Monique Aumailley was born and grew up on a farm in south-west France, close to Bordeaux. Her undergraduate studies were in chemistry and biochemistry at the University of Bordeaux. While still a student she started working in an atherosclerosis research laboratory, first as a technician and later as an `attachée de recherche' from the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique. This introduced her to the extracellular matrix field, in particular to the collagens of the arterial wall. To obtain training in collagen research, she went to theMax-Planck Institute for Biochemistry in Martinsried, close to Munich in Germany. After a one-year stay, she returned to the University of Bordeaux to complete her studies, obtaining her `Doctorat d'Etat' in biochemistry in 1979 and in medicine in 1982. Monique obtained her postdoctoral training first with Rupert Timpl at the Max-Planck Institute in Martinsried, and subsequently with George Martin at the NIH. She then returned to Martinsried, working with Rupert Timpl for several more years. In 1992, she moved back to France, to the Institut de Biologie et Chimie des Proteines in Lyon, to lead an independent research group. Eight years ago she moved back to Germany to lead a research group at the Institute for Biochemistry, in the medical faculty of the University of Cologne.

Monique's research has always centred on the extracellular matrix. After her early work on collagens, her focus changed to laminins and their integrin receptors. Her current research interests are epithelial laminins, their signalling properties, interactions with other proteins, and pathological dysregulation.

In the interview that follows, Fiona Watt, Editor-in-Chief of JCS, asks Monique about her experiences as a woman in science.

FMW:What changes for women in science have you observed during the course of your career?

MA: I started to notice the need for change about 20 years ago, when I was based in Germany. Before that time, I was mostly working in France and I was not really aware that changes were necessary. Indeed, at least in the life sciences, there were already quite a lot of women doing research in France at that time. They were not in the top positions, but still just slightly below that – for instance, in positions that we call `Directeur de Recherche' in INSERM and CNRS, which would be equivalent to associate professor or group leader in other countries. There were two reasons why there were fewer women than men in French science 20 years ago. First, there were fewer women in any paid employment. Second, girls tended to go into the Faculté des Lettres courses rather than the Faculté des Sciences, and so the pool of women with the necessary background to go into research was smaller.

In Germany, the situation for women in science was, and still is, more critical than in France. I remember going to a meeting in Germany about 20 years ago; I was working in Martinsried at that time and I was invited to give a talk. Among the 20 invited speakers, there were only two women, neither of whom had grown up in Germany, and the proportion of women in the audience was not much higher. I think that there were two main reasons for the situation. One, frequently acknowledged, was that the highly hierarchical and male-dominated structures at German universities and research institutes favored men. This has changed considerably in recent years: there are more and more women attending meetings, employed in high academic positions or involved in decision-making at high levels. Even though my career developed in Germany at a time when there were relatively few women scientists, I was fortunate to work with leading male scientists who were not sexist. In particular, I was lucky enough to do research with Rupert Timpl, who encouraged me to develop ideas, attend meetings and go forward in my career. So, there were always exceptions to the rules, and hopefully soon the exception will become the rule.

The second explanation for the low representation of women scientists in Germany 20 years ago was the low aspirations of the women themselves. Women did not even occupy lower research positions, because they simply didn't apply. Even now, talented women hold back from applying themselves to a career in science in Germany. The roots of this problem are found in the way women have been educated as to what is or is not socially acceptable. It is true that in this country there is too little support for childcare, but also the percentage of women who feel that their duty is to be at home, cooking meals and raising children, is high. This is changing slowly but has still to penetrate all layers of society, so that when there is some delivery in the lab for me, the delivery person will not anymore ask: are you the secretary of Herr Prof. Aumailley?FIG1 

Monique Aumailley, photographed at the Max-Planck Institute for Biochemistry, Martinsried, Germany, in the 1980s

Monique Aumailley, photographed at the Max-Planck Institute for Biochemistry, Martinsried, Germany, in the 1980s

FMW:How has your research career impacted on your personal life and vice versa?

MA: There is no doubt that the impact of my research career on my personal life has been quite big. In common with many other researchers, male or female, I have the tendency to let myself be eaten up by my research. Research is so exciting and time consuming that little energy or time is left for a personal life.

Another reason why my career has had such a large impact on my personal life, which is more specific to me, is that I have spent most of my adult life far from where I grew up and where I studied. I left my home, my family, my friends and the whole way of life characteristic of south-west France in order to pursue my career. In Martinsried there were no Atlantic beaches, no rugby games to watch on a Sunday afternoon, and even the food was quite different, which means a lot to the French. On top of that I did not even speak German. So I had to adjust to being on my own in a foreign environment and I had to develop observational skills to compensate for my lack of understanding of the German language.

I think that learning how to adjust and adapt has had a positive effect on my career. I have found it much easier to move from one place to another. Developing adaptation skills has given me an important advantage in research: when a project is not going well, I can react rapidly and change direction. In addition, if you embrace change and are not frightened by it, research is fun and exciting and there is quite a lot of freedom to make choices, certainly compared with many other jobs.

During the course of my research career, I have worked in several different laboratories and gone to many meetings. As a consequence, I have developed friendships with a lot of different people, most of them researchers (and most of them with the same kind of addiction to research, which makes us understand each other better!). If I had stayed at home, my personal life would not have been enriched in the same way, with so many friends of various personalities and cultures from all over the world. It is the international relationships that we have in science that I enjoy because it opens so many personal and scientific perspectives.

Regarding the impact of my personal life on my research career, there was and there is still an impact but not as dramatic as the impact of my career on my personal life. I met my life companion back in 1977, when we were working in the same lab in Martinsried. At that time we had still to finish our research training in different countries and we had to develop our careers independently. Unlike many German men, my partner was very supportive and encouraged me to follow a research career, well aware (as I was) of the consequences for our relationship. As a result, we worked in different countries for 15 years, stealing time together whenever we could and spending a lot of money on air travel.

Both being researchers, my partner (now my husband) and I can support each other when the research is not going the way we would expect and share the excitement when it is going well. Nevertheless, although we are now both located in Cologne and work in related research fields, there is still not enough time together at home to discuss research and do other interesting things like reading, cooking and playing with our dogs.

FMW:Do you feel that being a woman is an inherent advantage/disadvantage for a career is science? Why?

MA: I do not see any advantage in being a woman in science. I think that women and men do equally well (or equally badly!). As for disadvantages, these should largely disappear once men and women are equally represented at all levels in scientific research.

FMW:What are your remaining career ambitions?

MA: Not big, since I have to retire soon, at least `on paper'. However, I still would like to carry out research at a slower pace for some years with only one or two students. In this way I will have more time to enjoy looking down a microscope and hopefully come up with exciting results. I would also love to take a sabbatical (in a sunny place!) and attend a few meetings to keep in contact with science and keep enjoying international friendship.