the end… I think these girls are not at all knowledgeable about what you can do professionally with any of the natural sciences, engineering, mathematics, informatics. They have no clue what the professions are because they lack role models. And therefore, they also don’t feel inclined to go in that direction.
The issue of role models is even more prominent for other underrepresented groups…
I think we are losing a lot of talent that could be very successful in a scientific career.
My colleague Lucy Avraamidou has started to organise Saturday play school meetings around science in disfavoured neighbourhoods here in Groningen and she has had a lot of success. The children come and they enjoy it a lot when she does experiments with them just to make them understand the fun of it.
This is something that I would like to happen everywhere because I think we are losing a lot of talent that could be very successful in a scientific career. On average, children with a migration background are supported by their parents in becoming a lawyer or a doctor or a pharmacist. It seems that the hard sciences are not considered something for them. And this should change.
* Photo Credit: Sylvia Germes