Autonomy is the foundation on which I have built the career of my dreams. Interview with dr Anna Supernat within the HerTechVenture project


dr Anna Supernat

The Faculty of Mathematics, Physics and Informatics UG is participating in the HerTechVenture project aiming to support female students in careers in the technology industry. The project manager is dr Hanna Furmańczyk from the Department of Combinatorial Optimisation at WMFiI. Join us for interviews with inspiring women who have succeeded in STEM fields.

The HerTechVenture project aims to create inclusive ecosystems in academic environments that, by supporting the development of female students' competencies and facilitating careers in technology (and STEM more broadly), will transform universities into catalysts for change, resulting in more women choosing to pursue innovative and/or entrepreneurial paths. A vital role in identifying constraints and ways to overcome them is to know and understand similar career paths. In this context, we invite you to a conversation with dr Anna Supernat, a graduate of the Intercollegiate Faculty of Biotechnology UG and GUMed. The interview was created as part of the HerTech Venture project.


Julia Bereszczynska: - To begin with, please say a few words about yourself and your areas of professional activity.

Dr Anna Supernat: - I graduated from the Intercollegiate Faculty of Biotechnology UG and MUG. I prepared and defended my doctoral thesis on molecular markers in oncology under the supervision of prof. Anna Żaczek and prof. Jacek Bigda. While I was still a doctoral student, I founded my biotechnology start-up, which was e-incubated by the Pomeranian Science and Technology Park; I was also a co-investigator in another biotechnology start-up, this time operating in the Gdańsk Science and Technology Park. I went to Cambridge for a postdoctoral fellowship, after which I returned to the MUG's Department of Translational Oncology. Here, I am currently involved in research and R&D projects. Since 2020, I have also been the head of the Centre for Biostatistical and Bioinformatics Analysis, which assists researchers in planning experiments and data analysis.

- Please tell us something about a professional situation in which you had a sense of control or autonomy when making decisions.

- A sense of influence in decision-making has always been with me. I was very fortunate to be born into a loving, supportive family where I was encouraged to learn from an early age while being left completely free to choose my high school or university course. My parents created an environment in which I could thrive, but the choice of what I would pursue was up to me. Being used to such an environment and style of operation, I consciously sought supportive bosses who would allow me to develop without imposing their point of view. Of course, I am aware that universities are a hierarchical environment and that some of the responsibilities stem directly from the employment contract, nevertheless, throughout my academic career, I have felt a kind interest and support rather than having to fulfil top-down tasks. I am fortunate that this is still the case today. I really enjoy working at the Medical University of Gdańsk - it's a relatively small university, which makes it more flexible and intimate, although, of course, it's not completely free of the constraints typical of academic units in our country.

- Do you think that having more autonomy in the professional sphere can have a positive impact on personal goals?

- I think it depends on the character of the employee. In my case, having a lot of autonomy works - but this is largely due to the positive discipline I imposed on myself from a young age. Autonomy also fosters creativity, of which I have considerable reserves (at least in some aspects). On top of all this, I have a large family, which has forced upon me the ability to organise my work in an exemplary manner. I expect that for many people, greater autonomy in the professional sphere will have a positive impact on the achievement of personal goals. However, I would not assume that this will be the rule, as we are all different, both character-wise and in terms of our life situations. Many people will feel good in a job that gives less autonomy. And I think both of these attitudes and ways of acting are equal in achieving goals that require a collective effort.

- Can you give examples of how autonomy (or lack thereof) has affected your well-being, satisfaction, or stress levels?

- Autonomy is the foundation on which I have built the career of my dreams, albeit not without difficult moments - frustration or a sense of failure. Nevertheless, from the beginning, I lived with the conviction (perhaps not entirely correct) that it was up to me to decide which initiatives I could get involved in and which were better to let go of. As a result, I worked on scientific and business projects that I believed in, or those that were of great interest to me from a research perspective. The lack of autonomy frustrated me a lot in my relationships with some colleagues. I learned over time to shy away from those professional relationships that are not based on partnership. I am not suited to unreflectively obeying orders from above. This does not give me any satisfaction; rather, it is accompanied by a sense of hurt. I am not talking about questioning the legitimacy of orders from superiors in general; we usually function in teams and every team must have a leader. I simply chose leaders who seemed to me above all supportive and who avoided micro-management, i.e. who drew up a general concept but left as much freedom of action as possible.

- Can you describe a recent situation in which you felt particularly competent or successful?

- Such a situation occurred recently in my life, but personal, not professional. I felt I had been successful as a parent when my child became offended and slammed the door, and I managed to pull them out of their sense of hopelessness and develop a path forward that was accepted by both parties, i.e. adults and children. In the professional field, on the other hand, I consider each of those days when we manage to understand each other as a success. This may sound strange, but it stems from the fact that we are a thoroughly interdisciplinary team in the Department of Translational Oncology and the Centre for Biostatistical and Bioinformatics Analysis. We have biologists, mathematicians, computer scientists, and even a sociologist on the team. We collaborate with doctors and lawyers. This means that sometimes it is very difficult for us to 'get along' because we are actually speaking different languages about the same thing... The cherry on top of every success is every manuscript that we manage to publish. It means that our work has been recognised by a set of external reviewers. A similar feeling accompanies me when I think of my habilitation thesis being submitted, and also when I receive a positive decision regarding the awarding of a research grant. This is all the more gratifying because it does not happen all that often! The submitted papers also have to go through external validation.

