Why we research

Barbara Maier

Fascinatingly curious

What motivated me to become a scientist, and what’s still the major force driving me forward, is simply curiosity. I am curious to find answers to the key questions of life: How do humans interact with their environment? How do physical and chemical forces control the building blocks of every organism? How do organs in our body work? How do they change when we have a disease? What could be strategies to tackle incredibly complex diseases like cancer? How are biological systems such as organs in the human body connected, and how do they communicate?

In short, I am fascinated by how life works, and I want to get to the bottom of it. It is extremely inspiring to discover new biology and understand things that were impossible to understand just a few years ago. In my field, it is now becoming clear how tumors are engaged in complex interactions with the body’s own immune system, which is creating the unique possibility to successfully manipulate anti-tumor immunity. This constant pushing of knowledge boundaries of humanity is incredibly exciting and meaningful to me.

A second aspect that has grown larger as my career progressed into a leadership role, is the opportunity to mentor young scientists. It is beyond rewarding to see a young person lay out their career path, explore their interests, see their potential and contribute to their personal and professional development and growth. The academic environment allows for so much freedom to tailor a project to support each individual in finding their perfect trajectory and enables them to acquire the skills they need, but also adjust to the reality of their strengths and weaknesses. When I see my students and fellows succeed, I feel proud – and I love that about my profession. All of my previous mentees have encountered struggles but have subsequently developed incredible skills; and all of them grew into different directions and career paths. It is very gratifying for me to know I was a catalyzer at one crossroad in their career. Scientists are often depicted as lonely fighters, but in reality, we are strongly connected within a team and rely on each other for everyday work tasks, but also to help each other take a step back and see the bigger picture and relevance of each other’s work.

Thirdly, I have learned that as a faculty member of a science institution, you can make a tangible, real-life societal impact. The academic landscape has a tough reputation as a toxic environment, with a shark tank-like mentality where only the most dominant ones survive. However, to me, it is not an option to sit back and wait for change. Many young scientists nowadays push for equality, fairness, and hospitable working conditions. As a faculty member, you have the power to shape the values of your institution. Once I learned how to react when I encountered bullying or discrimination based on race or gender at the workplace, I felt extremely empowered and was able to encourage others to speak up as well. Without a doubt, it is hard to stand up to the system to change antiquated structures - but it is so worth it to create safe spaces in your institution where other young scientists can thrive!

Similarly, we have an impact in shaping the direction of future scientific research. Where are we going from here? What kind of research should be prioritized in the next 5 – 10 – 20 years? Are we fully embracing machine learning methods? Can we become thought leaders in synthetic biology? Should we invest in the generation of infrastructure for innovative clinical trials? These are important questions with political and societal impact, and I am glad to offer my expert opinion and to be a part of a future-oriented field.

In summary, science is worth fighting for! It’s what grounds us in facts. What gives us a clear direction when other forces are trying to cloud our judgement. Science is simple, but powerful, and it always aims for the greater good: to increase the knowledge of humanity as a whole.

At the time of writing, Barbara Maier is a Principal Investigator at the CeMM Research Center for Molecular Medicine of the Austrian Academy of Sciences.