International Day of Women and Girls in Science – in conversation with Liedewij Laan

For Liedewij, finding and surrounding yourself with people who believe in you is one of the ingredients for work-life balance.

Liedewij Laan has been leading a research group at TU Delft (Netherlands) since October 2014. Her group focuses on evolutionary cell biophysics: how can a cell be both robust on cell cycle timescales while being also adaptive on evolutionary timescales? One of the approaches they use to address this question is to build cellular functions from the bottom up and observe how these properties emerge.

Liedewij Laan

Can you tell us a little bit about yourself?

I grew up with two older brothers and a twin sister. Both our parents were applied mathematicians. They did not have a PhD, but my mother taught mathematics at the local university for almost forty years. As a child, I was, and still am, very proud of my mother, who will turn 80 this year. I vividly remember as a young child looking at the picture board of the math department and seeing about 50 men and my mother. I have always been inspired by her brilliance and courage to take her own path, irrespective of what others may think and driven by her need to do math and her will to be independent. And now, since I have three children of my own, I am amazed at how infinitely patient she was with us.

What motivated you to do research?

I just really like doing research, I enjoy thinking about problems that satisfy my curiosity and I love the feeling I have when I start to understand something.

What do you like most about being a researcher?

So many things: that we learn new things every day, that our job is to ask critical questions and think of ways to answer them, that we get to work with and train equally passionate young people on topics we feel passionate about, etc.

How do your family/friends view your career choice?

I had moments of doubts about the trajectory to follow to have my own research group, but my family and friends were very supportive and reminded me how much I love science and that I can do it. I remember in high school I felt discouraged at one point and then my mother gave me Marie Curie’s biography to read.

What is your greatest success, and what is your biggest failure?

I consider the establishment of my research line, which is rather unique, to be my greatest success. It started with an abstract question at the end of my PhD, about how the physical properties of a cell affect its evolution, which fascinated me, but I had no idea how to tackle it. It took me many years (and many failures and many moments of despair) to develop concrete ways to answer this question.

I am not sure what my biggest failure is. I have made many, many mistakes, and some were really painful, but I do not think it is possible to learn and develop without making mistakes.

What has motivated you (or who has motivated you) in difficult times?

In difficult times I go back to the basics of doing research. I try to focus my attention on a specific scientific problem, to bring myself back to the state where I feel the joy of doing science. I also reduce the pressure that I then feel by telling myself that, if I cannot find that joy again(for a long time), I will leave academia.

Any tips for managing both your career and your personal life?

Take the time to find a balance that works for you and is sustainable for you and the people around you. It takes constant effort to find and keep that balance, but it is really worth it.

When I had my children, first my postdoctoral advisor (male, USA) and later my department head (female, Netherlands) were very supportive. They encouraged me to take my time and, maybe even more importantly, showed me their confidence that I would find the balance. This made a world of difference. So my advice is this: find and surround yourself with people who believe in you.

In your opinion, what changes, if any, are needed in the scientific system to be more attractive to women?

Free, flexible daycare in every big science building.