From winning state level singing championships in high school to majoring in biology and music in college, from struggling to manage a graduate project in South Africa to having the audacity to leave everything behind and move to Germany: Virginia’s career path is anything BUT ordinary.
For a woman her age, Dr. Virginia Flanagin leads a successful life. Even during her undergrad, she was already very productive in terms of publications and securing research grants. At the moment, she is leading her own research group at the German Center for Vertigo and Balance Disorders. She is also an associate faculty at the Graduate School of Systemic Neuroscience. Hearing all that could make anyone feel somewhat intimidated, but the moment I sat down with her for lunch, that feeling went away. For one thing, she is one hundred percent down to earth. And I quickly learned how hard she had to work to get where she is.
From the time she was little, Virginia has the passion, curiosity and killer work ethics, everything that one needs to be successful in science. ‘My grandfather was a very important figure in my life’, she said while enjoying her chicken curry: ‘He was a nuclear engineer and he liked taking us to science museums and quizzed us about the things we learned afterward.’ Her grandfather’s effort to introduce the practical aspects of science paid off. She admitted that instead of watching TV, she preferred to play, i.e. doing experiments, with ants and spiders in the backyards. While still enjoying her chicken curry and side salad, Virginia hunkered down to reveal how she went from a curious girl in suburban Chicago to a Principal Investigator in Germany.
Music to Biology then Ecology at Berkeley
As mentioned, Virginia has liked science since she was little. ‘I always got good grades in Math and Natural Sciences. But when I was in high school, a career in scientific research never really crossed my mind,’ she recalled. Thinking about scientific careers only occurred in college. During her undergrad at Illinois Wesleyan University, a private liberal arts college well known for its Music and Pre-med majors, she majored in Biology and Music during her first year. ‘After the first year, though, I realized that I was not very good at the competitive nature of the Music major. It was very subjective too.’ She decided to drop the Music major and focused on Biology while also taking a lot of Math courses.
During her sophomore year, she started winning national grants to work on summer research projects and some research projects during the academic year. In addition to the research grants, she owed her success in research to her undergrad supervisor: ‘I had a very supportive undergrad supervisor. He always gave me time to try different things by myself but at the same time giving me a clear direction of what I have to accomplish.’
After getting her degree in Biology from Illinois Wesleyan, she applied to several top graduate schools in the USA including Stanford, University of Hawaii, and UC Berkeley. ‘My goal at that time was to do a PhD in Ecology. The main reason is that Ecology combines everything that I like: mathematics, statistics, computational modeling, as well as outdoors activities,’ she said. In the end, she chose to take a graduate position at UC Berkeley. Her PhD supervisor was a biophysicist and mathematician whose main research involved mathematical modeling of populations of animals, including disease transmission in humans.
When Life Threw Her a Curveball
As part of her PhD project, she spent four months in South Africa trying to set up a project in Carletonville, a gold-mining town just outside Johannesburg. ‘There was a big project lead by Prof. Brian Williams working with mine workers and prostitutes, collecting blood samples and sometimes doing interventions like trying to educate them to practice safe sex. I used the data they collected and I tried to develop my own project within this ongoing project.’ The work was very challenging, but also fun as she recalled. In addition to practical work in the field, she had the chance to learn about stochastic modeling, neural network modeling, as well as small world networks; practically everything that she needed in her future career.
Unfortunately, as research is never about rainbows and roses, the project went under. Local people stole their grant money and suddenly, she was left without a project. She did not just give up though. She went back to South Africa, tried to network with people and set up a new project. But many things just did not seem to work out. ‘I was in the middle of my third year when things started falling apart. I felt so terrible, hopeless sometimes.’ From that moment, everything went downhill. She started having disagreements with her supervisor over funding, grant proposals as well as the data that had been collected so far: ‘It was a complete disaster. We practically stop talking to each other and I could sense that he did not want to work with me anymore. And I think he was also worried that I would use the data that had been collected so far and he would not be any part of it. I even had to get an ombusdman to resolve the conflict.’
In the end, her contract was terminated and she was left without a project and a major source of income. Other professors offered her positions that would enable her to continue her PhD but she decided against it: ‘I was too afraid of my former boss. It was a very difficult situation. Fortunately, since I already took the graduate examinations, I could leave Berkeley with a master’s degree.’
Germany, Israel, and Another Bump on the Road
Virginia then relocated to Munich. A very bold decision since she neither had a job offer nor a clear idea of what she was going to do. Then, an opportunity came from Prof. Alexander Borst. He gave her a chance to work in his lab. She admitted that she did not have a lot of experience with electrophysiological recording or even with neuroscience in general. But, as she recalled, ‘Axel was great, as were other people in his lab. They really gave me a lot of room to learn. I could not have done it without them.’
During her PhD work, she worked on a project that involved Haim Sompolinsky, Professor of Neuroscience at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. She had the opportunity to go to Israel to set up a data collection project. She still worked with flies in Israel. Unlike in Germany, the infrastructure was lacking to do really good research on flies in Israel. ‘It was much more difficult than what I had anticipated. Although the infrastructure for electrophysiology with other animal models was good, the flies part was lacking. I even had to catch flies from the roof of the lab so that I could record something,’ she recalled. Her supervisor was very upset because he thought she did not try hard enough. Virginia also admitted that she was too scared to tell him about her problems: ‘I wanted him to think that I am this super awesome PhD student and I can handle everything. That was definitely not a smart move.’
Coming back from Israel, she managed to finish her PhD. As she wanted to stay in research, she started applying to several PostDoc positions including the one within Prof. Stefan Glasauer’s group. Prof. Glasauer was, and he still is, very open to different research ideas. They then decided to initiate a project with the epilepsy department at the Klinikum. Unfortunately, they could not start the project right away. In the meantime, she started doing experiments with fMRI. ‘At that time, I was just trying to have something to do. I saw an opportunity with the MRI machine. I took it. It was tough because I had to learn everything from the very basics. But I was lucky enough because the Klinikum just installed a new MRI machine. So, I got to spend a lot of time with the scanner.’
Working with MRI turned out to be a smart move. After supervising several graduate students during her PostDoc, in 2010 she received her first grant to establish an independent research group. At the moment she spends a significant amount of her time working on statistical methods for MRI data analysis, computational principles of spatial perception and navigation in humans, as well as effects of virtual environments on spatial behavior.
Reflecting on her journey as a scientist, she added, ‘My career path is for sure uncommon and may not be the best path if you seriously want to stay in science. I have to be honest that I don’t recommend it. Nevertheless, I think it is important to embrace the uncertainty. That comes with being a scientist.’
Lastly, a bit of Advice
We have been talking for almost 80 minutes when I realized that I had to run back to my office. But before we parted, I ask her if she could give her younger self any advice, what would it be? She gladly said, ‘First, maintain a good communication with supervisor. Sometimes, PhD students think that their supervisors don’t want to hear about their problems. We do, actually. We do not like complaints, thats for sure. But, if you have challenges, speak up. Supervisors cannot help unless the students are honest about the challenges and problems that they have. Second, if you need to get away from your science, do it. Do not feel guilty about wanting to take a break. If science is for you, it will come back to you.’
Dr. Virginia Flanagin is a Junior Group Leader at the German Center for Vertigo and Balance Disorders – Klinikum der Universität München. In case you are interested to know more about her research, feel free to visit her page either on GSN or BCCN website.