10 Questions with Charlotta Lorenz
Charlotta Lorenz, 22, from Germany is a master student at the University of California, Santa Barbara in the U.S.
She works in biophysics and wants to find a physical model which describes biological cells most appropriately.
Charlotta is a participant of the 66th Lindau Nobel Laureate Meeting which is dedicated to the field of physics in 2016.
Enjoy the interview with Charlotta and get inspired:
- What inspired you to pursue a career in physics / STEM?
I think, technology and the small wonders it brings about inspire and motivate me to do STEM. For example, our understanding of physics makes airplanes fly, LEDs work and implants work in a way that they can nearly fulfill the usual function of a limb. I had great fun understanding basic processes as a child and youth and was fascinated by the idea to advance those concepts to create something new and helpful. Studying physics is also not only studying the laws of nature, but learning how to tackle complex problems and that’s a skill that’s transferable to many fields.
- Who are your role models?
First of all, as probably most children would say, my parents are my role models. They both manage a healthy work-life-balance and achieved a lot in their lives. My mother’s parents did not support her in going to Grammar School unlike her brother. When she started studying Engineering at university against their will, her parents stopped supporting her financially. However, she kept on doing what she was convinced about and graduated with the German diploma in Engineering. She really had to fight her way through many biases, especially against women, which were even more common at that time and I admire her endurance and her will power. While going to Grammar School, I was mainly inspired by two of my teachers. My chemistry teacher fascinated me for sciences and offered my many different competitions to take part in. She was enthusiastic about science as well, highly committed to her job and taught with us with excitement. Besides her, my Latin teacher managed to lead an entire orchestra in his free time, though he was also writing books for Grammar School lessons. Again, in both cases I was impressed by their lasting commitment and enthusiasm.
At university I continued meeting professors who are role models to me since they do not only conduct vital research and have fun teaching physics, but they also have families and a life outside academia at the same time.
Indeed, there I have role models like Marie Curie, but her achievements are probably beyond what I will ever do.
- How did you get to where you are in your career path?
Currently, I am a Fulbright Scholar visiting the University of California, Santa Barbara, where I write my Master’s thesis to complete my Master’s program at the University of Göttingen. Previously, I’ve been studying Physics with a specialization on biophysics in Göttingen as well.
I guess my actual interest for physics rose in my last year of high school. In Germany, you are allowed to choose three higher level courses for your high school degree and I picked chemistry, maths and Latin. My father was the one who suggested to take physics as well, saying that “it might be what I’d like to do”, but I wasn’t interested too much at that time. My chemistry teacher helped me to get into an “earlybird” program at our local university in Oldenburg where I went to school. Thus, I got exposed to university lecture, homework and other students who were highly interested in physics. I loved it! People at school were nice, but suddenly you could talk to people who were “on the same wavelength” and similarly interested. In total, I took two courses, one in physics and one in maths, which made me finally decide to study physics.
However, I was the only girl in the STEM special topics class in our school. You have to choose one and all other girls picked economics, languages or geography. Luckily, I was immune to being depressed by that, but it’s still a weird feeling and you have to be 100% sure to do the right thing. The only one girl who started with me in that course, changed to another course after the first lesson.
In Göttingen I could explore many different fields of physics. For example, I worked on a small tornado model with other students at the DLR. I won a RISE scholarship to go to the Argonne National Laboratory near Chicago and conduct research about magnetic nanostructures. Since I had became a member of the National German Academic Foundation (Studienstiftung) in 2012 I could live in Zurich for a short time and do research about the oxidization of graphene at the ETH. Those projects were very helpful to see what I really wanted to do. Finally, I wrote my Bachelor’s thesis with Prof Dr Sarah Köster (Universität Göttingen) as my advisor and she was a very important mentor for me concerning my focus on biophysics, going abroad and organizing my Master’s studies. Now I am working as a graduate student and Fulbright scholar with Prof Phd Megan Valentine on cell mechanics.
- What is the coolest project you have worked on and why?
It is hard to nominate one specific project as the coolest one, because they were all great fun, just in different areas. I really enjoyed oxidizing graphene with the atomic force microscope at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology, but since this is experimental work I should not compare it to my Bachelor’s project which is about the analysis of adhesion energy of blood platelet. We came up with a different way to look at adhesion energy which is often hard to measure due to catch-bond effects. The oxidization of graphene could be a starting point for tiny electric circuits since oxidized graphene does not conduct. I thought that’s also fancy.
Yet, right now I am working on my first own project which is about a microtubule network and I do the experiments, setup installation and data analysis myself which is great fun! We will look at growing and shrinking microtubules just as the exist in a real cell! If the measurements work out, we will be able to characterize a large part of cell mechanics.
