Nobel Laureates 'Women Are Just As Gifted in Science as Men'
In a SPIEGEL interview, Nobel Prize for medicine recipients Christiane Nüsslein-Volhard and May-Britt Moser discuss the challenges women face in the male-dominated world of science and how they broke through the glass ceiling.
It's a Wednesday afternoon mid-summer in Trondheim, Norway. May-Britt Moser, 52, and Christiane Nüsslein-Volhard, 72, have spent a day together at the Center for Neural Computation, Moser's Institute. The two women didn't know each other beforehand, but they both belong to an extremely elite club. They are two of the only 11 women who have been recipients of the Nobel Prize for medicine. A total of 196 men have been bestowed with the honor for their work.
Nüsslein-Volhard was awarded the prize in 1995 for her research on the genetic control of embryonic development. In 2014, Moser won the prize together with her husband Edvard and British neuroscientist John O'Keefe for their joint discovery of grid cells that make up the positioning system in the brain.
With the exception of the Nobel prizes, there's a lot that divides the two women: a generation, the cultures of their countries of origin and their purpose in life. May-Britt Moser, who's Norwegian, has two grown daughters and Nüsslein-Volhard, a German, is divorced and childless.
How do the two leading researchers view their careers, their successes and their private lives? After a visit to the laboratory (where the test rats can be petted and even have names), the two women, in the best of moods, sit down for an interview with SPIEGEL about their work as women in the sciences.
SPIEGEL: Professor Moser, daring the risk that this might seem strange, we would like to start with a rather unscientific question ...
Moser: ... I'm curious. What is it about?
SPIEGEL: Fashion, more or less.
SPIEGEL: When you got the Nobel Prize last fall, you became famous overnight not only for receiving the prize -- but also for wearing an extraordinary night-blue dress that showed a glittering neuron pattern. Were you nervous about jeopardizing your scientific credibility with that Academy Award-like appearance?
Moser: Absolutely not. My only challenge was that I love to wear dresses, but I'm not used to wearing long dresses. But I loved this dress because I love to show off for science. People couldn't ignore it, it was shiny and wonderful and everybody started asking questions. That gave me the oportunity to talk about my science and what we do here in this institute.
Nüsslein-Volhard: Are you talking about the dress you wore to the Nobel Prize ceremony? I haven't seen it.
Moser: Yes. And you know what happened? I wanted to wear one that I had used for other prizes. Then I got this email from London, a former tunnel engineer who had decided to be a designer wrote me that he'd made a dress for me. He sent it -- and I liked it (She shows a picture of the dress on her smartphone).
Nüsslein-Volhard: Beautiful! Lovely! I wish someone had sent me a dress back when I attended my ceremony. Of course, I also wanted to look my best. But I think I'm also slightly different from May-Britt with regard to fashion. From early on when I was a child, even though I wanted to be seen, I was always trying to look modest and natural. I don't like women who come into the lab and you see immediately that it took them two hours to dress in the morning. Time is so short and we have so little of it ... (The group look over to May-Britt Moser, who is wearing make-up, high-heel shoes and a colorful dress. Christiane Nüsslein-Volhard smiles.) May-Britt, I notice that you are wearing the same shoes and the same dress as yesterday, which is a good sign because it shows you don't spend your mornings with this.
Moser: (also offering a smile): You are right! I dress time-efficiently.
SPIEGEL: Do you think it's bad for a person's reputation when a person is concerned about one's looks?
Nüsslein-Volhard: Yes, in a way. It was very important for me to be taken seriously for my science and not for my looks or other personal accomplishments.
SPIEGEL: What advantages do women have in science?
Nüsslein-Volhard: I think women who are pretty certainly have an advantage. In any field, in any profession. When a girl is born people still say: Oh, I'm glad that she is pretty. They don't look at whether she is intelligent. For women, beauty still is so much more important than for men. If you are good-looking and people like you, it can't harm, of course.
Moser: You are saying something important here: We have to collaborate with people, and if we can't get along on good terms with each other, then that's bad.
Nüsslein-Volhard: I remember one lab where my boss was not only ugly but also horrible to interact with. It was his secretary who held the whole place together. But I also know labs where women refuse to make a coffee for others because they don't want to be seen doing seemingly female things. I think this is stupid. Why not make a coffee, bring a cake? I do it.
Moser: As a good leader, you need to see how people are. You need to care.
SPIEGEL: In science, too, many women hit the glass ceiling on their way to the top. In Germany, 50 percent of doctoral theses are written by women, but only 27 percent ultimately get post-doc postitions. Is that not an incredible loss of talent?
Nüsslein-Volhard: Probably not. Actually, I think there are too many scientists in this world -- the number of graduate students has doubled in the last 10 years. What should all these university graduates do?
Moser: Not all can be professors.
Nüsslein-Volhard: And not everybody is talented for doing research. I think many women prefer to look for an easier job after their dissertations because what we are doing is very demanding. You have to be mobile. You have to move to different places for your post-doc training. And if you aren't successful, it isn't a very pleasant job, either.
