NSERC Chair for
Women in Science & Engineering

Ute Kothe

Interest and motivation are the most important factors to success (and not gender)

Associate Professor, Biochemistry
Alberta Innovates Strategic Research Chair in Transcriptomics of RNA Modification
University of Lethbridge
Dr. Ute Kothe is an Associate Professor in the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry of the University of Lethbridge and a founding member of the Alberta RNA Research and Training Institute (ARRTI). Dr. Kothe is originally from Germany where she conducted graduate studies investigating protein synthesis in bacteria. In general, she is interested in the function of coding and non-coding ribonucleic acids (RNA) and the interaction of RNA and proteins during gene expression in health and disease. Dr. Kothe is a passionate researcher, mentor, teacher and science ambassador. In 2017, she has been selected into the College of Scholars, Artists and Scientists of the Royal Society of Canada. She facilitates “Instructional Skills Workshops” for her colleagues and has received the University of Lethbridge Distinguished Teaching Award in 2014. Also, she has founded the Let’s Talk Science chapter at the University of Lethbridge and supervises a team of student coordinators and volunteers conducting science outreach. She has been the recipient of the Minerva Mentoring Award of the Alberta Women’s Science Network 2011 and the CIHR Synapse Mentorship Award in 2012. Dr. Kothe is the proud mother of three girls and enjoys reading and baking.
As an academic, what is your favourite part of your job?

Both in research, teaching and science outreach, I very much enjoy the interaction with my students. Every student is different, and I regard it as a privilege to be a part of each student’s life for a while and to contribute to his/her growth, development and maturation as a scientist and person.

What are you researching and what excites you about it?

My research group focusses on the mechanism and function of RNA modifications, small chemical alterations of RNA that diversify RNA structure and function. I am interested in understanding how RNA modifications contribute to the fundamental process of gene expression in all cells as well as uncovering the role of RNA modifications in inherited diseases and cancer. It is fascinating to me how a seemingly simple biomolecule such as RNA consisting of only four building blocks can adopt such complex structures and carry out so complex and important tasks in each cell. To reach a comprehensive understanding of RNA and protein mechanism and function, I apply a multi-disciplinary approach combining biophysics, biochemistry, molecular biology, genetics and transcriptomics using different model systems such as bacteria, archaea and yeast.

What types of professions can students graduating in your field enter?

Biochemistry is a very versatile field as students obtain a solid foundational knowledge in all science areas paired with strong scientific skills. Of course, biochemistry constitutes an excellent entry point for studies in medicine, dentistry and veterinary science, but I have also trained students entering law or journalism. Moreover, there are many opportunities in research as well as in the biotechnology sector.

Is your workplace male-dominated? If so, how do you negotiate being a woman in a male-dominated workplace and/or field?

Biochemistry is generally a male-dominated discipline at the professional level even though at the undergraduate level men and women are similarly represented. I had to learn as a faculty member to find my own voice and style that ensures I am heard and receive the recognition I deserve without copying others.

How do you foster and encourage diversity in your workplace?

First and foremost, I strive to respect and know each individual I am working with recognizing everybody’s strength and uniqueness. In my own research group, I aim to have a balance between male and female trainees as well as Canadian and international trainees, and I foster a supportive and inclusive atmosphere. I also make my colleagues aware of situations that affect diversity during processes such as speaker selection, hiring and promotion.

What kinds of systemic support could institutions provide to help encourage girls and women to pursue careers in science and engineering?

All men and women, in particular scientists and administrators, have to be well trained in understanding and recognizing the conscious and unconscious barriers to women in science. Only by working closely together and realizing that supporting diversity in science is everybody’s cause will we be able to achieve a culture change that is needed to encourage girls and women to not only enter a science career, but to continue it, in particular when forming a family.

What advice would you give to girls or young women who are interested in careers in science or engineering?

If you are interested and fascinated by a scientific discipline, pursue it! Interest and motivation are the most important factors to success (and not gender). However, it is also important to find role models, peers and supporters who understand and value you as a person in your scientific career. Therefore, you have to approach others actively and to engage in networking opportunities.

As a professional in science or engineering, who are your role models and mentors?

I was very fortunate to have three female mentors (a teacher, a research supervisor and an experienced colleague) early on in my career who inspired and helped me in different ways. Later, I have developed a network of colleagues, both male and female, who I can approach for advice. I learned to know whom to ask for what type of advice, to listen and consider advice and criticism very carefully, but ultimately to make my own judgment.