„Been in America“: Interviews with German researchers in the USA and Canada

Dr. Laurel Raffington

Dr. Laurel Raffington

© Dr. Laurel Raffington

(01/26/21) Dr. Laurel Raffington is a developmental psychologist funded by the Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft (DFG, German Research Foundation) from January 2019 until May 2021 to conduct a research project at the Department of Psychology and Population Research Center at the University of Texas at Austin. Dr. Raffington examines the effects of social inequality on child and adolescent development, integrating psychological, endocrinological, genetic and epigenetic data of twin children in Texas. She spoke to the DFG Office North America about her project, the challenges researchers face in balancing their work and personal lives, her professional ambitions and special characteristics of the state of Texas.

Through its research fellowship program and the Walter Benjamin Program, the DFG supports junior scientists in their academic careers by funding an independent research project abroad and, since 2019, also in Germany. A large proportion of these fellowships are awarded in the USA and, to a lesser extent, in Canada, reflecting the belief that is still prevalent across many areas of science and academia that for a career in research you have to have “been in America.” Through a series of interviews, we would like to give you an insight into the wide range of research endeavors pursued by the funded individuals. In this space, you will meet the person behind funding number RA 3208.

DFG: Dr. Raffington, many thanks for taking the time to speak to us. Your CV is very interesting. You started school at the German school in Tokyo Yokohama, Japan, and graduated from high school at the German-American John F. Kennedy School in Berlin. Please tell us more.

Laurel Raffington (LR): Yes of course. But first I would like to thank the DFG for supporting my research work and my scientific career by funding my work in the US.

Indeed, I have moved quite a lot in my life - both as a child and as an adult. I have lived in New York, Bristol, Berlin and Tokyo, but also in smaller towns like Witterschlick and Bremerhaven.

This was partly due to the fact that I have a German father and an American mother. My parents met in Colorado in the 1970s, where my father was working on his doctorate, and which is not far from California, where my mother was born. My research stay in the US has made it very clear to me that I am equally German and American, not one more than the other.

DFG: Your mother is a shiatsu therapist and a life coach, and your father is a lawyer and a retired secretary of state. After graduating from high school with top grades, I assume you could have chosen any career. Why did you chose research and why in the area of developmental psychology?

LR: When I was 17, I saw a documentary series called “Child of Our Time” that was produced by the BBC. The series started in 2000 and followed children and their families over the course of several years. At the same time, my AP biology teacher Mrs. Adelsberger introduced us to some basic neuroscience, for instance that our memory is somehow coded in electrical brain signals.

In short, I was simply amazed by the wide range of developmental psychology research and by the diversity of human development. My brother encouraged me to study medicine. However, after witnessing tumour treatment as part of a laboratory internship, I realized that this was not my cup of tea. As a researcher, I get paid to acquire new knowledge, to obtain new findings myself, and to share them with others. What a privileged job!

DFG: As a postdoc you then went to the University of Texas in Austin as a DFG fellow. Why Texas?

LR: I never thought I’d move to Texas, especially during Donald Trump’s presidency. However, the work conducted by my postdoc mentors Professor Kathryn Paige Harden and Professor Elliot Tucker-Drob was simply a perfect match for my research project. For example, I can use data from their “Texas Twin Project” to explore differences in the epigenetic profiles of hundreds of identical twin children and adolescents from a socio-demographically representative sample. It was an opportunity to integrate genetics and epigenetics into my research work. This type of data and my mentors’ expertise in theory and methods are scarce around the world. I think integrating the study of social inequality and genetic influences on human development is pretty powerful.

DFG: You prepared and presented the results of your research as a five-minute speech at the Science Slam during the conference of the German Academic International Network (GAIN). Can you condense this down even more by answering the question, “Are we born or are we made?”

LR: My Science Slam talk suggested that there is emerging empirical evidence for the notion that unequal social structures – such as classism, racism, sexism – are limiting the degree to which we are making use of human genetic variation. Groups of individuals cannot self-actualize their genetic propensities, lead long and healthy lives, due to a lack of educational opportunities, limited health resources, high chronic stress, and so on.