- How do you define success in your endeavours and how does achieving success affect your motivation and well-being?

- For me, success is the achievement of a set goal and a sense of satisfaction with the work done, whereby it is not just about me, but also about the well-being of the whole team. When we talk about motivation, we also cannot leave out the element of financial gratification. This last aspect is rarely touched upon by women, and in my opinion is insanely important, as it determines our financial stability - now and in the future.

- How does the external recognition or validation of your skills and achievements contribute to your motivation and self-confidence?

- It matters a lot to me, although the circle of people whose opinions I care about is relatively small: my team, my bosses, my husband, and my close family. As long as I get positive feedback from them, I have the motivation and confidence I need to perform.

- Do you think that striving for professional excellence contributes to the overall well-being?

- Not necessarily. Moderation is also important in life. Personally, I am an advocate of striving for excellence within given constraints, i.e. becoming the best possible version of myself, but not at the expense of free time or relationships with loved ones.

- Can you describe a situation in which you felt a strong connection with others, whether at work, school, or in your personal life? How did you feel at the time?

- My favourite example is the individual periodic interviews I have once a year with each member of staff at the Analysis Centre. It is extremely heartening to see how these individuals develop from year to year. And at the same time, it never ceases to amaze me that we have one set of questions, yet the conversation with everyone goes differently and evolves over time. In my personal life, I really enjoy the so-called soulful conversations I have with my friends, my children, and my husband (random order).

- How important is it for you to have the support of others during challenges or difficulties?

- Very important. If I were to act in isolation, I would lose my motivation. So I don't only try to cooperate with representatives from our university. I also work in cooperation with foreign research units (Cancer Center Amsterdam, UMC Utrecht, University of Bergen, University of Cambridge, University of Utah), representatives of Kainos, the STARTER Business Incubator and the UG Psychological Support Centre. I also believe that my support of other employees is important so that they too can overcome challenges and difficulties, which after all are not rare at work.

- Can you share an example where teamwork has had a positive impact on your motivation?

- Every project carried out in a team has a positive effect on my motivation. If I commit to someone that I will send, write, or analyse something, I feel obliged to keep my word, although I admit that I sometimes let things slip through the cracks. However, as a general rule, I try very hard to provide all colleagues with the tools and resources they need to do their job.

- How do you deal with challenges in your professional work? Are there any character traits that you find particularly useful?

- Sometimes I have the feeling that I am not coping at all. Fortunately, this passes. Sometimes I get ill from stress or don't sleep through the night. But, over the years, I have developed behavioural patterns that help me cope with this excessive stress, although it doesn't always work out perfectly. Character traits that I find very useful in my professional life are determination and not giving up for trivial reasons, discipline, dutifulness, punctuality, friendliness, openness, and the ability to plan my work. Again, the order is random.

- Cambridge internship, grants from NCBR and NSC... Do you consider yourself a fulfilled scientist at this stage?

- At this stage, yes. Indeed, the past years have been very happy and supportive for me. I am keeping my fingers firmly crossed that they will not pass, but that will already depend on the funding we manage to get in the coming years.

- On your path, in your facilities in Poland and Europe, do you notice more and more women working in fields similar to yours?

- There are more and more of them, but we are still less than 50%, especially when it comes to management positions. I have my fingers crossed that this will change, but I am convinced that it will not happen without stronger support from women themselves. In my case, it has usually been men who have encouraged me to set very ambitious goals for myself, sometimes even a little beyond my capabilities. I, for my part, try to vote for women wherever possible. I also make an effort to reduce the gender gap in terms of pay, because my observations show that ladies' salaries are often lower as they do not ask for a pay rise. I also try as often as possible to encourage or even 'call' women to speak up. Unfortunately, this often intimidates them, as I noticed, for example, recently when inviting some ladies to a panel discussion - they asked for the format to be changed to a workshop because 'being in the limelight' would be embarrassing and they much prefer to 'hide' and be part of a larger group. 

- In your chosen path, commitment and consistency in pursuing goal certainly come in handy. What other qualities are welcome?

- Empathy, flexibility, tolerance, support, the ability to play as a team, and to act constructively, never destructively.

- What is your current focus and what are your plans for the future?

- I am dedicating 2024 to applying for external funding - this will primarily determine how and on which projects my team and I will work. I very much hope that our activities will include a lot of molecular biology, oncology in the form of liquid biopsies, other areas of medicine and the area of mental health, which is worth taking care of at every stage of your career. With how things turn out, funding will show.

Julia Bereszczyńska/Press Team