Season 2

Episode 17 - Balancing Science and Self ft. Dr. Nadine Gogolla

Episode 16 Episodes list Episode 18

In this episode, Sandra and Alli are joined by Dr. Nadine Gogolla, group leader at the Max Planck Institute for Neurobiology. 
They talk about family and research and how to successfully combine the two while staying true to yourself. They discuss what being a good ally means and include some tips that are applicable to the scientific work environment. They talk about sensitivity training and why equal opportunity and diversity are still far from being “no-brainers”. 
Having lived both in the US and in Germany, Nadine shares her experiences of being a family with two moms and a woman in science in these countries. 
You can find more about Nadine’s work here.

Follow the Offspring Podcast on Twitter, Instagram and LinkedIn.

Nadine: Hello, my name is Nadine Gogolla, and I am a research group leader at the Max Planck institute of Neurobiology, outside Munich.

A: It’s very exciting! So, what do you do at the institute for neuroscience? What kind of research do you do?

N: My lab studies emotions, the neural underpinnings of emotion. We use mice as animal models. And we’re trying to solve circuits that could underline different features of emotions, such as their valence, how does the body talk to the brain, how do we perceive emotion, how to emotions elicit physical but also behavioural changes, how do they affect decision making, and so on. 

A: Sounds very cool! So you you decided that medicine wasn’t for you and decided to stick with science, were there ever times where you didn’t want to stick with science? Because it can be really hard, it can be it’s a lot of failure, and I think a lot of people not in science don’t see that. Were there ever times you wanted to give up?

N: Every 2 years, maybe. Yeah, I think that I never thought that I was a born scientist. There were many occasions where I thought I could be doing so many things. I was interested in psychology, I was interested in arts, and I thought maybe teaching would be better. So I always put everything into question, or very regularly. And I thought that the scientific career was very good for this because it gives you ways to go on for some time, for some years, but still have opportunities to branch out and do something else. I know that some of my friends really went into teaching. Because, especially in Germany, there was a lack of teachers and they tried to recruit from students who study biology or math and so on. Also, I was interested in the pharmaceutical industry at one point. But in the end, I always stuck with science because I decided that it was better, for me at least. 

A: Do you think if you hadn’t seen those women who kind of, you know, had it all if it, would have been as easy to keep going? How important was it to see those figures?

N: I think it was very important. But I also had male mentors who just told me, you can have it, you just do not need to wait until somebody else does it, in the end it has to be you who achieves it. Especially, my PhD mentor. Who was very much supportive of this idea and he did even tell me that maybe, in my case, it would be easier to move to the US and start a family. So he really supported me just by telling me that he thought it was possible. I think he wasn’t a role model but he was pushing me into the right direction.

A: So, when you say in your case it might have been better to go to the US, what do you mean? What was special about the US that may have been more suited to you than anywhere in Europe?

N: Yeah, so I’m in the same-sex relationship, I’m married to a woman. And, at the time I did my PhD, I met her. And at that time, until today I have to say, it’s much harder in Germany. We were in Switzerland together, she’s French. So in all those countries that we were aware of, having children was still difficult, was some sort of a grey zone – it wasn’t really possible but some people managed. Not illegally, but somehow in some grey zone, where they managed to organise it. While in the US there were official paths to achieve pregnancy, to get married, and so on. At least in the state where we went, which was Massachusetts, so it’s not true of all the states or wasn’t true at that point. But for the coasts, it was true, and they were more advanced than Europe in this matter.

A: So you did go to the States for a while, then?

N: Yes, for 6 years.

A: Okay. And, if you thought the States was maybe better suited, what made you decide to come back to Germany? If you originally didn’t think it was the right choice.

N: Yeah, I think two things. One is that we had a chance to get a child and get married, so this was ticked off and we could afford to come back. Before we moved back, we made sure we could have a second child here, in Germany, and by that time it was totally possible, and by that time we were also able to marry, both in Germany and in France. So things have evolved. The other thing was that we realised that having a family in the US, it’s different than having it in Europe. Because the social security system isn’t that developed there or isn’t very supportive of families. So that was the reason, plus having our own families, so grandparents and uncles and aunts around was also a nice thing that we wanted to have back. But we were hesitant, I mean we considered staying in the US. I mean, eventually, I think it was a very good choice for us to come back to Europe.

