Profile with Ute Kraemer

Ute Krämer (Germany & Magdalen 1992) is the Head of the Department of Plant Physiology at Ruhr University Bochum, Germany. Her research group focuses on molecular and functional genomic approaches towards a better understanding of evolutionary adaptation and the biology of trace elements. She holds a DPhil in Plant Sciences from Oxford University. 

Rhodes Project: Where did you grow up?

Ute Krämer: I grew up mostly in a little village named Gruenenplan in Northern Germany, far away from large cities. However, I was born in West-Berlin. Early in my childhood we moved around a lot - from Berlin to Hanover, then to Stuttgart. When I started school, we settled down in this village, and two years later we moved to Rome for a year and then back again. I went to an Italian school and learned Italian during my third year of primary school. That was quite influential. I fully understand Italian and I do speak it, but not well anymore. I came to realize that the Italian you speak as a nine-year-old kid has some grammar limitations. This certainly made it much easier to learn other languages later on. I think I had an advantage over other pupils in this way.

Rhodes Project: What kind of music do you enjoy listening to?

Ute Krämer: Everything, really. I used to play the classical guitar while I was at school and I enjoyed that a lot. I was quite ambitious, and my teacher really wanted me to study music at university. I love music, but I never enjoyed performing very much, and I did not want to make my living that way. Nowadays I listen to music less and less because I am too busy.

Rhodes Project: What was the first job you ever held?

Ute Krämer: My first job was just after I finished school. In Germany, we used to finish the last year of school earlier and then had about five months until university started. To fill the time, I took a job writing a computer program for a small company. It was a small statistics program for processing toxicology data. I also worked for free at an archeological excavation. This wasn’t really a job because they didn’t have any money to pay me, but it felt like really hard work.

Rhodes Project: When did you first become passionate about Plant Physiology?

Ute Krämer: During my PhD. I began to study biochemistry in university and came to realize that I was unhappy with the curriculum. I decided I had to leave. So then I got a Rhodes Scholarship, and I ended up doing a PhD because it was the only useful degree for me at the time. I chose Plant Physiology because I had always had a strong interest in it, but never any chance to learn much about it. Once I started on that, I realized it was very different from just memorizing textbooks and going through series of pre-determined experiments. I really enjoyed the adventure of science. I enjoyed being able to successfully move forward with an idea that engaged my mind - to find and do the experiments to prove it.

Rhodes Project: Can you tell me about a memorable teaching moment?

Ute Krämer: I was in a Zoology lecture. The Zoology professor was extremely motivated. He really loved his animals, and he was always completely carried away by whatever he was talking about in his lecture. These were very carefree lectures, because he was just moving from one topic to the next by his aspiration, rather than by some scheme. One student raised her hand and said, “Professor, your lectures are certainly very captivating, but what do I need to study for the exam?” He said, “Imagine you go on a cruise all around the world. Would you board the ship and immediately take a seat in the lifeboat?”

Rhodes Project:  What advice would you give to a young woman interested in pursuing a career in the sciences?

Ute Krämer: Don’t step back. I think young women tend to be triggered to take one step back, being more modest about their aims. They realize they have multiple interests and are confronted with various expectations, and many of them decide not to go for the full thing. They decide to go for something that is more modest in their career. I would advise them not to step down with their ambitions.

Rhodes Project: Who are some of your mentors?  

Ute Krämer: They keep changing, of course. When I was young, my family had a friend who owned a seed company. I was interested in biology, and he recommended books to me. I specifically remember one great book about molecular biology, which fascinated me. At the time, information was much less available than it is now because there was no internet. Now you just go on the internet and get wonderful pictures and lots of information. It’s hard to imagine that 25 years ago, this wealth of information just wasn’t accessible. It was hard to even know which books were nice, and books were much less nice than they are nowadays. He recommended books to me and knew something to tell me about my area of interest. After that, my PhD supervisor was important. That’s the first person you see and the first person you follow in terms of how to move in the scientific community – like a role model. Since then, the number has increased. In my profession, the diversity of personalities is high. I meet colleagues who are impressive in various ways, often older than me. I like to observe them for orientation when I step into new areas, when I have to do new things that I haven’t done before. It’s also good sometimes for correction. You go off somewhere in one direction, not realizing you are wrong. My problem is sometimes that I see things a bit too rigidly. It helps to look to my colleague and ask myself if I am going too far. I think that with time, the number of mentors increases because they are not real mentors as much as colleagues who provide a different viewpoint and inspiration.

Rhodes Project: If you had unlimited resources to address any issue, local or global, what would it be?

Ute Krämer: I see a high value in basic science because it can change our concept of the world. This can enable us to address human needs at an unforeseen, more effective level in the future. Or it might even bring us to an entirely different view of what our most important problems are. So I would probably have thousands of plant genomes sequenced in order to examine how exactly they change when plants adapt to challenging local environmental conditions. And then try to use this to better understand how plant evolution works. In a more applied sense, I am keen to address human nutrition and the nutritive quality of plant crops. This is something in direct relation to the work that I do, because plants are the gate that controls what enters the food chain. Globally, both the quantity and the quality of food are limited. By quality, I mean that food is often inadequate in terms of its nutritive value – the content in essential trace elements. There is also abundant contamination of the food chain with toxins. I see the consequences: it’s really a major threat to human health globally. This is coming up a tremendous amount in China right now, where the environment has been contaminated by industrial activities and bad farming practices. There are so many people to feed, and this generates the need to use even contaminated soils for growing food crops. I would like to identify or breed crop varieties that minimize human exposure to toxins and provide high nutritional quality.   

Rhodes Project: What is something that readers on our site might be surprised to learn about you?

Ute Krämer: Maybe that I have two kids. They are three and four and a half years old. I have a great time with them. I get to be very busy following their ways. I find their perspectives fascinating: how they view and try to understand the world. I am generally interested in people’s perspectives because they reflect the different individual worlds experienced. I like to read biographies because I am curious to imagine these different worlds. These little kids are also a bit like biographies evolving in my arms. I find that interesting and emotionally charming.

Rhodes Project: What is something you are looking forward to right now?

Ute Krämer: I am looking forward to developing the scientific enterprise that I am engaged in, working in continuous interchange with my colleagues. I think it’s extremely exciting to be able to interact so intensely with the worldwide scientific community. This is a fantastic time to be in biology, also because technology seems to progress at an exponential pace, with great chances to gain fundamentally novel insights. It’s fascinating to team up with other people for developing strategies and projects that move forward human understanding of biology and evolution.

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