Claudia, it’s lovely to meet you. Congratulations on your NIU award at the European Obesity Summit for public health. Please tell us about yourself. Where did you grow up and how did your journey with science begin?
I grew up in a small rural village in the middle of Thuringia – a state in Germany that is also known as its “green heart”. This is mainly because its shape looks like a heart, but also because mountain and forest ranges are key landscape elements. I suppose this is where I developed my love for nature and the outdoors; even as kids my brother, sister and I went out and about in the woods surrounding our village. I attended regular primary school and continued on to high school in a city close by. In 6th grade, my mother who is an English teacher, got the chance to spend 6 months in a teacher exchange and took me along – that’s how I ended up in North Carolina for this period of time. I spent another year in the US during high school and finished my high school exams in 2004. It was during this time we were to write our first scientific summary – we were to research literature and even collect data on a chosen topic – and I enjoyed becoming lost in writing this report. I remember that my limited knowledge of research designs and data analysis limited my work and I continued researching how to gain a better understanding on my topic (assessing personalities of students who spend a year abroad).
After high school I was struck by the many options around fields of study and had some difficulty choosing what to study. Medicine, psychology, political science and journalism all made the short list, but psychology turned out to be the sought after combination of the social and natural sciences. I developed a strong background in research methodology at the University of Leipzig, which included several of my own small research projects. I also started to work as a student assistant at the Institute of Sociology, which continued to propel my path toward research and which broadened my horizons to new and more advanced statistical methods, while introducing new concepts in a sociological context. My final thesis about depression in old age provided the last push to lead me to pursue a career in research.
I started working at the Institute of Social Medicine, Occupational Health and Public Health in 2010, where I was responsible for my first individual research project – assessing the attitudes of the general German population and health care professionals towards people with obesity. The next years were dedicated to my PhD and the project, both of which were finished in 2013. I liked the challenge of the topic – it means that you have to be prepared for questions of all kinds (like: Are people with obesity really not just lazy? What are the reasons for obesity then?) and to answer these you have to think outside the box and be open to different research areas. I very much like that my work feeds my curiosity to learn about things, gives me the opportunity to see the world and meet inspiring people and other researchers – this work is never boring.
Just this year, after a post-doc phase at the Institute of Social Medicine, Occupational Health and Public Health and a short stay at Columbia University, New York, I was appointed professor for psychological health and psychotherapy at the University of Applied Sciences, Gera. During my PhD studies, I continued to pursue my psychological education as well and I’m in the midst of finishing the training required to become a psychotherapist. In summary, I would say that I have found a position that lets me combine research and practical work with patients and students – which I would have defined as my “ideal” position.
We would love to learn more about your home country and the area you live in now:
Even though I work in Gera, I still live in Leipzig, Germany, and I commute about an hour every day (one way). As you may have noticed from my career path, Leipzig has been the main focus of my studies and work. It’s a wonderful city to live in, it feels very open and free in general. Rents were cheap and the creative scene bustling when I was a student, and now I enjoy the art and cultural scene as well. Many of my close friends and family are in Leipzig or close by. The only thing missing is the mountains and woods.
How did you come to enter this particular field of research?
A lot of this was plainly co-incidence. The German system is somewhat directive; PhD students often rely on their supervisors for project ideas and actual projects. My supervisor was simply wonderful (Prof. Steffi Riedel-Heller); she trusted me as a newbie with a big and important project, and encouraged me to keep going at those times when I felt like I may have been reaching a dead end. After taking over the project, I simply wanted to find out more about obesity in general and naturally developed an intrinsic motivation to stay in the field. I never quite let go of other interests, such as mental health in old age.
Did you participate in the 2015 EASO NIU Summer School?
I attended the 2015 NIU Summer School as a teacher which was a great experience. I am always amazed by some of the young researchers coming into the field; and particularly by their knowledge and eagerness to learn. I suppose it is being able to get excited about things paired with passion for research that impresses me and I’m not sure I had that from the beginning. I am broadening my research fields to psychological aspects of bariatric surgery and more pathophysiological parameters of obesity stigma. I also supervise students on their thesis themes of psychological and psychotherapeutic topics in general.
What are your future career plans?
After starting my new position just a few while ago, it seems hard to think about next steps. I think I would like to spend some more time in another country and experience research practice there. Additionally, I would like to be able to secure funding to pursue some of the ideas that have been in my head for some time.