Moser: You are right, it is tough. But just as you compared our field to that in the creative industry -- being a ballet dancer is tough, too. Your career is short and if you don't go for it 200 percent, you can forget about it. But you dance because you love it and you do science because you love it.
Nüsslein-Volhard: And forget about doing it part-time, too.
SPIEGEL: Larry Summers once said that it was innate in women that they were less talented in the natural sciences. Do you think there is any truth in that?
Moser: Saying that had cost him his job as Harvard University's president. So: No, of course he is wrong and of course it was a stupid thing to say.
Nüsslein-Volhard: I once had a professor who thought women were better suited for pottery classes than for a lab. His remarks were extremely insulting. I think women are just as gifted when it comes to science as men are. But I think their wishes and desires are different and this is also shaped by the society in which they live. To put it simply: If you want to have kids and work a little less you have a big disadvantage compared to a male colleague who has a stay-at-home wife packing his suitcases.
SPIEGEL: Professor Moser, you managed to raise two daughters together with your husband. Did you ever think about staying at home with them?
Moser: Sometimes, when our children were little, I would joke to Edvard: "We need a wife!" Some women choose to stay at home and be housewives. If they are happy with it, then it's a wonderful choice. But I know I couldn't do that. I couldn't be a housewife.
Nüsslein-Volhard: I would get bored.
Moser: I would panic! But Edvard and I were also quite naive. We did things that people wouldn't do. We brought the children to the lab, or we took them along on business trips. We found solutions.
SPIEGEL: Who spent more time with the kids when they were little? You or your husband?
Moser: We have been extremely lucky with the children. They were hardly ever sick. And if they were, then only for a short while and then we could split taking care of them. It was quite balanced.
SPIEGEL: Did you know when you started your career that you wanted to have children?
Moser: Absolutely. I am the youngest of five siblings, and having kids was really important for me. To be able to do science and to be able to have my family worked well because Edvard and I joined forces.
SPIEGEL: At what point in your life did you know that you wanted to be a scientist?
Moser: My family doesn't have an academic background. I grew up on a farm, but I also wanted to understand why these animals were doing what they were doing. It wasn't until I got to university that I began to understand that it's possible to ask such questions and get answers, too! You start with a puzzle and slowly you see the parts becoming a picture. It's amazing!
Nüsslein-Volhard: My mother was a kindergarten teacher and my father an architect. I didn't grow up on a farm, but I did spend many vacations at one. I had the best time! At the age of 12, I knew I wanted to be a scientist. After I completed my PhD thesis, I sat back and said: "Now I have to do my own stuff and find something completely new."
SPIEGEL: What roles did your parents play in your career decisions?
Nüsslein-Volhard: My mother was totally ignorant about science, but she supported me by letting me keep pets. She would also wake me up when I wanted to leave early to go bird-watching. I had a very intense relationship with my father, who was always extremely interested in what we kids were doing. I actually think the secret of many successful women is having a father who encourages them. I've met many women who say that. Unfortunately my father died as I was finishing high school.
Moser: My father worked very hard so I didn't see him that often. But when I did he was extremely kind to us.
SPIEGEL: Did you look for mentors later in life?
Nüsslein-Volhard: No. I've had some bad experiences with mentors. My PhD supervisor was very charming and I certainly thought he could be a mentor and guide me. But he couldn't bear that a student was better than him. In the end, he tried to get in my way. I'm still bitter about it today.
SPIEGEL: Was this the one who said women should do pottery instead of science?
Nüsslein-Volhard: (laughs) No, someone else.
SPIEGEL: What do you think about what Nobel Prize recipient Tim Hunt recently said at a conference in Seoul? That there can be complications in the laboratory if women get tangled romantically, that they break out in tears when criticized and that there should therefor be laboratories that are divided by gender?
Nüsslein-Volhard: I know Tim very well and he is in no way misogynistic. He is very charming and well-liked as a speaker in part because of the spontaneous way in which he talks. It was certainly ill-advised to say these things. But it is just crazy that he had to give up his honorary professorship at University College in London because of it. The thing about the divided labs was of course a joke. But feminists often have little sense of humor. The fact that women cry more often is true -- I unfortunately have to agree with that.
Moser: I don't feel insulted by Tim's remarks. On the other hand, I have to admit that I do not like bad jokes about something so serious.
SPIEGEL: Professor Moser, have you had good experiences with your mentors?
Moser: My PhD supervisor was extremely enthusiastic and he loved to tell the public about his research. That was important to me.
Nüsslein-Volhard: He really promoted your work?
Moser: Absolutely. He taught us that when you do science you want to tell a story. You don't need to tell many stories, you can have one every five years. But that one has to be good and important -- and then it will be recognized.
Nüsslein-Volhard: When I had finally written my thesis, my supervisor prevented me from being listed as the lead author. I almost envy May-Britt for having worked with her husband. It is much more fun to do it together than to do it alone. But generally, I think there is too much attention on mentoring nowadays. If people want to be scientists, they will figure out how to do it. They need to figure it out by themselves.
