P.MAI Pioneer: Simone Schuerle, Head Professor of the ETH Responsive Biomedical Systems Lab
SIMONE SCHUERLEWhen I first met Simone in Berlin, it was love at first sight. Her friendly demeanor, chic style, and enthusiasm about science made you want to learn about anything she had to say. Hailing from a tiny German village, Ringingen, which boasts 1500 inhabitants, this young professor is currently the head of the Responsive Biomedical Systems Lab at the prestigious ETH Zurich.
She has more accolades than I can count, ranging from the ETH medal for her doctoral thesis and with fellowships from the SNSF, DAAD and the Society in Science for her postdoctoral studies at the Koch Institute for Integrative Cancer Research at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where she was researching as postdoctoral fellow from 2014-2017. In addition to education, she is serving as Global Future Council for the World Economic Forum. We caught up with madam scientist (and P.MAI fan) on a crisp fall day.
You're only 32 and already on a professor tenure track in a field most people couldn't even understand. What exactly are you working on?
My research is about the development of tiny systems that are applied in the human body and help to diagnose or treat certain diseases. These somewhat smart and responsive systems can react to specific signals of a disease environment, such as characteristic pH levels or molecular activity, and send us a signal to the outside. By tweaking more with their design, we can also activate them from the outside by heat, acoustic or electromagnetic signals, and trigger the release of certain drugs on demand.
While I am mostly working with synthetic materials, I recently started to include living organisms that can be “customized” by new methods in synthetic biology. I specially focus here on their use to combat cancer. It was shown that certain circulating bacteria can inherently locate tumors, and be engineered to controllably induce local cytotoxicity while remaining unobtrusive to the host system.
I propose to advance this promising approach by leveraging bacteria that are naturally capable of producing magnetic particles within their body. With the application of low and high frequency alternating magnetic fields, these living, mobile therapeutics can be monitored in vivo and also be remotely activated to achieve increased tumor penetration, toxin release, and their own self-destruction to provide an externally-controlled ‘safety net’.
My goal is to shed light on the clinical potential of combining the power of magnetics and probiotics, in order to test the hypothesis that this one-two punch may pave the way for a revolutionized cancer therapy.
How did you first become interested in science?
Mmh, that’s hard to trace back, I think it was always there somehow. I was reading and experimenting a lot as a kid, and when I started high school, I chose math and physics as my major. I felt this would teach me the fundamental knowledge and tools required to understand the world around us (at least a tiny bit of it!). I especially loved the practical course in physics, where we built experiments that seemed like magic, e.g., levitating strawberries, until you know the math and physics behind).
How did that interest grow into a field as specialized as micro/nanosystems?
This was during undergrad! I was intrigued by an introductory lecture on micro/nanotechnology and was caught by the very first moment. It fascinated me how literally a whole new world of physics and engineering opens up at the small scale. Different physics laws apply and when I started to learn how to fabricate systems at that small scale - and by small mean length scales smaller than 1/1000 of the width of your hair- I experienced kind of a thrill of potentially discovering something new.
What has been one of your biggest career challenges? How did you overcome it?
I think believing in myself and not worrying or caring so much about what others think about you or expect from you. I wouldn’t say that I have overcome that, but my incredibly lucky and positive course of my career so far helped to believe more in me. But even without positive feedback from outside—which can change quickly even without your fault—one should by default believe in oneself. When I worry about not performing well and someone might think bad of me, I now try to ground myself and imagine the worst impact of that on my life, realizing that I would still be alive and my family and friends would be still there for me. This eases the pressure and gives me some room to just be me.
What advice do you have for woman entering a male-dominated field?
Hang in there! For now, there will be still men who don’t believe in women in their field. Ignore them or better: prove them wrong! It was often hard in the beginning, but in hindsight I think this environment made me even stronger. If times are difficult, see it as a boot camp and advocate for yourself and your fellow women!
Where do you see yourself in 20 years?
Ha, I hope as happily married woman to my fiancé, with by then adult kids and a lab with a bunch of super excited students and researchers!
How do you think we can encourage the next generation of girls to be interested in STEM fields?
Help them try it out - as early as possible. For example, there are fun science kits for all sorts of age classes. And be careful not to tap into a gender bias for children. It’s everywhere—children clothing that suggests girls are pretty and boys are heroes. All kids are heroes of course!
How Aja Designed a Business that Supports Her Ideal Lifestyle
Meet our latest P.MAI pioneer, Aja Edmond. We were so inspired by your approach of designing the her ideal career based on your lifestyle goals. Rather than getting sucked into the rat race of finance or the Silicon Valley tech scene, she believed in herself and become a leader of one.
