Angela Merkel has served as Federal Chancellor of Germany since 2005, and her political era is drawing to a close. In the early 1970s, as a physics student at Karl Marx University in Leipzig, would Merkel have guessed she would be, many times over, named the “most powerful woman of the world” and be the first woman elected as Chancellor in a united Germany?

Growing up in East Germany meant Merkel lived under the surveillance of the Ministry of State Security, in a dictatorial regime, during times of shortages. She was separated from the western world by the Iron Curtain, and life was constricted by stringent censorship and travel bans.

After completion of her studies, she was offered an assistant professorship on condition that she spied on her colleagues for the Ministry of State Security, but she refused to cooperate. Instead, in 1986, she pursued a PhD in quantum chemistry at the Central Institute for Physical Chemistry of the Academy of Sciences in an outskirt of Berlin.

Unfortunately in the research world in which Merkel existed, political oppression was reflected in the lack of both necessary equipment and scientific advances. After she worked for a few years in a decaying East German scientific institution, West and East Germany were reunited when the wall fell, and Merkel seized the chance to pursue her interest in politics.

This was the beginning of an astonishing political rise leading to a persistent 16-yearlong chancellorship. During her four terms in office, she stood up to the male-dominated German political culture and was confronted with many crises: the global finance crisis in 2008, the European sovereign debt crisis in 2010, the European migrant crisis in 2015, and the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic. Her leadership style relies on facts and process, which is logically given her training, and on the eve of her political departure it is undisputable she has been one of the most influential global leaders of her time.

Given her many achievements and political longevity, she will certainly leave traces and inspiration, especially for women, in both politics and science. With the closing of this chapter in her professional life, Merkel revealed she is considering returning to academia, and I look forward to seeing where she next lands and makes her mark.

Judith Vogt