Prof. Dr. Esther Stoeckli
Why did you choose to become a scientist?
During my high school years, I discovered Frederic Vester’s Denken, Lernen, Vergessen (Thinking, Learning, Forgetting) in a bookstore in Zug. This book really fascinated me. The question of what a thought or learning means at the molecular level has driven me ever since. Neurobiology in the 70s was very different from now. In Switzerland, it was impossible to study Neuroscience as a major. Therefore, I turned to biochemistry, as a field that was dealing with the understanding of molecular processes of life. It was only during my Master thesis (Diploma at the time) that I was able to pave the way towards neurobiology. The path was not straight, but I always knew exactly what I wanted.
Why do you study the development of the nervous system?
When I was learning more about the brain and its function, I realized that the time was not ready to study molecular mechanisms of learning and memory, as it was not yet clear, how neural circuits, the basis of neural function were built during development. Therefore, I started to work on axon guidance. Today, we know a lot more about neural circuit formation, but there is still a lot more to learn. The question how the nervous system develops still fascinates me with the same intensity as at the beginning of my career.
What do you like about your work?
The opportunity to work on a topic that keeps fascinating me is a privilege. In addition, I like the diversity of my job, the collaboration with my team of young scientists, the exchange with colleagues, and the fact that I can learn new things all the time. The scientific process is rewarding: you come up with a hypothesis, you test it experimentally, and when your results confirm your hypothesis and you make progress, this is extremely motivating and makes you happy, because you have achieved something that you were working for.
Have you experienced dry periods or failure in your career? How did you overcome them?
Failures and lack of progress are part of cutting-edge research. It is of vital importance that you have the ability to motivate yourself. Perseverance is key to success in science.
Who has influenced you most in your professional environment? Who in your private life?
I had no ‘role models’ when I was young. I never wanted to be like anyone else. My father had a strong influence; he shaped me. He taught me that you could only achieve something through hard work and performance. He made no distinction between my brothers and me in this respect. Something that could not be taken for granted at that time. For example, I still remember when I was about 7 years old, he handed me a hammer and nails and said, ‘also as a girl, you have to be able to do that!’
What tips would you offer a young researcher who is considering an (academic) career?
You have to go for your dream! You have to be absolutely fascinated by a question or a topic. Also, you need a strong will and you need to know yourself well enough to recognize what you really want. Given the variety of opportunities that we all have today, the ability to take decisions is highly important.