A: Okay, yeah. I wondered about this, what you brought up, like it’s maybe legally or logistically possible in America, or even now in Europe, but I think that’s kind of only half the equation of having a family life and doing science. There’s also the social support that you mentioned, the family, and I wonder do you feel like you have that side of the equation in Europe? Or in the States, as well, I guess?

N: Yeah, in Germany, it was much easier for us. Our families, both are 6 hour drive away so they were not here every day. But the child care system in Germany being much less expensive, it was affordable for us. In the US, it’s almost a postdoc salary that goes into child care for very young children. So that that would have been impossible during my postdoc. And then, if I had taken up an advanced job, it would have been a huge budget. And here, it was much easier, in this respect, and the work provided child care place for me, so this was very easy. 

Sandra: So everything that you told us now, it sounds like that you’re obviously very open with your relationship and your sexual orientation, has this always been the case? Or maybe, more specifically, is there something specific about the scientific community that made you feel, in the past, that you could be open, or maybe not that open, that you have to hide something? What was your experience with that?

N: Yeah, I have come out when I was 26, I think, so not it wasn’t always so easy for me or clear for me. I think that for me, there were more personal reasons, and the more, I think, I was still in Germany and in an environment where people were talking to me an d assumed that I would have a certain sexual orientation that was much harder. I think in this respect science has really made it so easy for me because I moved around, I moved abroad and when you get into a totally new place and people don’t know you, they ask you a lot of questions and you just tell from the start who you are and what you are. And I think that in science, in particular, people have to be open-minded in some sense because they’re often coming from abroad, they are often alone, they rely on being allies to each other. And so for this, science was really liberating for me and has made it much easier.

S: That’s good to hear.

It sounds like being open was almost self-reinforcing. Like you said the more you said it, the better I felt, the more open. You make it sound easy. Did it feel just easy?

N: Yeah, I think that coming out was for me difficult and not. Because I was 26, I mean, there is like 8 or 10 years or whatsoever that you are already starting to have relationships, trying things out. And that you always feel something is wrong and that you do not feel entirely who you’re, or at least that was my experience. When I eventually came out, everything, the burden kind of fell off. That definitely had to do with the fact that I had to explain to my family, which was very easy, they were also kind of happy and relieved that it out of the sack. At work, it really helped. I mean, I really think that if you are caught in a certain environment for years, if you have never moved out from home or something, this could be much harder. Or if your family isn’t accepting. I don’t think that one can just know, I think. for every person it is very different. I don’t think one can assume. I think what I definitely do not like is, there’s a wide range of opinions of this diversity problem, right, some people may say, why do we actually still discuss it? It’s not the issue, our societies are very welcoming, it’s not an issue anymore. And then I would say, well, you do not know. For some people, it may be very hard. For some people, it may be hard if you go to the bank and they assume you have to have a husband, and you cannot open your bank account at all. And I mean, I’ve sat in a bank with my brother and they assumed he has to decide who spends the money and then we were like, no, it’s my brother. I mean, it’s not always easy. Or if you live in a village, and people are not nice to you. So I don’t think it’s a no-brainer. I also think that there are certain European countries, which are like a five-hour drive from here, who are putting out of politics which are very threatening and very scary. And I think the more you open and put things straight, that you do not want to be with people who are not accepting, then you have to filter them out very soon. Otherwise, they can get at you. So I think that this mentality, there is no problem, we don’t need to discuss it anymore, is definitely not true. Also not for very young people who may still need to come out to their parents, to their siblings, to their classmates. I think there is still a huge problem. I mean, my boy is 10 years old now, and they’re already starting jokes about gay people. So it’s not donee. But I think there’re also very positive messages. For instance, I have not personally suffered from discrimination at the job. I think I can be very proud and happy in my relationship. All my neighbours, all my colleagues are very accepting, and for them it’s really a no-brainer, and that is very nice right. So I think there are all different sizes. And in the end, I guess I meet very many international students and for some of them it’s very easy and for others it may be much harder. 

