A helping hand to researchers

‘Communications Officer’ is Eva-Maria’s official title, but maybe ‘facilitator’ would have been more appropriate. At KBC and MIMS, she is the adhesive that brings together infrastructure and wide- spread researchers to a close-knit research environment.

EVA-MARIA DIEHL is parked at the desk of the small communications office of the Chemical Biological Centre (KBC) when Aktum pays a visit. I catch a glimpse of the characteristic, short hairstyle through the window towards the open-planned café.

This is where she spends half of her working hours. The other half is spent at the Laboratory for Molecular Infection Medicine Sweden (MIMS). She took on this patch-work post in 2009 and despite being split in two, she wants to keep it that way.

“It may seem split, but I kind of like the mixture and it’s sort of the point of this job,” says Eva-Maria Diehl.

“At KBC, I work at least 80 per cent of my time with internal communications and organising conferences, workshops and courses. I make sure researchers get the practical help they need to spend their time on research instead. I focus on good service, and do what it takes,” she says.

TO CROWN IT ALL, Eva-Maria Diehl has become a person who really gives reason to the epithet ‘profile’ at the University. She has a huge network of contacts, often works tightly with the researchers, and makes a point of meeting them on their own terms:
“I nearly always find it better to go see people where they work, rather than have them come to me. My door is of course always open, but it’s important for me to understand how the researchers work.”

On the question of what image she thinks researchers have of her, it makes her laugh:
“I can’t really say. But they dare contact me because they know that I’ll do everything in my power to solve their issues. They trust that I take them seriously,” she says and continues:
“Many have opinions on what a communications officer should and should not do. But if necessary, I don’t mind bringing Carl Kempe (chairman of research foundation Kempestiftelsen) a cup of coffee when he pays a visit. That task is just as important. Just like everything else that helps us continue to run a successful research environment with good collaboration.”
THE FIRST MOVE to Sweden from her home-country Germany took place in the beginning of the 1980s. After two years in Lund, Eva-Maria came to Umeå when the PhD supervisor of her then student husband took a job at Umeå University.

“I started studying environmental health here in 1989. I was trained as a biologist but needed to take a nation- al aptitude test in Swedish to get accepted to the programme.”

Her memories of Swedish universities before Sweden joined the EU in 1995 gravely contrasts the internationally characterised context of KBC at present:

“In Lund, I once sat at a table opposite two Swedes who laughed and spoke in Swedish. It was so uncomfort- able because I could sense that they were talking about me without being able to understand them. That just doesn’t happen today.”
THE CHEMICAL BIOLOGY CENTRE is a proper bot- tom-up initiative, something that Eva-Maria Diehl sees as crucial for the research environment to become as well- functioning and successful as it is.

“The researchers realised the need for collaboration and initiated the centre themselves,” she says.

Much of the collaboration within the realms of KBC is to share labs and research infrastructure. A positive addition is the social aspect and to strengthen the network of researchers working at the affiliated departments. The centre is run by a group consisting of eleven board members, the so-called KBC Group.

“The KBC group has a very pleasant working climate. They’re all highly pragmatic, and rule out bureaucracy to solve problems swiftly. I take the role as secretary at the meetings, all of which have been very constructive and positive ever since I started in 2009.”

However, she expresses regret that the bottom-up initiative sometimes collides with the prevalent top-down rule of the University.

“For example when it takes the KBC Group over a year to try to push through a proposal on a new organisation for a research infrastructure. That resulted in more hindrance than help from above. I find that unfortunate.”
BEFORE HER RETURN to Umeå about eight years ago, Eva-Maria Diehl worked as Head of Communications at the well-reputed Max Planck Institute of Biochemistry. Career wise, the move was somewhat a demotion. But there are so many things that are more important than the size of the pay cheque, she argues:

“My husband and I came to Umeå because we really wanted to. Our jobs in Germany paid more, particularly mine, but those things aren’t what matters in life. In Sweden, you have much more respect for the private life than in Germany. But it’s hard to judge when you live be- tween two worlds. Now, however, we are in Sweden and we like it here. We might even stay for the rest of our lives, who knows?”

I ask if it was ever close that she started pursuing a re- search career herself.

“It’s not an easy question,” says Eva-Maria Diehl with a laugh, whilst admitting that such a turn may have been possible at some points in life. But what’s inspired her has always been to widen her knowledge base rather than to specialise.

“There are days when I regret that I didn’t take a doctorate. Previously, it wasn’t so evident, but now I think you get taken more seriously and have better opportunities of making an influence if you have completed a doctorate.”

Is it a flaw of the academia that a person with wide knowledge but without a doctoral degree does not have more influence?

“No, not at all. At a university, the researchers have to have influence. Those mostly qualified must be the ones calling the shots — the researchers, that is.”
THE HALF-TIME POST spent on MIMS took a sudden and unexpected turn in 2011 when a French group lead- er began publishing articles that people soon started paying real attention to.

Emmanuelle Charpentier and I started at MIMS around the same time. From the start, we had lots to talk about — about moving to Umeå and such,” says Eva-Maria Diehl.

“I wrote the first news release about the publication in Nature in 2011. Back then, people didn’t know how huge CRISPR-Cas9 was going to become.”

The big hype came after Emmanuelle Charpentier had left Umeå. But the collaboration between her and Eva- Maria Diehl has never ceased.

“I’m practically in daily contact with her still. She can send me a text message to look at a text that a journalist has written about her or something like that. When I really can’t make it, I ask for a respite. But, naturally Emmanuelle has top priority,” says Eva-Maria Diehl.

“Umeå University has a lot to thank Emmanuelle for, at least that’s how I see it, and that’s why I place her first in line. I have an agreement with both my bosses, Per Gardeström and Bernt Eric Uhlin, that I help Emmanuelle if she needs me.”

With great amounts of sympathy, Eva-Maria Diehl explains the paradox in which Emmanuelle Charpentier today finds herself, how her research success has practically made it impossible for her to spend time on her favourite task: To conduct research.

“She’s such a nice person. When I ended up in hospital after a bike accident in 2015, she was the first person to send flowers — even though she was in Berlin at the time.”

SUMMER IS APPROACHING with lightning speed. To Eva-Maria and her husband, this means an eagerly awaited stay in the summer house in the Swedish High Coast.

“It’s become a popular retreat for our German relatives. My mother-in-law who’s 85 years old will visit for the second time, and then come siblings, nieces and nephews. We might even get a week to ourselves.”

“In the future, I’d like to refurbish the summer accommodation to include alternative solutions for drain- age, solar-powered electricity and so on. As both of us are ecologists, it would be nice to try out some innovative solutions, which could also set an example to other summer houses in the delicate Bothnian archipelago. There’s so much we could do.”


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