A good practice example and a role model: Marina Rodnina

A good practice example and a role model: Marina Rodnina

Summary and context

In view of current and older criticism, I am showing that not everything is bad inside the Max Planck Society. My intention is to show that there are worthy role models there, one of which is Marina Rodnina. This piece is especially important when, during the recent press coverage, an excuse used was that women have it especially difficult in academia. Indeed, but there are women who take these experiences and do remarkable things for other women. Moreover, since women have no room for failure, there is a chance that recent reports about a female start scientist will influence the progress we made. Marina Rodnina is the example we all need through these times.

The scientist

The first time I met Marina Rodnina was during a DFG SFB retreat. She embarrassed a Nobel Prize contender with an off-topic question. When he was unable to answer, her reply was blunt:”You should have known it; you wrote a thesis on this topic.” It reminded me of a teacher addressing a pupil during an oral examination. It was unexpected to see this tiny woman unapologetically embarrass a renowned MPG director.

Even though she is physically petite, Marina Rodnina stands tall in her truth. She is also one of the rare elegant women in science. These two facts may seem unrelated, but I believe they are not: I have found that women who do not cave into masculinity in order to blend into a patriarchal culture are also consistently unafraid to question the status quo.

Marina Rodnina challenges the status quo through every action she takes. Once, she used all of her allocated time in an international conference to critique the work of another group. It seemed strange to many, as this not something we normally do in academia. Why not? In a science culture producing many irreproducible results, don’t we need more open criticism?

Her criticism and emphasis on holding people accountable make many people think, “What a bitch!” The truth is that in a male-dominated culture, the word ‘bitch’ is often used to describe assertive, successful women. While this hostile culture is a stressor that deters a vast majority of women from career advancement, Marina Rodnina proves her worth as a scientist by accumulating accolades. Most recently, she was awarded the prestigious Leibniz prize. That year, the Leibniz prize was awarded to two female MPG directors, Emmanuelle Charpentier and Marina Rodnina,  in addition to a male director, Benjamin List. Considering that only 15.3% of MPG directors are women, this suggests that the few women who manage to become MPG directors are at least twice as good as their male counterparts.

The mentor

Though tough with her colleagues, Marina Rodnina is compassionate towards early career researchers. Knowing this, one of her doctoral candidates, Monika (name changed) announced her pregnancy with a joke and an ultrasound picture: “Soon, we will have a new member joining the lab.” Immediately after offering congratulations, the busy director started worrying about missed social benefits. A non-EU stipend holder, Monika could not receive parental leave money. Marina Rodnina called the administration to inquire about the possibility of changing Monika’s method of payment to a contract. While this was not a viable solution, in the end a solution was found: home-office work for manuscript and thesis writing, with schedule flexibility on both sides. Marina Rodnina’s support paid off – Monika finished her thesis on time while writing a review and a research article for one of the biggest journals in her field.

In another case of using empathy as a leadership style, Marina Rodnina helped one of her doctoral candidates who has fallen ill with terrible sickness. Elena (name changed) comes from a non-EU country. For her PhD studies, she was awarded an excellence stipend from the Boehringer-Ingelheim Fonds (BIF). Elena developed a difficult disease which prevented her from finishing her PhD studies on time. On top of that, she had a cheap health insurance that did not offer proper coverage, and she had to fight with her insurance company for reimbursement of medical expenses. To ease the stress, Marina Rodnina and BIF agreed on a two-and-a-half-month paid medical leave. The result was that Elena did not need to worry about the possibility of income loss. This is rare in an academic culture in which any disruption of thesis work, e.g., pregnancy, usually leads to stipend suspension. After treatment, Elena returned to the lab with a compromised immune system. A bacteria-free area of the lab was created for her so that she could continue her work. Once her BIF fellowship ended, Elena received a work contract, allowing her to be covered by statutory health insurance. Grateful for all the support, Elena successfully completed her thesis with an accepted first author manuscript.

The community organizer

Marina Rodnina also places great importance on supportive mentorship in her academic community work. She is the program speaker for the doctoral program ‘Biomolecules: Structure – Function -Dynamics’ of the Göttingen Graduate School for Neurosciences, Biophysics, and Molecular Biosciences (GGNB). As a PhD representative of the same program, I worked with her on cases of bad supervision. I felt no hesitation in asking her to intervene in a case where a student needed a supervisor change after the first year of their PhD, and she facilitated this transition diplomatically and effectively. Moreover, when rumors arose of poor mentoring of a few early career scientists in one department, she took charge. She asked me to talk to the PhD candidates – as they trusted me more – and convince them to make formal complaints, as she wanted to intervene but needed a formal reason to do so. The ruggedness she showed in pursuing a solution in this case taught me that, if we want change, we must apply pressure until change happens. I applied this lesson to all my MPG-related dealings.

Nobody is perfect

I am not saying that Marina Rodnina is perfect. I have to make this point clear because as soon as people find out that she is my role model, they tend to start tearing her apart: “Look at what she is doing!” I do not always agree with her actions. However, I believe that what defines a person is not their lack of flaws but their reaction when faced with their shortcomings. In my experience, when faced with mishaps, Marina Rodnina is humble and apologetic. She openly changes her position when proven to have been in the wrong. There are many arrogant MPG directors who do not apologize and  hold onto their beliefs, pretending to know it all, while trying to blame others. In contrast, Marina Rodnina apologizes when appropriate and takes responsibility such that mistakes do not happen again.

To conclude

I could go on and on with examples of how wonderful Marina Rodnina is. I could tell you how, despite her busy schedule, she still makes time to go to the farmer’s market every Saturday morning. Or how she takes care of her body as well as her brain by going to a gym. Or how, in both cases, she is joined by her adoring husband who proudly calls her “my director.” Or how she is both a mother and a grandmother. She is one of the rare people who can just do it all!

It is believed by some that professors and department heads are allowed to be arrogant, because their academic success excuses them. In academia, not criticising your colleagues is the norm created by men. Furthermore, mentoring, teaching, and supporting students is usually viewed by academics as a chore, not an important part of their work. Marina Rodnina proves that none of these expectations have to be true – that a successful scientist and department head can (and thus, should) also be humble, speak openly, and care about their students.  She is a gladiator, wears the white hat, and stands in the sun.



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