Tag der Vielfalt 2019 – Diversity @ MPI-CE

On May 28, 2019, we will celebrate the 7th Diversity Day in Germany. Diversity is a precious treasure. As we did last year, we would like to portrait five members of our institute this week to show the diversity in our institute, which is the breeding ground for intercultural exchange and successful scientific collaboration. 


Jin Zhang is studying odors which are ecologically relevant for hawkmoths. Photo: Angela Overmeyer

Jin Zhang comes from China. He joined the Department of Evolutionary Neuroethology two years ago as a postdoc with a fellowship from the Alexander von Humboldt foundation. He is interested in the evolution and function of olfactory receptors in moths, as well as how ecologically relevant odors affect the moths’ decision making. Currently, his work mainly focuses on how volatile compounds emitted from caterpillar frass render the oviposition behavior of the hawkmoth Manduca sexta. Jin appreciates the internationality of the institute: “I was surprised by the internationality level of this institute when I first came here. I was able to integrate with colleges of all nationalities immediately. The cooperative atmosphere can be sensed everywhere, especially in the communication area where scientists constantly discuss and many sparks of ideas are produced. Working in this diverse institute tremendously broadens my knowledge and I learn to view things from different perspectives. I respect the cultural differences of all different nationalities. The postdoc period is stressful; however, the multi-cultural character of the institute makes my working time fun and enjoyable. I really appreciate the chance to work here, as well as the friendships and collaborative relationships developed during this time.”

Elisabeth Adam is analyzing how hawkmoths behave in the windtunnel when they perceive certain odors. Copyright: Sebastian Reuter

Elisabeth Adam comes from Austria, a small and mountainous country in the heart of Europe. She joined the Department of Evolutionary Neuroethology as a doctoral student last year and is a member of the International Max Planck Research School for “The Exploration of Ecological Interactions with Molecular and Chemical Techniques”. Elisabeth is interested how insects perceive their world and how they use their olfactory perception to navigate through their environment. She uses the desert ant Cataglyphis and the hawkmoth Manduca sexta as model systems. “My father worked for the armed forces and therefore I got to experience different cultures from a very young age”, Elisabeth says. “I really liked the international environment I grew up in and I knew that I wanted to work in a field which would offer me the opportunity to work in a similarly international atmosphere. Here, at the Max Planck Institute for Chemical Ecology, we embrace our cultural diversity. I like that the people who work here are open minded and curious to learn more about others. This is one of the reasons why I enjoy coming to work here every day.”

Erica McGale in her office at the MPI-CE. Photo: MPI-CE

Erica McGale is a doctoral student in the Department of Molecular Ecology, where she studies the functional effects of a key gene that controls a water-wasting phenotype in wild tobacco plants. She grew up in Quebec, the French-speaking part of Canada, but was born in Richmond Hill, Toronto. Her family moved to the US when she was still quite young, where she learned English and did most of her studies. She obtained by Bachelor's degree at Dartmouth College in the US, through which she found a program to come to the Max Planck for Chemical Ecology for an internship. “I was excited to have an opportunity to work in such a well-known, international scientific environment and once my internship was over, I began a PhD in the same department. I was surprised but also happy to find that during my internship and PhD, there have been a lot of changes in Germany regarding diversity. Though diversity was already key in the institutes, the culture in the country went through many changes during my time here, with the result being that more institutions and people are truly embracing and beginning to understand diversity. In addition, people have begun to acknowledge other, lesser known diversities in Germany such as non-binary genders, where someone does not identify as a man or a woman. I also am a person who is non-binary and I additionally identify as queer. It has been an honor to be part of the Max Planck during the creation of the MPQueer mailing list and network, where queer people with all sorts of diverse genders and sexualities can be represented, supported and encouraged to feel that their identity and their work environment can fit together with less and less bias every day. With every additional effort conducted by the Max Planck Society to make its institutes an inclusive home for underrepresented people, will come even more diverse, far-reaching, high-impact and creative science.”

Ibrahim Alali is working in the fly lab. He prepares experiments with different Drosophila species. Photo: Angela Overmeyer

Ibrahim Alali comes from the northern Syrian city of ar-Raqqa, where he trained as a laboratory assistant. For 13 years, he worked in the laboratory of a hospital and analyzed medical samples. When militant jihadists took control of the city in 2013, he decided to flee with his family. In 2015, he came to Germany via Turkey. The contact to the Max Planck Institute for Chemical Ecology was arranged by a member of a group of volunteers who supported refugees in Jena. She knew about Ibrahim’s long-term laboratory experience and had heard that the institute would hire refugees. What started as an internship in the Department of Evolutionary Neuroethology has meanwhile become an employment. The department appreciates Ibrahim’s meticulous work, his reliability and his always friendly nature. Since 2016, his family, his wife and four daughters, has also been in Jena. The oldest attend the Ernst-Abbe-Gymnasium, which is located in the vicinity of the institute.  Ibrahim enjoys working here: “All co-workers are very nice and friendly. They are open, like a big family. I made many contact, not only in my department, but also in other groups. I am so happy that I can work in a laboratory like I did at home in Syria. I also appreciate the flexible working hours. If I have an appointment, I can simply make up for the lost hours.”

Claudia Voelckel in the IMPRS coordination office. Photo: Angela Overmeyer

Claudia Voelckel was born in Jena. After finishing school with the Abitur, she went to Düsseldorf to get trained as a bank clerk. However, she returned to her home town to study biology. In 1998, she first came to our institute as a student helper. She wrote her diploma thesis in   2000 and her PhD thesis in 2004 in the Department of Molecular Ecology. In 2005, she received the Beutenberg Campus award for the best PhD thesis.  At that time, she was already doing research as a postdoc at the University of California in Santa Barbara. She liked combining science with getting to know other countries and cultures. A fellowship from the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation brought her to New Zealand, where she stayed until 2015, and where both of her children were born. Since 2015, she is the coordinator of the International Max Planck Research School at our institute, thereby returning to Jena after more than 10 years of international experience. Her family life is also international: Her partner works in Switzerland, so she has to balance work and family on her own during the week, although she get great support from the grandparents. Flexible working hours also make this much easier. She appreciates the international context of her work: “Promoting young talents is very important to me. It is a very rewarding task to support young people from different countries with diverse educational backgrounds and ways of living to their PhD. My own intercultural experience and my knowledge in research and teaching in the USA and New Zealand are very helpful for this task."