TUM Professor Ilona C. Grunwald Kadow

“I want to understand how our brains work”

In her role as TUM Professor of Neurobiology, Ilona Grunwald Kadow researches the brains of fruit flies. Her interest is not limited to the evolution of neural circuits. She also wants to change the conditions for women in higher education.

Professor Dr. Ilona C. Grunwald Kadow comes from a family of natural scientists and doctors. Early on she was introduced to fundamental questions of empirical research on the natural world. “I want to understand how our brains work”, she says today. “How the nervous system has adapted in evolution to enable our survival is something that is immensely fascinating to me.” Since the human brain with its 87 billion neurons is far too complex, she studies the comparatively simple brains of fruit flies.

A Matter of Motivation

Survival depends on making the right decisions in response to external stimuli. And mechanisms of decision making in turn depend on internal factors such as motivation. For Ilona Grunwald Kadow, what is particularly interesting here is why two people in the same situation make different choices. In her role as Professor of Neuronal Control of Metabolism at TUM, she has been studying the brains of the Drosophila fruit fly since 2017 and is investigating their motivation.

My motivation is the freedom I have in research, not fame, not money.

In her interdisciplinary research group, she sends the tiny creatures on a sort of treadmill to test how hard they will try to reach their food. “It is the greatest luxury that I am able to deal with questions that I am interested in and not my boss”, she says. “This freedom I have in research is my motivation, it makes me happy and content – not fame, not money.”

Promising Environment

In the course of her ambitious academic career, Ilona Grunwald Kadow has become acquainted with a whole range of excellent research institutions in Germany and the USA. Yet, at TUM she feels particularly at home. Here, the general framework is just right. “In many areas, a very modern approach is taken”, she says. “TUM is constantly reinventing itself and attaches great importance to becoming even more dynamic, younger, more international and female-driven”. Ilona Grunwald Kadow thinks it’s great how sustainably excellent research, young academics and – through the Women of TUM Network and the exclusive Women of TUM Talks – especially women are promoted at TUM.

“It is by no means enough to simply hire more women”, the TUM professor points out. “The appropriate framework to give female scientists equal opportunities also needs to be in place.” In order to make the future even more promising for women in academia, she is now going to get involved in higher education policy herself. However, she also emphasises how important the family environment is for women’s careers. She regards her second husband as her career companion. Because he enables her to juggle her profession as a highly successful researcher and her role as a mother of five.

At the Women of TUM Talk on the 7th of October 2020, she will tell female scientists, alumni and students of TUM how fruit flies make decisions – and how important men are for female research careers. “Change is not just up to the women. We need to get the men on board”, she says.