TELL US THREE WORDS THAT DESCRIBE YOU.
Aesthete. Minimalist. Stoic.
WHAT'S YOUR PHILOSOPHY ON LIFE IN ONE SENTENCE?
Beauty. Simplicity. Creativity.
TELL US A LITTLE ABOUT YOURSELF.I’m a creative entrepreneur, brand strategist, and lifestyle blogger.
I help individuals develop themselves, improve their work, and design a life that matters.
I help brands build strong emotional connections with their supporters through uncomplicated, intuitive, design-centered marketing.
Despite performing well, I knew from the start that finance was only a holdover until I could envision a more fulfilling career. The 2008 market crash was a great excuse to get motivated, and marked the beginning of my transition.
YOU LEFT YOUR FINANCE CAREER IN BANKING. HOW DID YOU DECIDE TO GIVE UP THAT LIFE AND TRANSITION TO BUILDING A LIFESTYLE BUSINESS?
I went to business school at Stanford to buy some time and it ended up being a game changer. I took courses with names like “Interpersonal Dynamics”, “Lives of Consequence”, “Design Thinking”, and “Moral Inquiry through Literature” that were instrumental in helping me formulate a vision for not just my career but entire life.
Before and after graduation, as I was fine-tuning my vision, I worked for a variety of iconic and emerging/startup fashion brands and retailers. It was a great way to meld my strategic and analytical skills with my underdeveloped creative side.
However, I also discovered my entrepreneurial spirit while living in Silicon Valley. And even though I had no intention of launching a high-growth startup, I knew working for others was only a temporary stepping stone.
In 2014 I finally said goodbye to the traditional 9-to-5 and started working toward my goal: creating a business that would support a particular lifestyle I wanted to pursue.
AND HOW DID YOU GO ABOUT BUILDING YOUR CURRENT BUSINESSES?
I created a soul-searching strategy so I was being driven by a clear purpose. I wanted to make sure what I did for work was connected to who I was and the impact I wanted to have on others.
I then experimented with a number of different business ideas before I landed on creating a personal and professional development platform for fellow thinkers, creators, and entrepreneurs.
The concept of “life design” sounds inspiring but is fairly nebulous, so I created a destination that provides actionable insights and resources that help people do their best work and become their best self.
WHAT HAS BEEN ONE OF YOUR BIGGEST CAREER CHALLENGES? HOW DID YOU OVERCOME IT?
I’ve always had this somewhat irreverent, independent spirit which never quite fit with a traditional career path. As a result, I never had any mentors nor found anyone I could emulate.
The most difficult but eye-opening moment was when I also realized I didn’t want to be a leader despite most people thinking this is the epitome of any career worth having.
So I decided to be a leader of self. I discovered that through the mere act of mastering personal excellence I could indirectly inspire and influence thousands of people — as an example rather than an authority figure.
That made all the difference and got me to where I am now with my platform.
WHAT ADVICE WOULD YOU SHARE WITH OTHER SOLOPRENEURS WHO WANT TO BUILD A SUSTAINABLE LIFESTYLE BUSINESS FOR THEMSELVES?
One word: Grit.
Anytime you are going against the tide, turning your back on social norms, and building something from nothing, you need passion and perseverance.
Everything I do is grounded in my overall life philosophy and self-defined purpose. This gives me a sort of quiet resolve to achieve what I set out to accomplish no matter the obstacles.
P.MAI Pioneer Spotlight: Emily Horne, Head of Global Policy Communications, Twitter
Meet Emily Horne.
We had the chance to up with Emily while she was visiting Italy. She is one of those people who you would call if you were in trouble in a foreign country—she is incredibly poised and knowledgeable about foreign affairs after working as the assistant press secretary for the National Security Council. Now the fearless leader is using her communications skills to promote freedom of speech at Twitter.
Tell us what you do.
I oversee our global policy communications operations, which means running all public affairs and media relations related to our internal policies, like how Twitter deals with abuse and harassment online, to public policy positions like supporting Net Neutrality. A common theme throughout my career, whether I was in government, higher ed, or journalism, has been supporting freedom of expression at home and around the world. I am passionate about protecting and empowering all people to freely express themselves, even when that can lead to challenging conversations, because ultimately it is only through connecting with others that we can learn, grow, and evolve. Twitter has revolutionized the way people communicate and learn from one another, and I am proud to represent a company that both has such a strong commitment to free speech and approaches this issue with such care and thoughtfulness.
