«Constantly overcoming barriers is part and parcel of top-level research.»

Elena Conti

Prof. Dr. Elena Conti

Biologist, Evolutionary Biology. The primary goal of her research is to understand the origin and evolution of plant diversity.


1986 Degree in Biology, University of Bologna, Italy
1987 – 1988 PhD program in Biosystematics, University of Florence, Italy
1994 PhD in Botany, University of Wisconsin-Madison, USA
1994 – 1995 Postdoc Washington State University, USA
1995 – 1996 Postdoc, Harvard University, USA
1996 – 1999 Assistant professor, University of Alaska-Fairbanks, USA
2000  Associate Professor for Evolutionary Biology, University of Zurich
since 2012  Full Professor  for Evolutionary Biology, University of Zurich

Prof. Dr. Elena Conti

Have you experienced difficulties or failures in your career? How did you overcome them?
In top-level research, you constantly have to overcome barriers – barriers to knowledge, barriers to ability, breaking out of your comfort zone. The biggest challenge has been juggling my career and family life. We came here from the US and didn’t know anyone. Academic mobility takes its toll on a family. Luckily my husband supports me, no matter what.

What do you like about your job?
I enjoy the integrated approach of my work and the intellectual freedom.

Do you have any role models who have influenced your career? Who?
Two women have made a lasting impression on me. One is my Greek teacher in secondary school – she was so clear-thinking and had such an alert mind - I've never met anyone quite like her since. The second is Professor Linda Graham, who was a member of my dissertation committee when I did my Ph.D. and a top-level researcher with publications in the prestigious journals Science and Nature. Linda is not only a successful academic, she is married, has two children and is an attentive and considerate team leader – a role model as a researcher, a woman and a human being.

How do you maintain your work-life balance?
I am abroad for around 25 days a year, attending congresses or scientific committees. Sundays are reserved for my children and husband. I set clear boundaries in my work and communicate them to others – I am not available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. I just have to hope and trust that my colleagues understand and accept these boundaries and that, ultimately, they will not harm my career. 


Institute of Systematic and Evolutionary Botany
Universität Zürich
Zollikerstrasse 107
CH-8008 Zurich
Tel. +41 44 634 84 24
contielena (at) access.uzh.ch