For more than a decade, Stella Bollmann has lived for the statistical methods of psychology. Since this spring, her heart also beats for her newborn son. Starting this autumn, she wants to resume her academic work, and balance it with family life. Step by step, she wants to dis-cover how this can succeed, and what significance family and career will have in her life in the future.
It was a time when the term 'home office' was not yet on everyone's lips. But even then, there were people who did their work from home. This was also the case in the family home of Stella Bollmann, who was born near Nuremberg in 1986. After she separated from her husband, her mother took care of Stella and her older sister. Fortunately for the children, the mother was often able to pursue her work as an architect from home, and could thus be there for her daughters a lot. "I had a nice home, with dogs and cats," Stella Bollmann remembers of her childhood, and adds: "When my mother noticed that I had a talent for mathematics, she immediately encouraged me. Unfortunately, many girls still grow up with the stereotype that they are not good with numbers. Such attributions didn't exist at home, and I only realised years later that there are people who really still believe that."
Role models instead of careerism
The 35-year-old statistician can draw on her childhood experiences today, now that she herself has a son, Simon, born at the end of March 2021, and she plans to resume her academic work in autumn 2021. There is no blueprint for balancing career and family, but good role models have an impact. For Stella Bollmann, one such role model is her mother, another is her current boss, a graduate physicist and mother of three children, as Stella Bollmann reports. "My boss supports her employees in an exemplary way. I benefit from such support in that she makes it easier for me to return to work with tailored assistance, such as home office," Stella Bollmann says. The young mother wants to return to her job step by step, wants to increase her scientific work back to 80 to 100 % from the beginning of 2022. She and her partner – scientist like her – are looking for a daycare place for their son, and perhaps a nanny. The rest of the time, they want to take care of the baby themselves, because the grandparents live in Germany and can't help. "My partner and I talk a lot about how we can reconcile family and work. This constant communication gives me the certainty that we will find a good way."
Stella Bollmann's CV so far is that of an ambitious academic: After graduating from high school, the 19-year-old studied psychology at the Ludwig Maximilian University in Munich. There, she met Markus Bühner, professor for Psychological Methods and Diagnostics. This is how Stella Bollmann came to statistics via psychology: "Among psychologists, there are some who prefer to avoid statistics; for me, on the other hand, it is the only tangible thing we learn in this subject." She had already liked mathematics at high school and had chosen it as a specialisation subject for her A-levels. She was now able to pick up where she left off. "Statistics is a fascinating field. At Prof. Bühner's chair we also had a nice working environment, we had great discussions." Her enthusiasm for the methods of psychology prompted Stella Bollmann to study for a Master's degree in statistics – in parallel, she completed her doctoral thesis in psychology (on a statistical topic) in 2015.
Improving psychological methods
Psychology tends to use questionnaires when it wants to asses characteristics in people, such as learning ability, attitudes, intelligence, or motivation. Psychologists typically use certain evaluation methods to infer the characteristics they are looking for from the questionnaire answers. One of these is 'factor analysis', which was founded a hundred years ago. "In my doctoral thesis, I took a close look at factor analysis and examined how well it is able to find out whether questionnaires actually measure what they think they measure. I also refined another evaluation method ('k-means cluster analysis for items'), and compared its validity with factor analysis."
After completing her doctorate, Stella Bollmann joined the University of Zurich as a postdoc. She later moved to the University of Lucerne, where she worked on the analysis of hospital data, among other things. Since February 2020, the statistician has also worked part-time at the University of Teacher Education (PH) Lucerne. Until the start of her maternity leave, she advised doctoral students at the PH Lucerne on statistical issues. Recently – to give an example – she supported a doctoral student who was using statistical models to examine different teaching methods (e.g., video and audio presentations) for their usefulness. In her advisory work, Stella Bollmann sometimes provides so much scientific input that she appears as a co-author of the scientific publication.
The luxury of taking one's time
If you ask Stella Bollmann about a scientific achievement of which she is particularly proud, she refers to an article on questionnaire analysis. The article is based on the preliminary work of the now emeritus Munich statistics professor Gerhard Tutz, and was written in close collaboration with him. In 2018, the publication appeared in the scientific journal 'Educational and Psychological Management'. "This was a particularly demanding work because it was comparatively mathematical," explains the scientist.
Stella Bollmann wants to continue this academic activity in the future, in addition to her advisory work at the PH Luzern. Where her academic work will lead her, she cannot and does not want to determine at the moment. Right now, she says, her role as a mother is at least as important. That a young mother wants to be completely there for her child is not surprising. There are many parents who, after the birth of their child, want to enjoy the time with the newborn, especially in the first year of life – if this is also made possible by the employer, it is "a certain luxury", she says.
But that doesn't mean that statistics isn’t still very important to her. Because when her son "has a good day" and leaves time for scientific thoughts, she is already working on research projects again, despite maternity leave. Stella Bollmann is a scientist who does not want to be put under career pressure. "I have done intensive research and achieved a lot; it would be nice to move up the ladder even further, but, above all, it is important to me to keep up the enthusiasm for what I do, and to stay true to myself and my values. "So I use my free time for projects that I really enjoy, without having to think about the CV".
Giving women scientists a voice
"Reconciling work and family life" can mean returning to work as soon as possible after the birth of a child so as not to miss out on anything. Stella Bollmann wants to gradually integrate both areas of her life as equally as possible, so that ideally she doesn't miss out on anything in either. The network that the German-born Bollmann has established in Switzerland could help her on her way. Since 2019, Bollmann has served as President of the Swiss Statistical Society (SSS), the umbrella organisation of around 500 statisticians from public administration, companies, and research. Stella Bollmann wants to use the position, among other things, to give female scientists in her field more of a voice. "I experience many situations where I am the only woman at the table," the researcher says about her voluntary work as SSS President. To change this, she is trying to recruit more women to serve on the board. Furthermore, she wants to work towards getting more women to speak in discussion groups organised by the SSS. "There are many competent women in statistics, and I want to give them a voice so that they in turn can act as role models for other women."
Author: Benedikt Vogel
Portrait #6 of Women in science in the fields of MAP (2021)