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#44 Wolfgang Nellen Story

Dr. Wolfgang Nellen is a professor in Brawijaya University in Malang, Indonesia. In this podcast he shares in experience in transitioning from a student to a professor's role and how that changes one's duties

Published onMar 16, 2018
#44 Wolfgang Nellen Story

In episode #44 of PhD Career Stories, we are very happy to welcome Professor Wolfgang Nellen to the show. Professor Nellen was born in 1949 in Velbert, Germany, and has during his academic career worked in USA, Germany, Jordan, Japan, Sweden and Indonesia.

As of 2015, Professor Nellen holds a Johann Gottfried Herder Fellow of the DAAD and is currently working as a Guest Professor at Brawijaya University in Malang, Indonesia.

Listen to his fascinating life story in which he generously shares his experiences and thoughts on moving on from student to professor and how that changes your duties.

Interestingly the interviews were like a traveling circus. It was almost always the same applicants but each time one less, this one had won the previous position. Even though we were competitors it was a rather relaxed and friendly atmosphere. Everyone was quite positive that he or she would make it sooner or later. This is probably very different today and much more tough.

– Professor Wolfgang Nellen, Guest Professor at Brawijaya University in Malang, Indonesia


Hej I’m Paulius Mikulskis from PhD career stories. Today I would like to introduce Professor Wolfgang Nellen sharing with us his story of his academic career. If you enjoy our podcasts make sure to follow us on as well as Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. And now Professor Nellen’s Story:

My name is Wolfgang Nellen. I'm a retired Professor of Genetics and now a Guest Professor at Brawijaya University in Malang, Indonesia. My official career in science is over and you have to decide if there is anything useful in my story or if it is just outdated.

I became interested in biology at school because of a teacher who attracted my attention. It was quite weird because I was probably the only one in the class who thought that he was really good. He actually make me study biology. I met him again a couple of years later when I was a young group leader and told him that he was the reason for my career he just stared at me and asked: “Why do you think so?”

I studied in Dusseldorf, a young University that had just established a biology curriculum. We, that is about 25 first semester students where the first semester in biology at that university. It was an extraordinary class. We were sticking together like glue and I guess many would not have made it into the career without the support by the group. By the way 10 out of this 25 became professors in biology.

Most of us stayed in Dusseldorf for the PhD after the diploma because we didn’t know any better. Working on the PhD was fun but was also tough. There were essentially no stipends and no jobs as assistance. Many of us worked part-time as a school teacher just to make money for food and an apartment.

After the PhD I got a postdoc position in a very young research group at Marburg University. I remember that my future boss said in the interview “and I appreciate it when I'm not the only one working in the lab on weekends”. Oh my gosh! But anyway this was nothing new for me.

This was the time when molecular biology in Germany was just beginning. There was a lot of enthusiasm. We got secret recipes from Call Spring Harbor how to make sequencing gels and another postdoc in the lab invented horizontal agarose gel. That was absolutely outrageous!

Experiments were not based on kits but they were really good communication between different labs how to optimize restriction digest, how to make an enzyme and so on. I don't mean that we have to go back to prehistoric times in molecular biology but I have to say that I learned a lot about basic science just by trying and by doing experiments.

After two-and-a-half years my boss kind of kicked me out, no not really he said it was better for me to do a second postdoc in a lab abroad and he was absolutely right. He helped me a great deal to find the right place. He sent me to a conference and he suggested some senior scientist to talk to. I talked to just one of them and I got a job at UC San Diego. Condition was I should get a DFG Fellowship. I applied and I got it, probably this is much more difficult today but it’s still possible.

It was a really International Lab and I find out that the excellent American science was mostly done by Swiss, Danish, Canadian, Indian and Mexican postdocs, and Germans of course and they all brought fellowships from their countries. There was an American minority in the lab. But I have to say that they were pretty well integrated into the International crew.

There was certainly more pressure, more stress, more competition. Without knowing, two postdocs were put on the same project and was one of them. I had to compromise not only on this but also on another project where I only got 2nd authorship on a Nature paper but in the end it was worth it.

