10 Questions with Lena Funcke
Lena Funcke, 21, from Germany is a Ph.D. student at the Max Planck Institute for Physics in Munich, Germany.
She develops new models to explain the small masses of neutrinos.
Lena is a participant of the 66th Lindau Nobel Laureate Meeting which is dedicated to the field of physics in 2016.
Enjoy the interview with Lena and get inspired:
- What inspired you to pursue a career in physics / STEM?
My motivation for physics has always been the quest to explore the fundamental structures underlying our observable world. For me, it is not only surprising but incredibly fascinating that such a perfect, abstract, and human-made construct as mathematics seems to describe the foundations of our Universe!
- Who are your role models?
There have been many people in my life who were important mentors and role models for me. Let me just mention a few examples. During my childhood and youth, I was strongly influenced by books, especially by the book series “The Song of the Lioness”. The main character was inspiring because she was an impressive, strong, and ambitious heroine, who had to overcome numerous challenging obstacles in her life. In my “real life”, my father, a chemist, greatly influenced me in my decision to become a researcher with his enthusiastic comments about “thoughts nobody has ever had before”. Also one of my high school teachers enthused me for science by showing us popular science documentaries about neuroscientists, who were bubbling over with curiosity and ambition for their research.
- How did you get to where you are in your career path?
Let me split this answer into two parts, covering the time before and after I finished high school. I grew up in a small village near Muenster in Germany as the youngest of five children and had the good fortune to have very supportive and open-minded parents. During my childhood, I loved to learn new things, was extremely curious and passionate about knowledge, and devoured books like chocolate. My parents encouraged me to skip two classes at primary school and to attend several university events organized for children.
Over time, I became more and more fascinated by the mysteries of our Solar System and the Universe, so I decided to make two internships at the Institute for Planetology at the University of Muenster when I was 13 and 16 years old, respectively. The director of the institute gave me the opportunity to help organize two international congresses and to actively join one of the research groups in his institute. He also published my research results on the age determination of moon craters, so that I proudly co-authored my first peer-reviewed article before finishing my A-levels. These experiences impressed and excited me so much that they drove my final decision to become a scientist. Thus, while still being a high school student, I started junior studies in physics at the University of Muenster. I chose philosophy as my minor subject and attended lectures and seminars in neuroscience, psychology, geophysics, and medicine in my pursuit of knowledge.
After finishing high school, I completed my Bachelor in physics at the University of Muenster within only two years, since my junior studies had already covered the majority of the first-year courses. In order to experience academic excellence and widen my horizon by going abroad, I moved to Cambridge to complete a challenging and extraordinary Master course in physics. Last October, I finally started my PhD at the interface of particle physics and cosmology at the Max Planck Institute for Physics and the Ludwig Maximilian University in Munich.
During my university studies I received a lot of encouragement and inspiration. Many great lectures in Muenster, Cambridge, and Munich strengthened my fascination for science and drove my decision to work to become a theoretical particle physicist. In addition, I had the fortune to receive financial and non-material support by the German Academic Merit Foundation and the Germany Scholarship program, which gave me a lot of orientation and encouragement for my future as an academic researcher. On top of that, during my studies I have met many kind fellow students, collaborators, and mentors who were similarly ambitious and enthusiastic about science and who are to numerous to give each of them the credit they deserve here.
- What is the coolest project you have worked on and why?
Before starting my PhD, most projects that I worked on focussed on tiny little aspects of physics. In my current PhD project, I am connecting many different fields of research in mathematics, theoretical, and experimental physics. This diversity of my current research makes it extremely interesting! Moreover, my PhD project touches the foundations of our current understanding of particle physics and cosmology.
To be more precise, I am currently working on the mysterious characteristics of a very special particle, called neutrino. Last year, the Nobel Prize for Physics was awarded to the experimentalists who found out that these neutrinos have an incredibly small mass. This fact has huge consequences both for the theoretical understanding of particle masses and for the evolution of our Universe. Interestingly, these small neutrino masses cannot be explained by our current theoretical knowledge; thus, we need to investigate physics beyond the so-called “Standard Model” of particle physics. My current project offers a theoretical explanation for the smallness of the neutrino masses: we suggest that it originates from gravitational effects. This idea is substantially different from all other previous attempts to solve this mystery, and it has important cosmological and experimental consequences probably testable in the near future. This is by far the coolest project I have ever worked on, and I am happy to present it in a poster contribution at the Lindau Nobel Laureate Meeting and am hoping to discuss it with the great minds who are present.
- What’s a time you felt immense pride in yourself / your work?
