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Anna M. Wobus
Fiona M. Watt

Anna M. Wobus was born in 1945 in Bad Elster/Vogtland, Germany. She trained as an agronomist at the University of Leipzig, then obtained a degree in Biology and Genetics at the University of Greifswald. She became a research assistant at the Institute of Plant Genetics and Crop Plant Research, Gatersleben, and obtained her PhD from the Martin-Luther-University in Halle-Wittenberg. Since 1992 she has headed her own research group at the Institute in Gatersleben, and in 1997 she obtained the venia legendi from the Medical Faculty of the University of Halle.

The focus of Anna Wobus's research is the biology of embryonic stem cells. She has established methods for culturing and differentiating ES cells and has used them to analyse the toxicological effects of chemical and physical factors. She has explored the in vitro differentiation of embryonic stem cells into a range of differentiated cell types, and, most recently, into pancreatic and hepatic cells.

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

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

AMW: In the early 1960s, the Berlin wall divided not only East and West Germany but also kept the people of east European countries isolated from the rest of the world in a political system controlled by communist parties. In many cases children from non-conformists and intellectuals were actively discouraged from pursuing a secondary education. My father was a protestant priest and, as a consequence, I was not allowed to attend secondary school (Oberschule – equivalent to the American senior years in high school). Therefore, I had to look for alternatives to achieve a higher education after graduating from the basic Polytechnical School in 1962.

Later that year I began a two-year agricultural apprenticeship program specializing in agriculture and plant breeding at an Agricultural Experimental Station near Leipzig. In parallel, I attended continuing education classes in the evening to pursue the Abitur, the degree requirement for entry into university. Those years between 1962 and 1964 were a difficult but important time in my life. While at the vocational school we learnt the ideological and pseudo-scientific theories of Lysenko, modern genetics and the genetic code were taught in the evening classes. Lysenko was a Soviet pseudo-scientist, who denied the existence of genes and Mendelian genetics; Lysenkoism was the official state doctrine and ruined Soviet genetics and agriculture for decades. I realized at that time that not only my personal life but also my science needed a democratic and open society in which to flourish.

After my graduation in agriculture and completion of the Abitur in 1964, I applied for one of the rare places at a university to study biology – and to my delight I was accepted. I spent five wonderful years in Greifswald, which at that time was a haven for biologists. After basic biological studies in botany, zoology and microbiology, I continued my studies with a focus on genetics in the lab of Elisabeth Günther, a geneticist and cytogeneticist, and a wonderful mentor. During my studies, I was a member of a scientific student circle and of a student group at the university church, which was the only place for open discussions of philosophical, ethical and political issues, including the uprising in Czechoslovakia in 1968.

As I was never a member of the communist party, I had no chance to pursue an academic career at a university. Therefore, I followed the man who was to become my husband, Ulrich Wobus, also a biologist, to Gatersleben. This was `a small village with a big institute', the Central Institute of Genetics and Crop Plant Research, an institute of the Academy of Sciences of the GDR (the former East Germany). During the 1970s and early 1980s, the institutes of the GDR Academy of Sciences were nearly the only places where basic research was possible, and where people could work without severe ideological restrictions. At our institute (a former Kaiser-Wilhelm Institute founded in 1943), the first director, Hans Stubbe, and his successor, Helmut Böhme, had successfully established scientifically based genetics and mutation research, presenting the experimental evidence that disproved Lysenko's ideologically based data.

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Anna M. Wobus at the Institute of Plant Genetics and Crop Plant Research in 2003

The institute became and still is today the real center of my life. Initially I worked in the field of mutation research and cytogenetics. After the birth of my daughter I graduated with a PhD thesis on the induction of chromosomal aberrations in cytogenetic test systems in vivo and in vitro. My second child, a son, was also born during that time.

In 1978, a new Department of Developmental Biology was established at the institute. Following the work of Beatrice Mintz, we began in vitro studies on developmental cell biology, using teratocarcinoma cells as a model system. This was the beginning of my engagement in stem cell research. I established embryonic carcinoma and embryonic stem cell lines and began in vitro differentiation studies. All this work was performed under very limiting conditions, such as `home-made' fetal calf serum and culture medium. We even built our own incubators. Nevertheless, we had some success, and I will never forget the day when I found the first beating cardiac clusters in differentiated ES cell outgrowths!

After the fall of the East German system in 1989 and the unification of Germany in 1990, our institute was re-established as the Institute of Plant Genetics and Crop Plant Research (IPK), now belonging to the Leibniz Association. In 1992, after the first evaluation of my research by an independent scientific review board, I got the chance to establish my own group – late, but not too late... From then onwards, I have successfully competed for my own independent funding, participated in national and international meetings and, most importantly, begun fruitful collaborations with colleagues in Germany and abroad. These are all activities that many scientists would take for granted, but they were denied to me during my early career.

I have learned during my life that to be successful in science requires more than talent and hard work. It is also necessary to live in a democratic society with a minimum of bureaucracy (unfortunately, this is still not always the case), to have a supportive environment during one's early scientific education, to have enough money to be able to conduct experiments, and to have colleagues to interact with. While I had to deal with many obstacles to my research in the past, I am very happy that I was able to continue in science after Germany's unification, while many scientists of my age and background did not.

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

AMW: Actually, in the former GDR, young female and male students did have equal opportunities. Appointments were much more influenced by politics than by gender. After the fall of the Berlin wall, I realized that to be able to work as a woman in science was actually less straightforward in western European society. Female scientists with small children have had – and still have – clear disadvantages to be competitive.

However, increasingly, young women are able to combine their scientific work with having children. In any case, a tolerant partner and family support is the precondition to be able to survive these difficult years.

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

AMW: I did not have the feeling during my life that being a woman had a special impact on my career. My personal and scientific life was much more influenced by the fact that I lived in a country under very restricted conditions and with limited personal rights. In the former GDR I was happy to have the possibility to work part-time when our two children were young. However, I always missed support for my scientific work, as a result of personal restrictions within the political system. This changed after German unification. Now, together with many other scientists, we are competing for funding, which in my opinion is awarded independently of the applicant's gender.

FMW: What are your remaining career ambitions?

AMW: Stem cell research is an evolving field and I am happy to work in such an exciting research area. The next few years will be crucial for obtaining evidence for the potential use of this technology in regenerative medicine. Of special interest to me is the identification of lineage-specific precursor cells generated from ES and adult stem cells, assays for their isolation and directed differentiation, and the development of culture systems that support the formation of complex tissues in vitro. In addition, I have an obligation to teach young students all these techniques. I also feel a responsibility to work on scientific advisory boards and ethics commissions.

There is one special area where I would like to achieve some progress, and that is the acceptance of science by society. I have always been interested in interdisciplinary discussions between natural and social scientists, writers, artists and interested laymen. All these members of society speak a different `language'. Scientists have to find a common language with which to communicate future research developments and to explain their aims. The recent controversies related to gene technology, stem cell research and reproductive medicine show just how much effort is necessary to close the gap in understanding between scientists and the public.

Back in 1986, my husband and I started organizing discussions about the role and implications of science in society. Since 1995 these Gatersleben Meetings have been held in collaboration with the German Academy of Natural Scientists, LEOPOLDINA. The continuation of this work and the establishment of a foundation, `Science and Society', is one of my wishes for the future, and I hope that I will have the time and opportunity to bring this plan to fruition.