For some reason I got a special status in the lab, I don't know why. I had less order from the bosss and could essentially do what I wanted. I did not have any undergraduate students that I could supervise and that could help with my project but I was quite independent and could design my own projects.

The harvest and papers were quite good and after three and a half years it was high time to move on for bigger and better things. I applied for several assistant professorships in the US and I got pretty close. In retrospect I'm rather happy that I did not get any of these offers. I then went on tour in Germany asking all relevant labs to invite me for a seminar. It worked out well and some even paid part of the travel cost. They all liked my work but even at that time in 1985 there was the job bottleneck after the postdoc. In the end there was just one job offer left, a group leader position at the the Max planck institute (MPI) in Martinsried. Obviously not the worst choice.

It was again expected to get extra more funding and before starting at the MPI I asked the DFG for advice. I was quite surprised that Dr Clauford, the head of the Life Science Department said on the phone, why don't you just come by and we can talk about it.

Unknowingly I had apparently established the first track of record by my fellowship in the US. The DFG in UMI. The appointment was extremely helpful. There was a lot of advice and suggestions. I went home, wrote an application and it was founded shortly after I started working in Martinsried.

I stayed for 9 years and most of the time, definitely not all of the time, it was paradise: good basic funding, excellent scientific environment, independent and the projects were going quite well.

Max Planck is a research institution, no teaching that was in a way very nice but thinking ahead I established contact to Munich University and offered to teach some courses. They turned out to be extremely valuable not only did I get documented teaching experience but also communication with university research group. It ended up with me being incorporated in a research consumption founded by The DFG and in many more contexts.

Though Max Plank was paradise and I had a tenure position, I felt a bit uneasy because my status as group leader was closely connected to the Max Planck Director and he was close to retirement and there was some pressure to look for a job elsewhere.

I applied for professorships. It was almost like a ritual. The first applications were more or less ignored. Then there were invitation for interviews and presentations. Then there were the first entries on the shortlist and then there was finally the call, the definite offer of a professorship.

Interestingly the interviews were like a traveling circus. It was almost always the same applicants but each time one less, this one had won the previous position. Even though we were competitors it was a rather relaxed and friendly atmosphere. Everyone was quite positive that he or she would make it sooner or later. This is probably very different today and much more tuff.

I finally got a professorship at Kassel university. What helped that was my good teaching experiment at Munich University and my experience as a high school teacher I never had thought about that before. Applicants are mostly selected by their contribution to research but the search committee wanted someone who can handle the teaching. Of course it was not the best place but it could have been worse.

In terms of research it was like from moving from paradise directly to hell from abundance from Max Planck institute to shortage in everything and lack of money. External funding was much much more important but much more difficult to get with a background of a small university. In addition, founding had become tighter.

Somewhat different strategy was required to run a research lab. Somehow I managed. My research was not extremely expensive and there was always some grant money. We were clearly not the top lab in Germany but probably still slightly above the average.

Moving on from student to postdoc to group leader to professorship changes your duties dramatically. I enjoyed lab work as a postdoc and group leader but it was also a lot of fun to slowly move to designing new research concepts and finally coordinate the work of a group and bring various aspect together to the big picture.

What I did not like was the increasing amount of administrative work and the necessity to delegate non scientific tasks and responsibilities to my PhD students and postdocs. I hated it to a point that I had one officer of biological safety, one for chemical safety, one for G-technology safety, computer safety, electrical safety and one for animal welfare. Nowadays however, it maybe even helpful for getting a job when you are certified chemical safety officer.

Anyway, when I retired I was quite happy to get out of the administrative bureaucracy but not out of science. I now have a job as a Guest Professor at the University in Indonesia. In terms of research, I did not know that there was a second level of hell where Kassel University seemed like paradise. But you become more patient when you get older.

To very slowly build up science in this country is also rewarding, especially when you can work with young people who are hungry for science.

Taking together I was lucky, I was very lucky. I had good teachers, good supervisors. I had a lot of good advice from friends, colleague and I always had a very good and enthusiastic team of diploma students, master students and PhD students. My former hoster and colleagues from a DHG funding group became a network and one contact led to the other. That was extremely important and helpful.

For you, I wish you good luck and always the right moves to forward your career.

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