An interview with postdoc Michal Shemesh

We are talking to several female postdocs from different faculties. What is it like to be a postdoc at TU Delft? And what kind of things do they come up against? In this interview, we talk with Michal Shemesh. She is a postdoctoral researcher at the Koenderink Lab at the faculty of  Applied Sciences.

Michal Shemesh

Breaking the glass ceiling of the presumed gender roles is an important goal for integrating women in science

Can you tell me about your background?
‘I finished my PhD in 2017 at the Weizmann Institute of Science in Israel, bridging the fields of structural and molecular biology. I was always fascinated by the cell cytoskeleton and its ability to respond so efficiently to environmental ques, modifying the cell force application, movement and vesicle transport. The cytoskeleton is also extremely photogenic, and I specialized on optical microscopy approaches to try and get the best data.

‘I worked for 2 years in an advanced optical imaging facility and optimized the most cutting edge approaches to fit very different set of biological questions. But my love for the research of cytoskeleton mechanics and curiosity to tackle its many related questions, caused me to look for a post-doc position abroad.

Describe your research?
‘I have chosen to join a lab that focuses on the physical aspects of cytoskeletal responses: specifically, I study the implications of co-interactions between different building blocks of the cytoskeleton, on cancer cell responses, by correlating force measurements with optical imaging of live cells.

‘I believe that adding a physical view of the cytoskeleton can help to disentangle the extremely complicated regulatory aspects, and assist to target more efficiently very invasive tumor cells. I believe that our lab approach for such complex protein networks can very elegantly fill existing holes, and this is always exciting for a scientist!’

How would you describe your landing?
‘We were very lucky to have good friends who helped us with the kids and other arrangements. Without them I think we wouldn’t have managed. I am also very grateful for my lab and department  colleagues that made me feel at home from the beginning.

Do you have a role model? How important is having a role model to you?
‘I do not know if role model is the right term, as a role model suggests an “ideal” persona. I am more in favour of “inspirational” models. I try to learn as much as I can from the people that I respect and appreciate.’

How gender diverse is your department?
‘I feel that my department is well balanced, with excellent female researchers, that set an example for me both academically and personally. Traditionally you have faculties that are very male dominated. You can find more female researchers in biological fields, not as much in chemistry, mathematics or physics. I am happy to say that in the last years, I have seen more excellent women researchers setting their labs in faculties of engineering, that were traditionally more male dominated. I hope this will progress to the chemistry, mathematics and physics faculties as well.’

How do you keep the balls in the air?
‘I mostly try to lose as little balls as possible, but as the number of balls increases, it is a challenge. I try to set a priority and perform the most important tasks first. But many times the schedule is fluid and changing, and I need to adapt my priorities. So I would say trying to balance efficient organization with flexibility is my approach for multi-tasking. 

How do make sure you have the right work / life balance?
‘Finding the right work-life balance is very challenging. I can’t say that I have well balanced between all aspects, rather I am struggling every day to make the most from every aspect. Progressing with my research while taking care of my kids, especially with no grandparents to baby-sit, can sometimes feel like running a marathon. Although I divide caretaking tasks with my partner, I think that dedicated support for scientists with families who are coming from abroad can help them to integrate better. Either financial help with child care, a dedicated language course or a social network for parents can help well-being.

Do you have a mentor?
‘I look at my PI, Gijsje Koenderink, that is not only an excellent researcher but also a mother of two, for a good personal and professional example. Also my department head, Marileen Dogterom, has been an inspirational example throughout this pandemic. She listens and lets you know that you are not alone in this challenging situation. If I didn't have such a good support around me, I'm not sure I would be able to continue in these uncertain times.

How did the corona crisis impact you? 
A lot of the fun aspects of scientific work is gone now. Although it is very easy to communicate and get information globally now, I miss the actual physical face-to-face contacts at conferences and also in the connection with students. It’s just not the same online. In order to fill your engine you need to change atmosphere, travel or stimulate yourself in some way and all this is lacking.

Did you encounter unequal treatment or unfair judgements as a women (being part of a minority group)?
Yes, I think these aspects are extremely hard to get rid of. In our days it is less blunt then 20 years ago, but it is always there underneath the surface. You are not discriminated because you are a women but because you are exhibiting female characteristics. I needed to remind myself that I am not less worthy or less knowledgeable than my male colleagues just because I am not as confident, and tend to question myself often.     

Where do you think necessary actions are needed?
Breaking the glass ceiling of the presumed gender roles is an important goal for integrating women in science. I think educational activities, oriented to rationalize the steps taken to improve women’s occupancy at leading roles (as justifying positive discrimination for example, or emphasising the physical unbalanced work/life gender issues once starting a family) are very needed in order to help a paradigm shift regarding the misconception of defining excellence.

What is your ambition?
My ambition is to find new exciting scientific discoveries and be able to transfer my knowledge (not only scientifically) to others. And maybe do some good. 

Is the existence of a women’s network important for you?
Yes! Just hearing other experiences can help a lot. Just knowing there is a support network to turn to for advice and inspiration. This has a huge impact! For all the reasons specified above, I think the network and the activities it offers are very important for women scientists.