The KLI
Entry 431 of 446

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2024-04-12
Interview with Barbara Fischer

Interview with Barbara Fischer (4th April 2024)

Barbara Fischer joined the KLI on the 1st of April as the Group Leader (Evolutionary Biology). She talks to Joyshree Chanam about her earlier time at the KLI as a post-doctoral fellow, and her current role at the institute.

 

Joyshree Chanam (JC): Hello Barbara! Welcome back to KLI! How does it feel to be back?

Barbara Fischer (BF): It is lovely to be back. The fellows and team gave me a very warm welcome. I had a wonderful time at the KLI when I was a postdoctoral fellow and it was also a very productive time—I made a major step forward in my scientific career. The work that I did during my time here paved the future path for me, in a way. The grants that I could acquire in the subsequent years, that was all at least in part due to the work that I did during my time at the KLI.

 

JC: And my heartiest congratulations on your new position as a Group Leader.

BF: Thank you.

 

JC: Your old KLI profile says you were a Fellow at the KLI from 2015 to 2019. I was wondering if you did two postdocs…

BF: Yes, I was a fellow for quite a number of years. But I wasn't actually here all the time, I had my two children during those years so I paused my fellowship twice. And then I came back part time. So, it was just the one postdoctoral fellowship that was spread out over a couple of years.

 

JC: Wow! How wonderful! So, your time in KLI was productive in more than one way!

BF: Yes, it was! Looking back, it was intense and a bit crazy. I remember getting requests from the media about some of new publications while I was sitting at home and breastfeeding my baby.

 

JC: Most of your research work is online — on your own website, as well as on the website of the University of Vienna. But could you please tell us, in your own words, what you did before and during your time at the KLI?

BF: My PhD work was in theoretical biology. I developed mathematical models for life history evolution. After completing my PhD, I made a major switch into empirical evolutionary biology and evolutionary medicine because I was really interested in the evolution of human anatomy, and how it is a product of evolutionary adaptation and constraint. I got interested in the problems that come along with our anatomy, one of them being complicated human childbirth. So, I started to research this topic and that is what I worked on when I started my post-doctoral fellowship at the KLI. This research has since developed into a little research program, and it has been very productive. I have published a couple of high-impact papers on this topic.

 

JC: Could you tell us about these papers and the findings that caught the media attention?

BF: The first important paper that I published on this topic shows that evolution has fine-tuned some of our anatomical features to enable birth, despite the birth canal being so tight relative to the size of the fetus. I found that evolution has produced a link between head size and pelvis shape and that people, who have big heads relative to their overall body size, have pelvises that are wider in the pelvic outlet. So, to give birth to babies with big heads, those women have developed this pattern, which is a likely evolutionary adaptation; if this pattern didn’t exist, well, then birth would be even harder or impossible. The anatomical situation is really very tightly constrained.

 

JC: That is indeed very interesting! We all would certainly love to hear more about those findings in greater detail! But for this interview, I’m going to now go back to your memories of your KLI days.

BF: It was really a very vibrant community of fellows back then. It was also a very open community. And the broad backgrounds of the different fellows were inspiring. We were able to comment on each other's work, but in a way from an outsider's perspective, because we were not raised in the same school of thought. That's what I benefitted most from here at the KLI.

 

JC: Do you remember some of your co-fellows?

BF: Yes, of course. There was Lynn Chiu, a philosopher of science, who is now a science communicator at the University of Vienna. She later became a major collaborator of mine. We acquired a European grant for a science communication project together and developed school workshops on the topic of biological inheritance for the occasion of Gregor Mendel's 200th anniversary. The workshops we developed are still running at the Natural History Museum in Vienna and can be booked by school classes. But there were many more interesting persons here back then. There was Argyris Arnellos, a philosopher of science, James DiFrisco, also a philosopher; there was Stephanie Schnorr, a biologist working on nutrition and human evolution. There was Lumila Mendez, an anthropologist. Flavia Fabris and Alejandro Hernandez Villaneuva were also here. Since my postdoc fellowship got spread out over so many years, I got to meet many of the other fellows.

 

JC: What were the activities at the KLI like back then?

BF: It was not very different from what we have now. There was the weekly jour fixe, now these weekly meetings are called check-in meetings. There were the colloquia, which also featured many external speakers, and the workshops.

 

JC: You know it is such an amazing thing that you were once here as post-doc fellow, sitting in that Fellows office, and then now you are back as a Group Leader. Can you tell us a little bit about your journey after the post-doc at KLI? How have you kept in touch with the KLI after you completed your post-doc here? 

BF: After my years as a fellow at the KLI I acquired third-party funding to develop my own research program. I got an Elise Richter Grant from the Austrian Science Fund FWF, and then an Interreg EU-grant, which I worked on with Lynn a little bit later. I am still employed by the University of Vienna, to complete my FWF project.

 

JC: And, for a while will you have to divide your time between here and the University?

BF: Yes, that’s accurate, but I have substantially reduced my weekly working hours at the University. My main affiliation will be with the KLI, and I will also spend most of my working days here.

 

JC: This is a new position for the KLI, too. Could you share with us what will your new role at the KLI involve? What are the expectations, and what are your plans?

BF: First, I would like to say that despite those changes that are happening now at the KLI in terms of structure and team, I want to reassure the fellows that we will make sure that there is continuity. I will be slowly taking over some of Guido’s duties, especially with respect to the activities, running the weekly check-in meetings and hosting the colloquia. The fellows don't have to worry that the structure of the institute will suddenly change dramatically. But of course, the reason why I was hired for this position, is because the board and Philipp Mitteröcker, the new KLI president, want to strengthen the focus on evolutionary biology at the institute. How the new thematic areas will be implemented will be worked out in cooperation with the other two group leaders; Isabella Sarto-Jackson who will implement the cognition focus, and then with a third person, who will implement the philosophy of science focus.

 

JC: Just to clarify — will these groups be like labs or departments in a university kind of setting?

BF: The groups at the KLI will be different than labs in a university setting. The broad and interdisciplinary spirit of the KLI will remain. Since the KLI fellows all bring their own research projects to the institute when starting here, it is natural that the groups will be different from labs at the university. Instead, what we want to do is be able to provide a little bit more guidance in three thematic areas for those fellows who need it, especially writing up fellows. I think it would be helpful for fellows to know that if you need it, there is somebody who is working in the same field as you, for discussion and feedback, but also to help with practical questions like ‘What's the reputation of this journal?’ Or ‘Who should I suggest as handling editor or as a reviewer?’. However, there will certainly be the possibility to submit applications that do not fit one of the three thematic areas.

 

JC: Coming back to more fun stuff, just to get to know you a little bit outside your academic avatar - can you tell us about some of your other interests/hobbies, outside of academia and research? What do you do when you're when you're not working?

BF: I watch my kids. :)

 

JC: I expected you would say that. :) Anything else?

BF:  I am an outdoor person. I really like going on bike trips, taking care of my garden and hiking in the mountains. Maybe we can organize a little mountain retreat with the fellows at some point. This is where this country is most beautiful, in the Alps, and I think the fellows need to see that. I also like playing the piano when I have time. I don't have so much time, unfortunately, so I'm not getting any better.

 

JC: There's a piano in the Cantinetta right here!

BF: Yes! And guess who initiated getting that when they were a fellow back then!

 

JC: You? Wow!

BF: There were several musicians among the fellows during my fellow years. Alejandro, of course, but also Lee Altenberg, who played the violin. At some point we performed together, Lee played the violin and I played the piano.

 

JC: How nice! That's all the questions I have for you at the moment. I very much enjoyed talking with you. Thank you so much, Barbara.