SPIEGEL: Isn't it important to have role models, especially for women?
Nüsslein-Volhard: Who would want to live a life like mine? I don't have children, I don't have a husband. Why should I be a role model?
SPIEGEL: Because you are one of the best scientists in the world?
Nüsslein-Volhard: After a while you get used to being a Nobel Prize laureate. But some colleagues couldn't bear that I got the prize. I remember the day the news came out: I called the managing director of the institute and said: I got the Nobel Prize and we have to have a party.
SPIEGEL: How did he react?
Nüsslein-Volhard: He said: "Can you please organize the champagne yourself? I have no time to take care of that."
Nüsslein-Volhard: Successful women are not liked, particularly in Germany. I think the biggest danger for women in science is colleagues who are not as good as you are.
Moser: When Edvard and I got the prize, I think people felt they shared it with us. It was really overwhelming. Strangers would stop on the street to congratulate us.
SPIEGEL: Professor Nüsslein-Volhard, have times changed since you got the Nobel Prize?
Nüsslein-Volhard: Yes, and they will continue to change as there are more and more women in this situation. In my age group I don't know a single woman who is as successful as I am. I am the total exception. You can be very proud of it. But you are also very isolated.
SPIEGEL: Do you think a mandatory quota for women -- as Norway has it for company supervisory boards -- is a good idea?
Moser: I haven't decided what I think about it. It's true that men, if they are not accustomed to working with women, will continue to support other men. It's about changing the cultures.
Nüsslein-Volhard: I agree, one has to work against discrimination. But I think you have to be more patient. You can't force it. Pushing women into positions they might not be ready for is dangerous. If they fail it is counterproductive for women in general.
SPIEGEL: How powerful are boys' clubs in science?
Nüsslein-Volhard: When you are sitting on committees there is certainly a lot of loyalty between men. One important rule is: Don't shoot at your colleague. That is something that often gets you in trouble. I have often observed myself being too open in telling my opinion. But when you do you don't get the support you need.
SPIEGEL: Professor Moser, is that different in Norway where there are many more women in the workforce?
Moser: Actually, yes. I don't think about being male or female, I just behave naturally. I think in terms of excellence in science, not gender.
SPIEGEL: If it was only about excellence then surely we'd have more female Nobel prize winners. Or is genius male?
Nüsslein-Volhard: The point is you can't get a Nobel Prize for just one good experiment. And most of the women haven't done enough for it. At the Max Planck Institute (Germany's prestigious network of research institutes), not even 10 percent of the directors are female. That is a low number.
SPIEGEL: Professor Moser, you made your husband study psychology with you instead of mathematics as he had planned. How did you do that?
Moser: (laughs) I have a strong will.
SPIEGEL: How harmonious can things be working in the same lab with your spouse every day?
Moser: It's not fair to look at us as a couple when it comes to work. In the lab we are colleagues. We have the same vision and we both are very ambitious. I think ambitious people find ambitious people to play with. We are also very different, like Yin and Yang. We need each other.
SPIEGEL: There's no fighting over who travels to which conference to present your results?
Moser: No, because the ambition is not to show off. It's an ambition to make an unknown quantity understandable. I haven't had the feeling that I need to show off. Wait, I had it as a PhD student.
SPIEGEL: What happened?
Moser: I had to fight to be the lead author on my project. I remember, we were due to submit our paper on a Monday. My youngest daughter was about to be born, but I was still working on the Friday before. So I gave birth to the baby on Saturday morning and came back three days later to make sure I was still the first author. I was that scared for my other baby: my project.
SPIEGEL: How do your children feel about the fact that you and your husband bring science and institute politics to the dinner table?
Moser: When we are all together we try not to talk too much about it. But both the girls now want to study medicine. So I guess they haven't been too put off by what we are doing.
SPIEGEL: Is the love for science something you can teach children?
Nüsslein-Volhard: The drive to want to know is innate in people. You cannot influence this. I think in contrast it is harmful if you push kids too far in a particular direction.
SPIEGEL: So your advice to parents of potential future Nobel Prize laureates is for them not to push too far?
Moser: I was raised with this idea of hard work and keeping doors open. To be able to choose what you want to do in the future. That was what we tried to tell our children, too.
Nüsslein-Volhard: Today the pressure on kids is high to get good grades. In my time, no one cared about it. My father looked at them but he didn't really make much fuss about them.
SPIEGEL: Probably because he didn't have much to worry about anyway.
Nüsslein-Volhard: I knew a lot and everyone thinks I must have been an ace in school. But I didn't work hard, I was lazy. I liked to be lazy. I thought laziness stimulated your imagination.
SPIEGEL: Did the grades you got in school reflect that?
Nüsslein-Volhard: In my high school graduation exams? I got a satisfactory overall score, but I got the lowest possible passing grade in Latin, Physics and English. I guess I was bad at school.
SPIEGEL: Professor Nüsslein-Volhard, Professor Moser, we thank you for this interview.