- What’s a time you felt immense pride in yourself / your work?
In general, I don’t feel too much pride in what I do, it’s more some kind of happiness that whatever I did worked or I made correct assumptions.
However, there’s one moment at a Latin competition when I was really surprised and I guess proud. In Sixth Form I was highly interested in chemistry, maths and Latin. Physics was nice, too, but for some reason I had not chosen it at that time to be a higher level course. Thus, I took part in a Latin competition for which you had to write a thesis, do research about a philosopher and give a talk. In the final round, there were twelve candidates left and I was highly surprised that I was allowed to participate at all. Everybody knew that only two people were going to be finally awarded the scholarships by the German National Academic Foundation / Studienstiftung and as it came to the award ceremony, first, ten people were honored and another friend of mine and I were left. I was scared that they didn’t print our theses or we were disqualified because of unknown reasons, but then the scholarship’s representative started speaking and it became clear that we won the competition. I was completely overwhelmed by the fact that for the first time my work was recognized outside school and somebody was impressed.
- What is a “day in the life” of Charlotta like?
I’m currently working on my Master’s thesis at the University of Caliornia, Santa Barbara.
After answering e-mails and planning experiments from about 08:00 am on, we have group meeting at 09:30, talks or interdisciplinary group meetings until about 10:30 am. Then I start working on our microscope set-up for particle tracking and take some data. If I’m lucky, I catch lunch with colleagues or friends and sometimes I play the piano on campus in a nearby building. In the early afternoon, I start preparing samples for the confocal microscope and image them afterwards. That takes up to four hours since we have to heat up the microscope to 35℃ to simulate the conditions in a real cell. I might have a meeting with a colleague in lab in between to discuss and work on our setup.
Usually I leave campus at about 6:00-8:00 pm and look forward to a run at the Caliornian beach or meet with friends! Afterwards I cook dinner and start analyzing data from the day.
- What are you seeking to accomplish in your career?
As idealistic as it sounds, I’d like to improve the world. That could be in terms of advancing research, developing new technology and deepening our understanding of physical processes. But it’s also important to spread my knowledge and to show other people how fun an useful science can be.
- What do you like to do when you’re not doing research?
A training plan for a half marathon is pinned to the wall of my room and sometimes I even stick to it. The great view on the Californian coast is definitely supporting running around here! Every week there’s a match from my soccer team made of physics graduate students and I’m not a good soccer player, but it’s fun. Usually, I go ballroom dancing, but my dancing partner’s in Germany and I prefer the “two body problem” for dancing. Outdoor sports are huge around here, so I try to go hiking, kayaking, stand-up-paddling and swimming as well.
I like photography, too, and some of the images are uploaded on my blog I write in my free time. Outreach in general is important to me, so I have been to a couple of events with high school students to tell them about studying STEM, doing experiments etc. If there’s time left during the week, I practice the piano (Schubert and Chopin are awesome!).
- What advice do you have for other women interested in physics / STEM?
Beyond everything else, I would tell them that they should study the field they enjoy most. There’s no reason to force yourself to spend most time in your life with something you might be good at, but you’re not excited about. Holding on to that maxim, don’t care what other people think about you studying STEM! Saying that you study physics on parties might make other people swallow or look less interested. In one out of two responses I hear “Oh, that’s what I dropped at school”, “Wow, that’s so difficult!” or “Is that like living in Big Bang Theory? You don’t look like them!”. Just don’t care and talk about something else – you can be the one changing the stereotypical image of an anti-social geek!
- In your opinion, what will be the next great breakthrough in physics research?
The biophysicist in me is convince that something like the “grand unified cell theory” will be the next milestone in physics. Physics is very close to describing the universe, but a single, “simple” biological cell does not have a closed physical (mechanical) description. But I guess that solving the hierarchy problem in super-symmetry and finding a perfect theory will probably be even more fundamental.
What should be done to increase the number of female profs of physics?
A first simple step would be anonymous applications for open positions. Surveys have shown that applications from male applicants are preferred over applications from their equally qualified, female concurrents. Quotas are often discussed, but I think they do not tackle the problem at its roots. However, more female professors might make it easier to imagine for female physics students to become a professor as well. This is a vicious circle which is hard to resolve.
There are many factors why some women shy away from science and a huge part
is anchored in our society, for example, it’s not (yet) “girly” to play around with
electric circuit kit when you’re young. Parents rate their son as more talented in
maths as their daughter even though they get the same grades in elementary school.
It’s hard to work against those stereotypes, but I think we have to show our society
that everybody can study physics and that it’s not a “super crazy” subject. I think
that more outreach activities to schools would be a good first step.
First and second photo: credit to CYQUEST.