March 1st, 2019
"At the beginning of their studies, many students are still quite insecure about their future,” says cell biologist Dr. Susanne Illenberger. “It is amazing to experience and contribute to how they develop during their three-year bachelor's degree, how they mature, make important decisions within the subject area and then graduate with an excellent degree that will possibly lead them to a top university.” An ardent teacher, she is passionate about motivating others and awakening their enthusiasm for a subject she found enriching when she was still a student giving tutorials.
Her enthusiasm is obvious in the way that she describes cells as an “insanely impressive construct of evolution…They manage to replicate and pass on billions of building blocks of genetic information almost flawlessly, they coordinate a multitude of processes and waste not a single bit of energy. What cells do is very fascinating, they manifest the wonderful diversity of nature," enthuses Illenberger. Naturally, she is also concerned about what happens when the inner balance of a cell is destroyed and diseases develop.
Dr. Illenberger received her doctorate in Hamburg and completed her habilitation at the Technical University of Braunschweig before moving to Jacobs University in Bremen twelve years ago. Since then, she has been commuting between the cities. Her partner is a musician in the Braunschweig State Orchestra, with whom she shares another passion, classical music, especially opera. As in biology, she appreciates its diversity: "If there were only Mozart, Verdi or Wagner, it would be boring, but there are many more composers. If I really want to relax, I'll go to the opera."
Her position at Jacobs University is her self-described ‘dream job’ which makes the weekly commute worth it. Jacobs University offers “the internationality and high motivation of the students, the teaching in English, a course of studies called Biochemistry and Cell Biology, which links two subject areas that are traditionally independent and which no other German university offers in a similar format. As well, Dr. Illenberger enjoys the proximity to the students: "We are a campus university; you constantly cross paths and also exchange ideas outside the classroom.
Susanne Illenberger is committed to excellence in education. Reflected by the curriculum, the vocational orientation of her study program with laboratory courses that start in the first semester allow students to try out what theoretical practices they have learned, and also allows for the possibility for the students to become researchers within the framework of a project with their professor. Of course, a lot depends on the teachers and how they teach, whether they reach, motivate and inspire students to perform at their best. "I try to make my lectures and courses varied and interactive, use different media and even build in an online quiz," says Susanne Illenberger. "The most important thing is, however, if you act as an enthusiastic role model."
As a doer ("talking and theorizing for hours on end just isn’t my thing"), she also encourages her students to become active themselves. Whether in internships or through a semester abroad: "There are so many possibilities out there that the students should explore." On average, 25 students complete their studies in Biochemistry and Cell Biology every year. Around 90 percent then opt for a Master's or a doctorate degree, often at one of the renowned universities such as Oxford, Cambridge, Harvard or one of the Max Planck Graduate Schools.
According to Susanne Illenberger – who once made it to the second Bundesliga in volleyball – being someone who takes initiative also means getting involved in academic self-administration in various university committees. Her commitment to support women in mathematics and natural sciences, as well as promoting her subject area at public events such as "Science for All" is well known. To recharge her batteries, she's going to Italy for her next holiday. She is still hoping to get tickets for Milan's La Scala.