Professor Katja Simon

Principal Investigator, Human Immunology Unit, WIMM, Oxford University.

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After a childhood spent in Hamburg and Paris, Katja Simon studied Biology in Berlin followed by a diploma thesis at University College London. She trained as an Immunologist under Avrion Mitchison (one of the founders of modern Immunology) and studied autoimmune diseases with an emphasis on cytokines in rheumatoid arthritis. As a postdoc at the Centre d’Immunologie de Marseille Luminy, she investigated transcription factors regulating cell death of maturing T cells. She had two children during her first postdoc.

“This was an extremely difficult but equally happy period of my career. I spent many nights awake while caring for small children thinking about career alternatives”

During her second postdoc in Oxford she pursued her interest in cell fate, studying cell death molecules in thymocytes, inflammation and tumour immunity.

“I was mad enough to have a third child during my second postdoc. By then I had realized that I had an extremely supportive partner, who while also being a scientist was keen to slow down his career to care for his young children”

While her children were still young, she set up her own independent line of enquiry investigating another type of cell fate, autophagy, still focusing on the healthy hemato-immune system.  Her group discovered that autophagy, the main conserved cellular bulk degradation pathway, maintains healthy stem cells and promotes differentiation of many types of cells.

“My first PhD student realized quickly when it was best to talk to me or get a quick answer by e-mail. While I was still working at the bench, I would never miss dinner with my children, instead I would come back to the lab after bedtime, or work from home. Having had children that early in my career gave me a healthy perspective in times of failures, helped me to become a caring supervisor and be extremely organized. Ultimately to succeed in academic research you have to be very resilient to failures, risk-embracing and passionate.”

As a mother in academic science, she encountered many of the difficulties that come with combining a career in science with children, so she co-founded OxFEST (Females in Engineering, Science and Technology) in 2005, an Oxford University society, promoting and encouraging women in science.

“The problems encountered by female scientists were particularly overlooked in the traditional Oxford academic setting, so we felt a lively and active society was necessary to bring us together to talk about the problems we had experienced and meet role models. I learned that I had to find my own way, role models only help to a certain extent.”