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      Work/life experiences of Brookes’ academics


    I love it that every single day is something new.

    Verena is a Senior Research Fellow in Plant Cell Biology at Oxford Brookes University.

  • Verena is originally from Germany and studied for her undergraduate and master’s degrees at the Technical University of Munich, focusing on Genetics, Virology and Zoology. She specialised in Genetics, which involved her doing a big project on plant genetics. Whilst she hadn’t intended to go on to do a PhD in Plant Biology, she recalls the unlikely route by which this came about

    One day, I was at the train station and my Professor who had never really talked to me said: ‘you have enough practical experience, you can start a PhD next month’. So there wasn’t really a question… it was more like a statement.

    Whilst she had considered doing a PhD, she had thought of doing it in Virology, not Plant Biology. However, this encounter she felt “was a bit of fate hinting at me” and so she decided to do it. She had also considered going into industry, but loved the research, independence and the novelty of academia which eventually informed her decision to choose the latter. Her next big move, both for her career and geographically, was also the result of happy coincidence:

    Again serendipity, at the end of the PhD I was contacted by Chris Hawes at Oxford Brookes, who I had already had some professional contact with, and he offered me six months of a postdoc.

    She thought:

    Yeah, I’ve always wanted to go abroad for six months…. That was ten years ago!

    Verena then took a post-doc position in Sheffield, and as this was coming to an end heard from Professor Chris Hawes again, who offered her another opportunity at Oxford Brookes.

    Verena gets a lot out of working with others and learns a lot from her colleagues; the opportunities in science for co-working are one of the aspects that she likes the most:

    That is one of the really amazing aspects, that you meet so many crazy, interesting different people, of all cultural backgrounds.

    Verena learned a lot from a scientist, Woong June Park, with whom she worked with on her undergraduate project and has known for 17 years now. In 2012, Verena was awarded a three-month fellowship from the Korean Brain Trust to work with Woong June in South Korea:

    It was probably one of the best times in my life; to live with the Asian culture which is very different.” She still has particularly fond memories of the students.

    Verena feels lucky to have had a number of role models and influences in the scientific community who have looked out for her. She was especially impressed by a Professor from Denmark, and she recalls having thought:

    There’s nothing this guy can’t do; he does every aspect, every technique, he’s running two massive centres…

    So when, last year, she invited him to a conference to give a talk and he complimented her own research: “I was just on cloud number seven.” Another person who has had a big influence on her career is Professor Chris Hawes here at Brookes:

    He has always helped me and opened me to opportunities that I wouldn’t otherwise have.

    Verena also takes great reward from the academic lifestyle:

    I love it that every single day is something new. And you are working at the cutting edge of areas that no-one has seen or researched before. So that’s fantastic…with our findings we can change how people see the world. And I do like, especially within the university, interactions with students. Especially in research projects when they come in and you see them transform from thinking about grades to realising 'I’m doing something that no one else has done before. This change in attitude from how to get the best mark to taking ownership… This is fantastic, this is the great part of the University'

    Therefore, making a difference is of utmost important to Verena and she defines success as

    Making a difference on any aspect: making a difference on people, on knowledge. That’s what I would call a successful career in science.

    Verena was the first one in the family to go to university. She was always very good at school and had a lot of support from her family:

    My mum went out of her way to help me do everything I always wanted to do. She would always tell me to do the best you can do, even though she had no idea about my work.

    Four years ago, Verena had the opportunity to move back to Germany. However, she didn’t take it for personal reasons:

    Whilst being in England I made the mistake of finding my better half here.

    She met her partner at Sheffield and despite moving to England without the intention of meeting anyone, in the end she fell for him!

    Be stubborn, be patient but make sure that you show the world what you can do. At the end of the day you have to be proud of yourself.