A: So you describe a lot to consider and that there is still a lot that’s still going on. And you said you came out during your PhD, and that you did spend a long time before that kind of exploring yourself. And I guess I’m wondering, was there a particular thing that pushed you to come out? Or, you know, what prompted you to finally get over that?

N: I think it was a conversation with a friend from my PhD. It was very, in some sense, it’s very stupid, it sounds very stupid, but I literally told him, and he was a very close friend, I told him, I think I am attracted to women and since maybe a long time and I’m really in love, but I think that people like me, there aren’t any other gay people who are like me. Because what I could see openly, I mean I studied in Paris before this and I went to many gay prides. Because in Paris, it was just this thing where everybody went, it’s fun. And people were very openly gay sometimes at the gay pride or on the car, they kind of looked very different and much more, you know. I do not try to attract too much attention to me, with my hairstyle, or my clothes, or in general, so I thought maybe people like me are not there. And I do not enjoy going to the nightclub, I’d rather go hiking and so on. And then I also felt people will look differently than me. And my friend just told me, if you feel like this and there are 7 billion people in the world, it’s very unlikely that there’s nobody like you. So he just said, you know, whatever it is that you really enjoy or what you think defines you, maybe you should try to meet gay people there. So in the end, I enrolled in an athletic club for gay people because I really enjoyed sports. And then I realised, well, actually, maybe this is a .good starting point for me, rather than going to a nightclub and feeling all alone.

S: Is this also the reason maybe, why now as a group leader you’re so open with your sexual orientation? For instance, I saw that, I mean you’re now talking to us, which is amazing, then on Twitter I saw that you have the little small pride flag there. Is that the name? This little flag there. So maybe your experiences did kind of then lead you to being open with it now? Because I think it is extremely important also to have role models, also for different sexual orientations. And then, as you said, a lot of different role models because there’s not just one lesbian person or one queer person and one type that you have to fit in.

N: Yeah, I think that’s very true. I think trying to, as I said I didn’t meet anybody I was dating in that athletics club, but just seeing some people who I found, oh, they enjoy the same things, they maybe have a similar lifestyle to mine, or they look like me, or they come from the same town. Some of these things where you think, okay, I can identify now. This really helps. So if I talk about it openly, it’s for two things. One is that maybe it can help younger people just to see that it’s possible. The other thing is that I have two children, and I cannot hide this, they have 2 moms. And they have to know and they have to be proud of this. So if I do not manage to be open, I mean they have to come out to somebody every day. If they go to a new sports club, if they go to a new activity, and one mom drops them off and another mom picks them up, the children are asking. And so my children have to come out, in some sense, for their own moms every day. And I think if I would be hiding something that this could be very damaging to them because there is nothing to hide. I want them to know this is totally normal. And they do not perceive a big difference right now because wherever I go, I present my wife as my wife. So these are the two reasons, which I think are really also encouraging me to never make it a secret.

A: Yeah. So, you know, you mentioned these people at the conference who felt like they didn’t have the same experience as you, like they did feel like they were having like a hard time and were being discriminated against. What can allies do to try and create a better environment where people don’t feel that way, where people can have a better experience and maybe feel confident to come out and to be their true selves?

N: Again, I have only very general rules, which I think apply to many problems. I think one is to not ignore such incidences if you see them happen. If you feel that people in the lab are not talking to each other in a friendly way. Or if somebody is not participating in the social events, or is constantly somehow bullied, even if it’s only one member. Just speak up because on the next day it could be you, could be for something else. And then the other thing is, maybe not assume too much. Because if somebody is not out, for instance, or is not so comfortable yet, or for any reason can’t right now communicate their situation, I think assuming and pushing people into a corner just creates a lot of tension. As soon as everybody thinks, you must be straight, you must have a boyfriend somewhere, you must be this or that, then it’s very hard because you have to, essentially, correct people.

S: That makes sense, yeah. And I also think still that very often at institutes, for instance, in the science world, the trainings can be really important. Because not everybody’s so aware of the things that we’re talking about now, and even just making a stupid joke, for instance, is not funny, and is not a joke then for somebody else. So I think, or I hope, that in the future there will be also more trainings for people, who are not so sensitive with these topics. And also, on the other side, what you mentioned now, for how to be a good ally, also to learn then how to speak up. And how to call out people maybe, and how to react in such situations. I think that’s important and you can always learn more about that.