I think the question “Are we born or are we made?” is misleading. Our genes do not compete with our environment. Instead, we may want to know: “How do our genes select and interact with our environments? How do societal constructs impose limits on this gene-environment interplay, and what are the social and psychological mediators that we can influence so that more children can live healthy, fulfilling lives?”

DFG: What are your career plans for the next three or four years?

LR: I have the feeling that I am now at a critical career junction, where it will soon be decided whether I will have a long-term career in science and academia or whether I will switch into a science-related, but outer-academic track. As so many other researchers in Germany at a similar career stage, I am now looking for a long-term perspective and position, and I am currently applying for research group funding within various programs as well as for tenure track positions. Moving is hard, even though – or maybe because – I have moved so many times in my life. Moving to the US came at a substantial personal cost for my son, husband, and myself. I can fully empathize with the many excellent researchers that had to leave this system, because they did not have the resources necessary to meet academia’s hyper-mobility and lack of security.

DFG: The DFG is committed to increasing the share of women in research. To do so, we have been working to make an impact on the academic research landscape with our research-oriented standards of gender equality. In addition, our Head Office has been certified by the Hertie foundation as a family-friendly workplace for 20 years now. Where is more action required, in your opinion?

LR: The DFG is without a doubt a pioneer in supporting female scientists in Germany. I would not have applied for a DFG research fellowship if it hadn’t been for the children’s allowance. However, moving to and living in the US as a family is very expensive. The fellowship alone did not cover this, especially because childcare costs must be paid upfront. If I had had another child while in the US, I would have received very little additional funding or funding extension to substitute German parental leave standards.

Health insurance can be another problematic issue for fellows. For example, German health insurances abroad do not cover the cost of giving birth during the first 6-8 months of the fellowship. This means that a pregnant researcher or student would have to cancel their research stay abroad. I find this quite scandalous. Many reproduction-related services that are covered in Germany are not covered abroad. If you are pregnant upon returning to Germany, you will not receive proper parental leave benefits or an extension of your fellowship period. These circumstances can create serious issues for researchers in their reproductive age.

However, the DFG’s influence on the German academic landscape also has its limits. I support previously made calls for a law that provides long-term employment perspectives in research. Tenure track or permanent positions should be the standard next step after completing a doctorate, or at the latest after one postdoc position. I could have also worked with my professors in Austin whilst being employed in a long-term position in Germany, including social securities. I am nearly it doing now (minus social securities or a long-term position), because I returned to Germany during the pandemic.

Importantly, I believe we still have a long way to go in making science and academia accessible and inclusive not only to White women and mothers like myself, but to People of Color, people with health challenges, newcomers to Germany, and other individuals from underrepresented groups. Research and educational institutions should seek out the guidance of inclusivity and anti-racism activists (of which there are many in Germany!) to start doing that work.

DFG: For your fellowship, you spent close to two years in Texas – with Austin being one of the prominent liberal cities in this huge and deeply conservative state. What was your experience of this? What does Austin have to offer?

LR: During our first year, before the pandemic started, we had a great time in Texas. We went swimming on warm January days, visited beautiful state parks every other weekend, and met wonderful families with whom we went to family-friendly restaurants, concerts, vintage car shows, LGBTQI+ baseball games, and Black Lives Matter events.

The political divide between Democrats and Republicans is most noticeable at the Capitol in Austin, where there may be a protest for a humane immigration policy one day, followed by a protest against elective abortions the next. As a multi-racial family, we had to be mindful about where we got out of the car when we left Austin.

Of course, everything changed when the pandemic began and the lack of state-level social securities were glaringly highlighted right away. Many small businesses went bankrupt within just a few weeks. People lost their jobs, had no health insurance, and children who would normally get their meals at school were at home without enough food. At the same time, the communities and many non-profit organizations are working very hard to support each other.

DFG: Thank you very much for speaking to us. We hope that you achieve your plans in Germany the way you envision them. One last question: Do you know any twins personally?

LR: Yes, but no identical ones.

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