Prof. Dr. Monica Elisabeth Zwicky

In academia, she’s noted for her research on sex determination in insects and her more recent career in training biology teachers; meanwhile, through her Zwicky father, she’s in the line of the sewing-thread Zwickys (going back to 1840 — made memorable through Donald Brun’s Zwicky-silk cat poster, Soie à coudre) and is now the CEO of the real-estate development firm that evolved from that enterprise.

Prof. Dr. Monica Elisabeth Zwicky (Professor of Developmental Biology, Department of Molecular Life Sciences, Univ. of Zurich [so listed on the English versions of its pages; it’s Zürich on the German pages]); photo from the Molecular Life Sciences website

The thumbnail sketch from this website:

Monica Zwicky was born to a Swedish mother and Swiss father in Zurich and grew up in Lausanne. She has two grown-up children, is in charge of training aspiring biology teachers and is an Adjunct Professor of MNF [die Mathematisch-naturwissenschaftliche Fakultät, the Faculty of Science, the larger division to which Molecular Life Sciences belongs]

This is then followed by an interview with her about her interest in natural science, her life as a woman in biology, her drive for independence and authority, and her recognition that the role of mentor and nurturer of students comes easily to her as an extension of her maternal role. It’s a complex and self-reflective piece, also something of a surprise on a Molecular Life Sciences site.

There are also things she doesn’t say. Her scientific research has been focused on sex determination in insects, specifically Drosophila; this work from 1989 through 2008 was published under her married name, Monica Steinmann-Zwicky, and then Steinmann disappears completely and she becomes just Monica Zwicky, with a professorship, raising her two children on her own.

Meanwhile, she quite elaborately conceals her age. Absolutely nothing in the brief vita she supplies on the Molecular Life Sciences site (including her Zurich PhD) comes with a date, nor could I date these life events from other sources. Her publications begin in 1989, though, and from that I estimated (with very little assurance) that she is now in her early 60s, about one generation younger than I am.

No doubt she considers these matters to be private ones, none of our business.

Her Zwicky name and Zwicky heritage, however, are big and very public things in Switzerland, and she has energetically entered the family business (which I’ve posted about a number of times, and plan to post on some more).

So: the complete interview, with some interventions by me in square brackets.

Why did you choose to pursue science?

By the end of my very first genetics class at high school I knew that I wanted to understand and investigate the chemical principles that govern life. Natural sciences was a conscious choice – the clear-cut, analytical way of thinking suits me. But I also knew that I wanted both a challenging job and a family. As one of the few female professors with children I have a 60% position. The rest of the time used to belong to my children.

What do you like about your job?

The portion of my time spent teaching is relatively high due to the fact that I only work part time. I like that and enjoy interacting with young people. I’m in charge of training future biology teachers, an area in which my experience as a mother comes in handy. I’m also a liaison professor of MNF – an exciting job that demands a good deal of sensitivity. Research is another thing I enjoy: a combination of logical thinking and knowledge. The main thing is to ask the right questions.

Did you have any role models who had an impact on your career? If so, who?

I come from a family of entrepreneurs where women didn’t have the same opportunities as men. My family told me that if I married a capable man, he could join the company. I took a stand against these set-in-stone role models and told myself I could do it, that I could go my own way. Since 2008 I’ve been managing our family business [as CEO of Zwicky & Co., AG, the real-estate group descendant of the 180-year-old sewing-thread company; she’s now working on transforming the company’s industrial area in Wallisellen (a Zürich suburb) into a new city residential district] alongside my job at the University of Zurich.

Do you have any advice for young, ambitious female researchers?

You need a great deal of commitment and a willingness to immerse yourself in a subject. You also have to bear in mind that nobody has been waiting for you. I spent some time training in successful laboratories outside Switzerland [at UC Berkeley in particular] and also applied to other universities. It’s helpful if you can show an academic track record at an early stage. Previous achievements are more persuasive than making demands. [No doubt she would truly hate my making this joke, but that’s one tough mother. And I say that with considerable admiration.]

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