I think the best example is my Master course in Cambridge. It involved joy, fascination, and intense happiness, but also a lot of pressure, self-doubts, and many sleepless nights. Therefore, I was immensely proud when I finished the course with distinction and got exam results of up to 99%, even though I was only 19 years old at the start of the Master course. My time in Cambridge taught me that it is worth to accept even very tough challenges, because overcoming obstacles makes you strong and proud of your abilities.
- What is a “day in the life” of Lena like?
After having breakfast, I cycle for half an hour through Munich to my working place, take a shower, check out the latest publications, and start to work on my projects. A project typically lasts a few months and stretches over a similar pattern of tasks. It starts with reading into an interesting topic, which means that I search in books and publications until reaching the end of the current physics knowledge. The next step of a project is a very creative one: I imagine “what if” and “why not” and discuss new ideas with my collaborators or my supervisor. Afterwards, we go back to the literature and burry ourselves in calculations to examine the ideas’ plausibility and to estimate the importance of proposed effects. Most of the time we find that the considered effects are negligible or that people have had similar ideas already ten years ago. But even though most things have already been explored before, one out of ten ideas finally turns out to be fruitful.
Apart from research, I have lunch and tea with my office mates, go to lectures, give tutorials, and attend seminars during the day. In the evening I meet up with friends, sing in a choir, play the piano, go to ballroom dancing or swimming, or simply have a lazy couch evening with my boyfriend watching “Doctor Who”.
- What are you seeking to accomplish in your career?
My dream would be to combine several aspects in my career: doing research, teaching students, stimulating public interest in science, and exploring foreign cultures and places all over the world. The work I do during my PhD offers me a good starting point, since it involves doing research, giving tutorials and lectures for younger students, and attending conferences and workshops. In the long run, I would like to pursue an academic career, starting with a Postdoc position.
- What do you like to do when you’re not doing research?
As briefly mentioned in my description of the daily routine, I like to do all kinds of sports and music. On the weekends, I love to explore Munich’s beautiful environment in bike tours with my boyfriend and friends. I especially look forward to our first boat trip with our folding kayak that we have recently acquired and which we are currently mending. If time allows, I also attend events by political parties or societies, in which current social and political issues are discussed.
- What advice do you have for other women interested in physics / STEM?
Throughout the past several years, I have met many girls and women who considered to study physics or another STEM subject but were “too afraid”, felt “too stupid”, or wanted to do “something more social”. Since many of them later regretted their decision against it, let me address these points in specific. Many of my fellow students and colleagues have faced fears and frustration during their studies (independent of their gender) and agreed that overcoming these obstacles has given them essential life skills. Moreover, there are always people willing to help: most physicists are tremendously friendly and supportive. Concerning the objection of being “too stupid”, I have made the experience that many boys have programming and technical crafting skills already before starting to go to university, which can give women the false impression of being less suited for STEM subjects. I also felt stupid at some points of my life, but I found out that “not knowing something” does not meet “being stupid”! People usually look smarter from the outside and most initial differences in skills can be easily overcome. Finally, I would like to emphasize that most scientists do not fulfill the unsocial stereotype of a lonely person having brilliant ideas in front of a sheet of paper or in a lab. Science is collaborative! We discuss, share our ideas in conferences, and teach it to the next generation. And while we do have some people that obviously escaped from the Big Bang Theory, physicists in general are way more social people: we celebrate parties, do music, sports, and much more, just like everyone else.
- In your opinion, what will be the next great breakthrough in physics research?
Well, I might be slightly biased by my research focus on particle physics and cosmology – but I am of the opinion that the recently accomplished experimental ability to measure gravitational waves (ripples in the fabric of spacetime) will provide us with extremely important and unexpected information about the Universe. Up to recently, most of the information physicists obtained about the Universe was carried from far far away to our Earth by light. Being now able to detect gravitational waves means that physicists gained a new sense: gravitational waves carry completely different and probably very exciting new information about the Universe!
What should be done to increase the number of female professors of physics?
The situation may differ from country to country, but I think it is a general problem in academics that people rarely get a permanent position before they turn 40. After finishing their PhDs, academic physicists are required to jump from one two-year postdoc contract to another and stand under the pressure of regularly publishing much-cited articles. Such a life suffers from a lack of security, often enforces long-distance relationships, and gives very low flexibility in the choice of living places and positions. This is hard for academic researchers and has the consequence that many eligible physicists leave into industry after the PhD, where they get offered very good jobs!
Women in academics are especially affected by this situation since they cannot shift their family plans to a later point in life. Most of the female professors I know decided against children, and most of my female friends and acquaintances are not willing to sacrifice family for a career. For me, this is actually one of the reasons why I will eagerly pursue my career to finish my PhD at the age of 23, so that I will have some time to hopefully get a permanent position before planning to start a family. In my opinion, to give academic researchers more security and tenure-track positions is crucial in order to keep more female physicists in academics.
Third photo: credit to B. Wankerl/MPP.