“Stand up for your convictions, stand behind your principles, bond with your colleagues and care about people.”


Our next “Fellow of the Month” is probably one of our best examples showing how an academic career can take unforeseen turns or differing paths during the (work) life of an academic. Stephanie Schnorr started out studying diet in human evolution to now specializing in earthworms and bacteria. Read the interview to get a glimpse of her research project as well as for a realistic account of some of the ongoing challenges faced by post docs in academia.


Describe your research in one sentence.

Stephanie: I study rare nutritional lipid production in microbiota coming from terrestrial ecosystems and host niches.


Tell us about a normal day in the life of a postdoc. 

Stephanie: In my first postdoc position many years ago, I felt like I was just given a ticket to sit at the adult table and become a part of the discussion about what research is about or what should be pursued, and how to do it. This was an exciting moment as I was building the skills and networks as a scientist with my own independent thoughts, rather than just as a graduate student within another research program. At this time, I had a lot of energy to join different research projects, collaborations, and to learn new techniques for my own basic research. I felt empowered to apply for grants to pursue my own research dreams, and I did!
However, remaining as an independent postdoc for very long is extremely challenging and unsettling. The funding is temporary, positions are dispersed and insecure, requiring constant mobility and disruption to personal life, and the workload and responsibilities grow ever larger. A research program in the natural sciences needs technical personnel support, otherwise it is impossible to grow and to accomplish your ambitions. Now as a more senior postdoc, I find that my time is spent putting out fires and triaging the most demanding items in need of attention at the given moment. It is exhausting and unsatisfying. I love love love my project and my research goals. Therefore, I have decided that for my REWIRE grant time I will focus completely on the basic research of this project and minimize my time pursuing “what comes next” and face that cliff edge when it inevitably arrives. There will be no easy bridges, and rather most likely I will need to sit calmly at that precipice for a while in order to look for the next path to take, and it will very likely be on some other elevation and in another environment. Luckily, I feel confident enough in my general human skills to financially support myself, and for better or worse I do not have dependents, and so I can weather that moment when it comes. That is my reality as a postdoc, and I know that I am not alone in this lonely bleak outlook.
For the general day to day of my career, days can be planned or sporadic in equal parts. I do not work well with regimented scheduling. My work modus is rarely paced, continuous output, but rather blurs of activity punctuated by days of silence and reading or retreat into deep contemplation. A consequence of this is that I need to continuously document my thoughts and evaluate how they are related to achieving my goals.


How will society benefit from your research? 

Stephanie: I am working very heavily towards the goal to help alleviate our reliance on marine ecosystem resources by looking for alternative approaches for producing so-called fish-oils or algal-oils. I think that a secondary outcome of this work, which is done using an earthworm model, is to improve our understanding of how primary degrader microfauna change and remediate soil ecosystems, which can be used to help recover biodiversity and restore the land from overuse. For what concerns society more specifically, I think it is important to make therapeutic nutritional elements more economically accessible. Omega-3 and omega-6 long-chain polyunsaturated fatty acids are some of the most potent stimulants of immune inflammatory responses, both in activation and amelioration. They also facilitate mitochondrial health and help mitigate neurodegeneration. The beneficial outcome from making these fatty acids more available and sustainably produced is incalculable.


Share a funny/surprising or unexpected anecdote with us from your academic career so far:

Stephanie: I started my career working on human evolution and trying to piece together elements that related to development of our magnificent brains, and now I work on earthworms and soil bacteria. I think that is a wonderfully inconceivable (and humbling) transition.


What does REWIRE mean to you?

Stephanie: Take a breath, do work, get to know some amazing women from diverse fields.


Who is your personal heroine? 

Stephanie: I hate heroes and the aggrandizing predilections of our personalities.


The most important lesson learned so far that you want to share with other future (female) early post docs:

Stephanie: Stand up for your convictions, stand behind your principles, bond with your colleagues and care about people. Do not mistake how people react to you with who or what you are, because I have found that people behave very strangely in the face of authenticity. Either they are drawn to it, or they want to destroy it (because of what it reflects about them). Be confident about being authentic, and in turn, let that authenticity be the honest signal of your weaknesses, and your willingness to accept yourself for them so that you can grow.


Quickfire Questions

Keyboard or Pen?

Pen and an irresponsible amount of loose notebooks.

Vanilla or chocolate ice cream?

If it’s good ice cream then just give it to me.

Early bird or night owl?

I love to stay up until 2 or 3 am working on a problem, sleep a couple of hours, and then jump back in the chair as the dawn rises full of energy, inspiration, and a solution at hand.


Interested in reading more about Stephanie's research? Click here.