The researcher with success and no career plan
Theresia Schnurr was on the look-out for chances to come along – and now she is on a three-year Novo Nordisk Foundation Visiting Scholar programme with the Stanford Bio-X Institute at the prestigious Stanford University in California, USA.
Theresia Schnurr’s top tip for other young scientists dreaming of a career like hers is to decide what they would enjoy doing, build up a good network, wait for chances to come along, and grab them. ‘Never say never’, she says.
She herself has never made a long-term career plan. ‘Things have just happened for me’, she says from her lab at Stanford University in California, where she will be working for three years as a Novo Nordisk Foundation Visiting Scholar. The fourth year of the project will be spent at the University of Copenhagen.
Her story is the story of a talent and a personality that makes difficult things happen and, what’s more, makes them look easy. For example, it was a pack of sled dogs — and their owner — who initially made Theresia Schnurr into a diabetes researcher.
She studied in Alaska because she had received an athletic scholarship to represent the University of Alaska in cross-country running/skiing at the national university championships. During her bachelor’s degree, she had to take some independent research credits and bumped into a young professor who worked with sled dogs in an Arctic setting, using them as an exercise and diabetes model. She worked with her for a semester and soon found that the research she was doing was not only adventurous — performing tests on the dogs at -40°C at a dog kennel outside town — but also fun and educational. She learned a lot about insulin resistance and exercise-stimulated GLUT4 translocation. ‘When she invited me to do my master’s thesis in her lab, I didn’t hesitate to say yes’, Theresia says.
"I love doing research and enjoy what I am doing. I don’t think of my research as “a job”; I think it’s an important part of my life’’
She did her master’s, and it got her hooked into continuing her research, which led to a PhD with the aim of digging further into the health benefits of exercise — which is her personal interest — and obesity/diabetes complications.
Her Danish boyfriend whom she met in Alaska, Lasse, made her aware of the great conditions for PhD studies in Denmark — and her next piece of luck was that professor Torben Hansen at the Novo Nordisk Foundation Center for Basic Metabolic Research, University of Copenhagen. He helped her find funding to work on her PhD project in which she elucidated the impact of genetic variation on objectively assessed physical activity and fitness and its relevance for obesity and metabolic traits. To address her research questions, she applied genetic epidemiology to study well-characterised population-based Danish cohorts and a cohort of Greenlandic Inuit for whom objectively assessed physical activity data and/or fitness data were available.
Have baby, will travel – to the USA
In 2019, she received the NNF Stanford Bio-X fellowship, and she and Lasse – who is an attorney (Danish Law) – decided to move overseas even if Theresia was pregnant and he would have to put his career plans on hold during their years in the USA. They got married, she gave birth in Denmark and then moved to California, where she started a 3-year fellowship in Josh Knowles’ group at Stanford University. The Knowles lab uses an interdisciplinary setting to apply genetics to improve human health. Projects stretch across the scientific continuum from gene discovery, to the development of model systems, the translation of these findings to clinical applications, and larger public health efforts.
"Currently, she is recruiting some of her skier-friends to the ELITE study that aims to identify the very fittest athletes with a lifetime VO2max that is attainable by less than 1 in 50,000 people"
Theresia’s project is to combine genetic epidemiology with molecular biology in cell models to study non-alcoholic fatty liver disease with the aim of contributing to drug target development. Once she arrived at Stanford, it was an easy choice for her to identify her other Stanford Bio-X affiliated co-mentor: Euan Ashley. The Ashley lab studies genomic aspects of physical activity and fitness – so it all loops back to her own personal interest and her work during her PhD thesis. Currently, she is recruiting some of her skier-friends to the ELITE study that aims to identify the very fittest athletes with a lifetime VO2max that is attainable by less than 1 in 50,000 people. ‘Having the opportunity to be part of a team studying the genetics of human performance is a lot of fun!’ By studying the extreme of human performance, they aim to uncover mechanisms and therapeutic targets for the treatment of cardiovascular and metabolic disease – and Theresia hopes to be able to take such findings and apply to her own attempts to study mechanisms of non-alcoholic fatty liver disease and related traits. Most important, during the 4 year project she wants to establish a close collaboration between the Knowles lab at Stanford University and the Hansen lab at University of Copenhagen.
As already mentioned, Theresia hopes her results will be of benefit to patients, but she has no direct collaboration with the industry. ‘I actually applied for a job in the industry, I just didn’t get it’, she says. She also admits that she barely knew what kind of job she wanted in the industry – and she has discussed her ambivalence with Torben Hansen, among others – but in any case it is now settled that she will remain in the university world for the next few years.
Difficult, competitive – and beautiful
She is still the ‘new girl’ in her lab in the USA, and says that she can’t yet say anything much to the point about the differences between working Danish-style and working Stanford-style – for one thing, because the pandemic has made everything so utterly different to normal. But one thing she can say: we faced a lot of challenges during our move from Denmark to USA as a family. ‘That makes it extra nice to still have Torben as my mentor and carry on having our regular meetings to also discuss non-scientific issues if needed’, she says.
Another obvious difference is that it seems to be more difficult to combine academic research and a family life as a Postdoc in the USA. ‘People work in the late hours, and 6 weeks’ vacation is unheard of. But then I’m a Danish employee, I take my 6 weeks and I prioritize to have a life outside the lab with my family. The way I work is often to start early and leave relatively early (American standard) so that I can have time with my family – and then if needed - I’ll work again in the evening. But it is also a fact that I love doing research and enjoy what I am doing. I don’t think of my research as “a job”; I think it’s an important part of my life’, she says.
Luckily for her, Lasse is still a ‘stay-at-home dad’, despite being the family workaholic, and until he finds a job they are making use of the many opportunities in the area for what she and Lasse both love: Outdoor adventures.
Currently, they live in Menlo Park, California. ‘It’s a small apartment, but I can bike to work, and in 30 minutes we’re in the mountains where we can go for amazing hikes, or on the coast, where will can watch seals and enjoy a day at the beach, and we also bike. Most important to us, it’s only a 3.5 hour drive up to Lake Tahoe where we can find some of the best cross-country skiing in North America. It’s just fantastic – and we’ve also found many places where we can go camping. Our little girl, who’s only 15 months old, has already been three times; she is into it’, she says.
Instead of taking umbrage, he offered her a job
And, speaking of falling into things: at the DDA Winter School in Malaga, Professor Paul Franks, the Deputy Director of Lund University Diabetes Centre in Sweden, asked whether anyone wanted to go for a run up the mountain with him… Theresia volunteered as the only one, and Paul Franks later admitted to having thought, ‘Oh… That wasn’t really the idea… Now I’ll have to wait for her…’.
He didn’t have to wait. But he did see a young woman with great potential and, clearly, an iron will, so instead of taking umbrage, he offered her a job with him. That hasn’t yet come about, but then who knows? With researchers like Theresia, who have big talent, a can-do attitude and no career plan, nobody knows.
Theresia M. Schnurr
MSc, PhD, Postdoc
Department of Medicine, Stanford University & Novo Nordisk Foundation Center for Basic Metabolic Research
Read Theresia Schnurr's CV here