Promoting equality and diversity

Pakistani molecular biologist Asifa Akhtar, the new vice president of the Max Planck Society, has set priorities for her term in office.

Asifa Akhtar: neue Vizepräsidentin der Max-Planck-Gesellschaft
Asifa Akhtar: neue Vizepräsidentin der Max-Planck-Gesellschaft Wolfram Scheible / MPG

Since 1 July 2020, the molecular biologist Asifa Akhtar has been vice president of the Max Planck Society (MPG). The MPG is one of the world’s most prestigious institutions for basic research. “Insight must precede application”, said Max Planck (1858-1947), Nobel laureate and the founder of quantum physics. And to this day this remains the motto of the society that bears his name. 18 Nobel laureates have worked at the MPG since its establishment in 1948. At the 86 Max Planck institutes, the best scientists in their respective fields conduct basic research in the natural sciences, life sciences, humanities and social sciences.

Understanding how chromosomes function is the main focus of my research

Asifa Akhtar, molecular biologist

Asifa Akhtar was born in Karachi in Pakistan in 1971. She began a degree in biology at University College London in the UK in 1990 and obtained her PhD in 1997 at the Imperial Cancer Research Fund in London. Subsequently she worked as a postdoc at the European Molecular Biology Laboratory (EMBL) in Heidelberg and at the Adolf Butenandt Institute in Munich. In 2013 she became the first female foreign director of the MPI of Immunobiology and Epigenetics in Freiburg. Akhtar has won multiple awards, including the Early Career European Life Science Organization Award. In addition, she is a member of the German National Academy of Sciences Leopoldina.

“Understanding how chromosomes function is the main focus of my research”, says Akhtar, adding that she is particularly interested in the epigenetics of the X chromosome. Epigenetics looks at how characteristics are passed down from one cell or organism generation to the next without the DNA sequences changing. Initially, the genetic information carried by all the cells in the human body is identical. One key question in biology is to discover how cells with all kinds of different functions emerge from this genome. Nowadays, we know that different cell types only activate certain parts of the genome.

The second X chromosome is inactive in women so as to redress the imbalance of women having two X chromosomes while men have one Y and one X chromosome. This decision is taken at the embryonal stage and is then stored in the cells throughout a person’s life. The goal of Akhtar’s research is “to understand how chromosomes function and how this regulation is achieved”. In the long term, she is keen to discover how the loss of certain regulators leads to the onset of diseases.

Akhtar also focuses on gender differences on a more practical level. As she explains: “If we want women to advance in science, we must make practical solutions possible such as childcare and flexible working hours or options for working from home.” During her term in office at the Max Planck Society, Akhtar is keen to drive forward equality and diversity. Furthermore, she wants to promote cooperation between the MPG and local educational institutions. “Young researchers are very close to my heart”, says Asifa Akhtar, who is also the point of contact for the Max Planck Schools for the next six years. They offer funding programmes for outstanding university graduates from all over the world.