N: Yeah, exactly. I also think that, what I mentioned earlier, is that it’s also a woman issue but also an LGBTQ issue when people start thinking that it’s not an issue anymore. Because, you know, if you hear me talking, as you said several times, it all sounds so positive. And maybe it’s true – right now, it’s a no-issue for me. But assuming that it will be a no-issue for a 24-year old student coming from some other situation, whether in Germany or in a different country, a different family, a different gender or gender identity, whatever. It’s never the same for everyone and their experiences are not the same. So just saying this isn’t a problem anymore, it’s just not true. I mean, as much as women are underrepresented and still have a lot of fights to fight, I think the LGBTQ community has still a lot of fights. And laws can always switch back and forth. So I think I can really say that we are still vulnerable, in some sense. Because right now, maybe in Germany laws are rather permissive, but I do not know what would happen if another party is elected. And it can always turn around, as it has in other countries, right? So it’s important also to always keep in mind that it’s still small minorities, and minorities are threatened. I think that’s just as it is, whatever minority you are a part of you are always threatened by the majority.

A: You said your PhD supervisor really gave you good advice about going to America and stuff like that. I guess I want to know, if one of your PhD students came to you, and they were gay or lesbian, and they asked you kind of the same advice you asked your PhD supervisor, what kind of advice would you give them about their career and going on in science?

N: Yeah, I mean I do not see why a gay person or a woman should not go in science. The scientific interests should be determined and I think you would choose where the environment you go. So I think that’s important. Just try to choose, as much as you true scientifically, the best environment. Just do not drop this part of your personality or your identity. So you have to choose a good lab and a good country for this. I think if you neglect this part, then it becomes dangerous. Maybe if you just say, I’m so motivated to pursue science but I’m also gay, but this cannot be a part of the decision or it cannot be a part of the decision which lab to join, I think that could be in my opinion dangerous. Just take it into account. And if somebody would come to me and say, what do you think, where should I go? This is a great lab but I have some worries, how accepting it is, or how accepting the countryor the town is. And I have this other lab. I would probably say, you have to find a good solution for all parts of you, the professional and the private part. I think that’s also may be why it worked well for me. Because, for the US, for instance, I only considered the states on the coast, where I know it was very liberal. And it may be sad, but you know you can try to improve the system and be advocating issues, but while a system is in place, you also to have to work with the system. And so I would not go to certain countries, I would not work in certain cities right now. I just do not want this for my family, for myself. And that doesn’t mean that I’m accepting the situation.

A: So, do you think then the Max Plank Society in general can take a stronger hand in saying, okay, for Pride month we are going to do something central, like we do for mental health awareness. Or having trainings from the Plank Academy as part of onboarding. Do you think these are solutions that could help improve the system?

N: Yes, I think so, I think that should be part of the training, and I think the more broad it this, the more it would help. Because what bothered me a bit before coming out is that I didn’t want to be defined just as the lesbian. I am many things. I’m not only a scientist, also. I’m a mom. I am a woman. You know, maybe you you think you’re an athlete, or you are a Buddhist. You know, there are so many parts of your personality, which all also could create problems and misunderstandings at workplace. So I think that maybe creating training to be inclusive, to be accepting, to be open-minded, how to create diversity, and maybe also create awareness.It’s not yet a no-brainer, diversity is an issue in Germany, at Max Planck, but also as it is in many other countries. In science, in particular, it’s a very white-dominated, western, money-dominated profession. In many countries, to have access to training, that allows you to pursue a scientific career, is just very elitist. You have to have money in many countries to do this. So if you are here, you may not encounter all people in China, or all people of India. You may already encounter only just a fraction of those. And even, I would almost argue, in Germany, the education system is still also quite elitist and is also a bit based on the education of the parents.

A: I think it’s the same way in Canada. I mean, yeah, you’re very lucky when you can go to university in Canada. It’s not free like in Germany, and so there’s already this barrier. So I think, it’s probably true everywhere.

N: Yeah, and this results, in the end, in a not so diverse profession.So we have to be inclusive, we have to try to make it more diverse. And the more it’s diverse, the more people can find their role models.
Go to Editor View