"Nothing ventured, nothing gained”
Professor Raunser, at just 37 years of age you were appointed Professor of Membrane Biochemistry at Freie Universität Berlin; a year later you became a director at the Max Planck Institute in Dortmund. As we say in German, was this career laid in the cradle for you?
No, not at all. I was the first person in my family to go to university. My father is a craftsman, my mother a medical assistant. I was the first to graduate from school with an Abitur. But very early in life I had a great interest in science: mathematics, physics, biology. Probably the basis for all this was curiosity. The desire to find out and understand how something works or why something is like it is. Nevertheless, I initially didn’t plan to become a researcher.
What were your initial plans?
When I started to study chemistry and biology I wanted to become a teacher. But during my studies I realized that research was so much fun that I wanted to continue doing it. That’s why I also studied biology for a diploma degree. I might have chosen other subjects such as architecture or business studies. But what I especially like about science: There are certain laws that apply. And you can discover things that nobody has ever seen before.
Isn’t it more or less a matter of luck whether you discover something important or not?
Yes and no. Of course you also need a certain amount of luck, if you want to succeed. But you also have to put in some effort.
What is essential in your experience?
I only realized relatively late that it is not enough just to be good and committed. You also have to be prepared to compete. I experienced how hard that can be during my dissertation. At that time I was working on an exciting topic. But before I could publish my results, I was “scooped”. That is to say, another team was faster and snatched the success away from me, right under my nose. That was bitter.
What did you learn from this?
Then I thought seriously about leaving research. That really was an incisive experience. But ultimately I benefited from it. Because I realized that I was strong enough to keep at it. And that’s exactly what I mean. It takes a strong will, faith in oneself and to a certain extent the courage to swim against the current and to be a bit crazy. That doesn’t mean you should try to pull the stars from the sky. Rather, it is about freedom of thought. About not getting discouraged and putting an idea aside when somebody says “that won’t work”, but instead considering how it might possibly work after all. And then to plan the next logical step.
How much depends on a topic?
A lot. That begins already with the dissertation. That usually determines where you end up later. Generally you have to have a good sense of what is relevant at the moment in research. Therefore you have to recognize: What are the key questions? What topics will play a role in the coming years? But just as important in my opinion is making a proper assessment of yourself.
What do you mean by that?
That means that I ask myself: What are my strengths? That is where I attempt to score. Moreover, I have always followed the motto: nothing ventured, nothing gained. That means that I choose projects that carry a relatively high risk of failure but in which I will achieve a great effect if I succeed. By that I do not mean a kind of gambler mentality. Rather, it’s more about having the confidence to enter new scientific territory and in the best case being among the pioneers there. That‘s what I try to impart to my students and postdocs.
What stands out: You have about the same number of women in your research team as men. Is this a coincidence or your intention?
That is clearly my intention. When hiring new staff, I always try to maintain the balance in the team and always have about 50 percent women and 50 percent men. Underlying this is not a strained effort to be politically correct. Rather, it is my experience that mixed teams work best. Diversity encourages thinking outside the box. This also applies to different nationalities. People who come from a different culture often have a different approach to tackling a problem. In addition, through this exchange you get a different perspective on certain questions. Around 30 of my staff members come from other countries such as India, China, Chile, Israel, Japan and Italy.
How do you manage such a diverse group as team leader?
My task is to lead young team members in the right direction, but in this direction to give them maximum freedom. My ideal of a group is not of one where there is one brain and many arms that implement what the brain has conceived. On the contrary, in my team there are many intelligent minds and many arms that can implement good ideas. Nor do I try to force results. Instead I attempt to bundle and support good ideas so that they are – hopefully – successful. If at all possible, I make sure that I talk with each of my staff members at least once a week.