Before joining Twitter, you were the assistant press secretary for the NSC (cough, badass). How have your previous experiences prepared you for this role?
President Obama has said that public service is both a calling and a privilege, and I couldn’t agree more. I deeply believe in the importance of public service, and working on national security issues for over a decade was an incredible privilege and responsibility, never more so than when I was representing the United States overseas. I always joke that working in public affairs is the most fun job because you have carte blanche to call up any expert in your organization and ask them any question you want - but there’s some truth there!
But you have to walk before you can run, and I’m thankful that I had supportive environments early in my career in which I could safely learn basic but vital skills like writing a solid press release in under five minutes, running a meeting when you’re the youngest person in the room, and to never walk into your boss’ office without a notebook and pen.
What has been one of your biggest career challenges? How did you overcome it?
My tenure at the NSC included the 2016 election and transition, which was obviously a very intense experience for everyone involved, regardless of their political leanings. Even though I was a career civil servant and could have gone back to the State Department, I decided it was a good time to take a long break and then try out the private sector for the first time in my career. And while I was very lucky to get some good rest and time with family and friends after an intense couple of years, I went overnight from working in the White House to being unemployed, unsure of what I wanted to do next. I watched a lot of mediocre TV in my yoga pants. I learned definitively that I am not meant to be a stay-at-home parent. And ultimately, I wound up at Twitter in large part thanks to my community of former colleagues and friends who had undertaken their own transitions, shared their experiences, and generously offered their advice, support, and networks. The lesson from all of this: no person is an island. We all rely on our communities and our people, and we in turn are obliged to help our people when they need it.
What does women empowerment mean to you? How can we further it in our communities?
This is such a huge question, and so dependent on context! That’s actually good place to begin - start with asking women in a particular community or group what they need. What are the barriers, explicit or unspoken, that keep these women from achieving their full potential? And what in my own background and experience can I use to help make progress on these issues? This is a totally different mindset from a prescriptive, one-size-fits all approach to empowering women, and from the false dichotomy of “having it all” that sets everyone, not just women, up to fail at something.
I try to be particularly mindful of the *unspoken* rules, norms, and codes that hold women and minorities back. I have a toddler son, and my husband and I think a lot about how we can raise him to be aware of both the privileges and the attendant responsibilities he will likely have as a socioeconomically-fortunate white American male. I want him to be a natural ally and advocate for people who our culture has held back from their full potential.
P.MAI Pioneer Spotlight: Amber Riedl, Makerist Co-founder
Meet startup veteran Amber Riedl. The Canadian native moved to Berlin in 2004 after finishing her MA in Political Science to join her now-husband. Yes, a real love story! There, she had her first taste of the startup world in the early days of StudiVZ ('the German Facebook') where her husband was working, and she became inspired to start something herself.
Between 2008 and 2013, Amber launched her first start up—1001hochzeiten—now Foreverly, a marketplace that connects bridal couples and wedding vendors. In 2013, she wanted to do something in the DIY space and found her partner—Axel Heinz for Makerist.
Makerist is the leading DIY and handicraft platform in Europe and offers its customers 100+ video classes, thousands of supplies and boundless inspiration to start their project.
What was the inspiration behind Makerist? Which came first—the desire to start something or seeing an opportunity that you felt must be created?
Both really came together at the same time. I saw from my online wedding site that DIY was totally taking off in Germany, and as a DIY enthusiast myself, saw a real chance to do something I could get behind. I don't think I would have done it alone though; Makerist is really the product of great teamwork from many people, but especially with Axel.
How did you know you had a good idea on your hands?
We tested our idea by creating community interest groups on Facebook called NähCafe and StrickCafe and got an amazing response. In the meantime, these are the biggest online communities for sewing and knitting in Europe.
What has been one of your biggest career challenges? How did you overcome it?
For me it was really challenging to find a balance of career and family (spending enough time with my two little ones, 7 and 5. I’ve learned it's all just a process and to not take things too seriously. Also - set boundaries and constantly prioritize!
What advice would you share with other entrepreneurs who are just starting out?
Start with an idea, but back it up with a business model and some fast testing.
What are some things that are always in your bag?
Phone + earphones for music and calls, lipstick, sunglasses, Fisherman's Friend mints, and a water bottle.
How do you carry on, beautifully?
I like to remind myself that life is made up of many sides, and try to tend to all sides as best as possible: work, family, friends, nature... If something is not going well in one area there are always other things to boost you up. It’s all about balance.
- What was the inspiration behind Makerist? Which came first—the desire to start something or seeing an opportunity that you felt must be created?
Valletta 2.0 in Progress