Always open for new things
She already achieved her biggest professional goal four years ago: a research professorship. Today, Silvia Daun heads the Computational Neurology research group at Jülich and teaches Computational Neuroscience at the University of Cologne. The 41-year-old loves maths and singing. Her motto in life: life is too varied to focus on just one thing.
You are one of the 12 per cent of women in science who have made it in academia and gained a professorship. Is it easier for women today to get to the top – especially in the natural sciences and mathematics?
We’ve already achieved a lot. We’re seeing more and more female students and doctoral researchers in these degree programmes, for example. However, there’s still a lot of work ahead of us: more needs to be done, especially at the level above the doctorate, to get women into leadership positions.
Picture above: Mathematician Silvia Daun works at the Institute of Neuroscience and Medicine (INM-3), where she develops methods to understand the brain.
How did you make it to the top?
I tried to steer clear of the opinions of others, to just not let things get too close. That helped me a lot. When I was studying, for example, I quite liked to go to maths lectures in high heels and a short skirt – no matter the gossip. And yes, I heard professors say that women don’t really belong with mathematics. There was deliberate provocation to make us girls feel insecure. But I couldn’t have cared less. I knew I could do it. Just let me take the exam – then we’ll see whether I belong here or not. However, I also always had a plan B in mind in case plan A wouldn’t work or I would have to turn my back on science.
What was your professional alternative?
The economy. After my doctorate in 2006, I was still not quite sure whether I wanted to do science or business. Then I received an offer from the USA. One of the things I did at the University of Pittsburgh was work as an external consultant and test my market value in business. It was then that I realized: “Life is so varied, it has so much to offer.” As a mentor and tutor, I always pass this life lesson on to my students: open your eyes, there is not only science – even though I love what I do. One must not allow oneself to be tied down. There are also other areas for you to develop.
You then decided to go into science after all. Why?
After I returned from the USA, the German Research Foundation granted me my own junior research group in the Emmy Noether Programme – so my scientific career gained momentum.
What fascinates you about mathematics?
It’s the application in particular. Until 2014, at the University of Cologne, I focused on the walking movements of stick insects – the results are interesting for robotics. But also in energy or finance, in biology or cryptography or, as here at Jülich, in neurological and neurodegenerative diseases such as stroke and Parkinson’s – you need mathematics to understand the phenomena.
What are you researching at Jülich?
My focus is on human biology. The emphasis is on neuronal information processing in the human brain, specifically in the control of motor functions: when we move, various motor systems in the brain engage with each other and control our muscles by means of the spinal cord. We're interested in how this happens – in healthy and in sick people. I used to get the data from biologists. Now – and this is new territory for me – I conduct the experiments with the test persons myself, that is: I collect data with the help of imaging techniques, but also with the classic EEG – in other words, the measurement of brain waves. I use the data to develop new methods and network models to predict how ageing and neurological diseases, such as stroke, affect the coordinated interaction between motor brain areas, and how changes in the activity and connectivity of these brain areas are related to impaired motor behaviour. Since we use large data sets to calibrate and validate the models, we also develop procedures for data analysis.
Is this work already part of the new Collaborative Research Centre “Key mechanisms of physiological and disease-related impaired motor control”?
Exactly, we started the work in 2021. It’s the first CRC in the field of motor skills in neuroscience ever approved by the DFG. The focus is on neurological diseases such as stroke, Parkinson’s disease or spinal muscular atrophy, but also on tics or depression. These are disease patterns that are usually accompanied by motor deficits such as paralysis or disturbed movement sequences, thus influencing individual independence. We – meaning molecular biologists, neurobiologists, neurologists, mathematicians and psychologists – want to develop an overview of the neurobiological basis of motor control and its disorders in the CRC, but also individualized therapy approaches. In this, we think across all levels and age boundaries: from the individual molecule to the entire system and from child to retiree.
Professionally, you have reached your career goal with your professorship. What scientific goal are you pursuing?
My vision is to be able to treat a patient immediately after the stroke: that our methods enable me to see in real-time where the disturbance is in the brain and how this disturbance affects the neuronal network in the brain. Based on these real-time results, doctors in the hospital could immediately initiate individualized treatment.
Interview by Katja Lüers.
Photo: Forschungszentrum Jülich/Sascha Kreklau