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Interview with Asifa Akhtar

Written by: David Matthews
Published on: 4 Nov 2020

Asifa Akhtar

Source: Max Planck Institute of Immunobiology and Epigenetics, Freiburg

Asifa Akhtar is one of three new vice-presidents of Germany’s basic research-focused Max Planck Society, and the first non-German woman to head the society’s biology and medicine section. After a globe-trotting upbringing, she started her scientific life in the UK before moving to Germany and forging a garlanded career studying epigenetics, the science of how and why certain genes express themselves and lead to heritable changes.

When and where were you born?
Karachi, Pakistan, in 1971. That’s where I spent most of my early life.

But you had a very international youth?
When I was seven or eight years old, we moved to the United Arab Emirates. Then we came back to Karachi again, where I finished my secondary education. And then we moved to Paris, which is where my family now lives. I actually did A levels, and because of this, I then moved to the UK to do my undergraduate degree and my PhD. My young life was shaped in the UK.

How did all this moving around change you?
I think that this internationality, that I just lived as part of my family, maybe made me more tolerant, more open to many different environments, and is probably part of my success, honestly speaking.

Was this ever stressful or confusing as a child?
My father was a banker, so it’s not like we were moving because of some emergency reason, which is what people immediately think of when they think of countries like Pakistan. Rather than it being stressful, I would put it the other way around – it made me aware of what else is out there. Kids are much more flexible than we adults think. I would love my kids to move around.

After finishing a PhD in London, you took a position at the European Molecular Biology Laboratory in Heidelberg, but assumed you’d come back to the UK. Apart from a series of great job offers, what made you stay in Germany?
Overall, German society is very open. I never felt like a foreigner. People were very accommodating. And, I really like the organisation – I know everyone jokes about this, but Germans are very organised. Buses come on time! I was shocked when I came to Heidelberg and people were complaining if the bus was one minute late. This reliability – that you can count on certain things just to be done – takes some stress out of your life, which is going to be hectic anyway as a scientist. It’s a collection of little things. The quality of life is just crazily good, even for a student at postdoc level.

What do you find so interesting about your field of research?
Every single cell in our body has exactly the same information but this information is interpreted differently in different cells. Our hands look very different to our eyes. How is this interpretation happening? It’s hugely complex and super-fascinating. You have this toolbox – and in one case you’re making a chair, and in another case you’re maybe making a piano.

Do you ever wonder how much your life and personality is driven by your genes? Does it ever make you feel a lack of agency?
No – we have epigenetic regulation in our bodies, and this tells you that we are much more plastic than we think. I think we are blessed that we have epigenetic regulation, to ensure that we are able to adjust to different situations. If you look at it over our lifetime, depending on whether you are a teenager or you’re old, we put our bodies through all kinds of abuse – sitting in the sun all day long, drinking, eating too much or too little, but our bodies very successfully cope with this.

Are early career researchers under more stress now compared with when you did your postdoctoral work in the 1990s?
Yes. The stress of [job] insecurity at PhD or postdoc level has not changed over the years and will, I guess, be there 20 years from now. But what has changed is digitalisation and the speed at which information comes our way. When I was writing my bachelor’s thesis, computers were not available everywhere. The explosion of information generates a speed of living that is totally different. Of course this is overwhelming for the younger generation. It’s overwhelming for me too.

Has anything else changed about today’s generation of early career researchers?
Honestly, I think our new generation is in some aspects much smarter than us. Maybe we were more naive. They worry much more about job security and work-life balance – quite rightly so – than in the 1990s, at least in my experience. I’m not saying they are not risk-taking, but they think much more about this balance, which is a good development. 

Last year, a survey of the Max Planck workforce found that one in 10 had experienced bullying in the workplace over the past 12 months. What are you doing to change this?
First of all, bullying is not acceptable at any level. It is therefore essential that we systematically address this going forward. When we hire new directors, we are going to do leadership assessments at the same time. We want to have outstanding scientists, but also outstanding leaders. It’s not good enough only to do great science. It’s not like we were ignoring leadership – it’s just that now we go about this much more proactively.