Interview with Joana Pereira, a postdoc at the Max Planck Institute for Developmental Biology in Tübingen, where she is working on Protein Evolution.

During her childhood, Joanna already started to become deeply interested in space and nature. Since, the young Portuguese was sure to become a scientist one day. Her family encouraged her to continue to track. Many years later, after she completed her studies in Computational Structural Biology, she started a career at the Max Planck Institute for Developmental Biology as a postdoc.

In 2018 Joanna was nominated for the “Sign Up Career Building Program for excellent female post docs of the Max Planck Society”, a program which aims at supporting women with leadership potential in their career planning and preparing them for management positions in science.

One of her future key objectives is to lead her own research group in the fields of protein evolution and computational structural biology. She would like to teach and inspire young students at different levels of their education. To her, the “Sign Up Career Building Program” was an excellent opportunity to generate additional skills that sometimes may fall short in individual education processes.


Interview with Joana Pereira

After your nomination, you had to undergo a competitive selection procedure. How did you feel when you learned that you had been successful?

The program usually accepts only 18 female postdocs selected from all institutes in the Max Planck Society. I felt very honored but also very excited to be selected as one of them, not only due to the recognition but also because I felt this was a significant and unique opportunity to learn relevant things for my future career path.

Before we go into more detail about the experience you’ve gathered by attending the “Sign Up Program”, what has inspired you to pursue a career as a scientist and what has led you to become a postdoc at the Max Planck Institute for Developmental Biology?

As a little kid, I was inquisitive about space and nature. It was clear I was going to be a scientist and my family was always very supportive and provided a stimulating environment for this curiosity. Two particular situations that I can recall vividly were my dad entertaining me with math problems and my grandfather reading me encyclopaedias. After my PhD in Computational Structural Biology at the EMBL in Hamburg, I wanted to study the origins and evolution of protein folds. I met Andrei Lupas’ group at a conference and was fascinated by their work, so I decided to contact him to pursue my postdoc research here.

In which way have you been able to utilise the know-how you’ve gained from the program in your work here at the Institute?

The program’s individual units provided us with information about career paths in Germany, along with specific training on presentation and leadership skills, as well as know-how for the preparation of applications and interviews in academia. Some of these can be applied right away, for example, pitching our research in one minute, or having control of our breathing and body language when giving a presentation. These are valuable skills that I was never really taught before. But for me, acquiring know-how in terms of leadership skills, was extremely useful, since I was able to apply these skills directly by supervising a student assistant for a couple of months.

Have you noticed any differences in terms of your personal development and/or your scientific career advancement? If so, what kind of differences?

Besides knowing now what I still need to work on in order to apply for academic jobs, which allows me to plan better, I also feel more confident in academic settings. In particular, I feel more comfortable approaching someone at a conference, irrespective of one’s career level. Consequently, the program helped me indirectly with networking, something fundamental at the postdoc stage.

What for you has been the most interesting and beneficial experience in terms of both, your personal development as well as your scientific career advancement?

Definitely, my increased self-confidence, tackling things proactively and the ability to remain calm and come up with solutions in stressful settings. During the program, you meet not only trainers, but also other female researchers with different backgrounds and life experiences. Despite these differences, you realize that in academia, problems and worries are similar, and this realization helps you to relativize things. The few days we spent together were emotionally intense, but also beneficial in terms of a shared feeling of solidarity and great companionship. We all felt comfortable sharing our problems and coming up with individual solutions for each other. This is another relevant and useful feature of the training provided by the program: peer-coaching.

Which training units do you consider to be the most relevant/beneficial?

For me individually, I felt the modules on leadership and academic appointments were the most useful and informative. To be honest, these were also the two modules I was most looking forward to. Nevertheless, the entire program is quite relevant and beneficial. I felt that the trainers and organizers were very qualified, open and professional, so no question was left unanswered.

What kind of impact do you think your participation in the “Sign Up!” program will have on your future career path?

It will definitely have a very positive impact on the way I will prepare job applications and interviews that will be coming up in the near future. In the long run, I believe it will shape the way I will lead a research team and communicate with students, for example.

What are your future career plans/aspirations?

My career goal is to lead my own research group in the fields of protein evolution and computational structural biology. Ideally, I would like to do this in Portugal, my home country, where these fields are under-represented. I also want to teach and inspire young students at different levels of their education (from bachelors to masters and doctorate) with my passion for the chemistry of life in general, and protein structure and evolution in particular. I am especially interested in trying to overcome the cliché that, for a career in computational biology, it is necessary to have a background in computer sciences, a misconception that I have faced many times in my career to date. 

Do you think there should be more programs or initiatives such as “Sign Up” to be offered by the MPS in order to boost career paths of women in science? If so, could you please give some reasons why.

I think “Sign Up!” is an excellent initiative. I do believe these are essential skills that generally fall short in our standard scientific education. In this regard, while I do believe this can boost the paths of women in science, I also think these skills would be relevant for all scientists, irrespective of their gender. 


Participants in the “Sign Up! Career Building Program for Excellent Female Post Docs” in 2019