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An upright Dietmann piano has pride of place in Kerstin Noëlle Vokinger’s rented apartment in Zurich’s Seefeld neighborhood. A wedding present from her father to her mother, its sound has lost some of the richness it might once have had. But whenever she needs time and space to think or process emotions, Vokinger sits down at the old brown piano and plays – Chopin, Debussy, Beethoven. With her long brown hair hanging neatly down her straight back and her serious demeanor, it’s easy to imagine her as a concert pianist.
Even in the austere overhead lighting of her office in a period property at the UZH Faculty of Law, she radiates a quality that many might associate more with musicians than scholars: humility. Her greeting is almost American in its warmth, and her smile is open and welcoming, but her careful movements hint at a quiet discretion. Not shy or unapproachable, just extremely thoughtful. Is the respect one feels when meeting her for the first time down to her Asian background? Vokinger’s mother comes from the Philippines and passed on her cultural heritage to her children. Or is that just a stereotypical assumption on the part of the observer?
Asking about someone’s ethnic roots is a tricky business. But Vokinger seems like a woman who is easily at home in different cultures... and who doesn’t find the question about family background problematic per se. “My intercultural upbringing has had an important influence on me,” she says. She realized from a young age that things at home were different from in other Swiss households. “The family structure was more hierarchical, family life was more intense, in all directions.”
Kerstin Noëlle and her little brother (eight years her junior) grew up in a village near Baden. Their father, a trained gilder who later moved into the business world, comes from Zurich; their mother emigrated to Switzerland at the age of 25 and is a nurse. They provided a loving and protective home for the two children. “My parents weren’t intellectuals. But they made sure I had many more opportunities than they had had.” Her mother wanted them to have a secure future free of existential worries. Coming from a country with a challenging socioeconomic situation, she saw education from an early age as a key to success.
Aware of her parents’ concerns, the highly conscientious Vokinger always tried to bring out the best in herself, even as a child. Visits to her mother’s home in the Philippines also taught her valuable life lessons. “Seeing these other children my age who didn’t have anything like the chances I did was both disturbing and eye-opening.” Perhaps this early humbling experience is what spurred Vokinger on in her extraordinary career. At the tender age of three, she was already having piano lessons. “Not because I showed particular musical talent, but simply because in our family learning an instrument early was what one did.” She soon noticed that regular practice led to progress, and that she enjoyed it. Call it what you will – perseverance, ambition, passion or intrinsic motivation – the experience remained: “Getting better at something, discovering new worlds through new skills, gave me great pleasure.” During her teenage years, Vokinger intensified her practice, sometimes playing for several hours a day.
Her childhood passion for learning became a need that has driven her tirelessly ever since. After finishing high school in Baden, Vokinger studied both law and human medicine concurrently at UZH, before going on to pass the bar exam of the Canton of Zurich and complete the state board examination for medicine. She then read for a PhD in biomedical ethics and law at UZH, and submitted a second doctoral thesis in medicine at the University of Basel just one year later.
At age 26, she took up a research position at Harvard University, where she also obtained a Master’s degree from Harvard Law School. Her stay in the USA was topped off with a postdoc fellowship at Harvard Medical School. Back in Switzerland, Vokinger was appointed assistant professor of public law and digitalization at UZH, and in 2021 was conferred the habilitation at the Faculty of Medicine. Her most recent academic achievement came just last year, with a dual professorship tailored to her research profile, hosted jointly at the Faculty of Law and the Faculty of Medicine of the University of Zurich.
As professor of law, medicine and technology, she and her multidisciplinary research team are developing solutions for improving general access to new medical treatments, products and other innovative technologies. “For example, we use an interdisciplinary approach to analyze new technological developments such as artificial intelligence or promising cancer treatments and gene therapies with regard to the opportunities, benefits, costs and risks for patients and society,” says Vokinger.
Her aim is to carry out research that is of practical relevance and to come up with concrete proposals for legislators, authorities, international organizations and other stakeholders – for example a realistic price-setting process for drugs, or regulatory measures for artificial intelligence. In fall 2022, Vokinger was awarded the prestigious Swiss Science Prize Latsis for junior researchers in recognition of her highly relevant and unique interdisciplinary contributions to research at the interface of law, medicine and technology. Law and medicine – both disciplines fascinated Vokinger from an early age. “I believed lawyers and doctors were people who help others and do good.” As a fresh-faced school-leaver, she began her degree in law with this romantic view – and discovered in the very first semester that law and justice are not necessarily the same thing. The professor shakes her head at her own naivety. “This conflict really concerned me at the time. I thought maybe medicine would fit better with my values.”
In her second semester, Vokinger realized that it was up to each student to “reconcile the tension between legality and justice using their acquired knowledge.” When she nevertheless sat and passed the numerus clausus for medicine, she decided to continue with both disciplines – with law as a side gig. The talented scholar shrugs her shoulders with a hint of embarrassment: “When I’m sure about something, I can be very persistent.” In her opinion, her ability to study for two degrees at once wasn’t due to some extraordinary talent: “I was well organized and worked a lot.” Of course even she sometimes hit a limit. The support of her professors, in particular her mentor and PhD supervisor Thomas Gächter, dean of the Faculty of Law, gave her the motivation to carry on with both subjects. Her family, too, encouraged her to keep pursuing her goals despite the difficulties.
Kerstin Noëlle Vokinger looks young for a professor, and she is – just 34 years old. At the end of our conversation she confides: “Actually I never imagined myself as a professor. They always seemed to be people who knew everything and could do everything. It took me a while to muster up the confidence to pursue an academic career.” And yet overseas, she was seen as a rising star. It was during her time in the USA that she decided academia was the place for her – not by taking the typical well-trodden route, but by forging her own new interdisciplinary path. Appointed assistant professor at the University of Zurich at age 31 and three years on promoted to full professorship, she now knows that she has found her ideal career.