Anita Sonnenfroh tells us about how she came to join ZEISS and develop her career, which took her from Oberkochen all the way to Spain
Microscopes – we normally first encounter them at school. While students primarily use them to examine the cell structure of onion skins, in our society microscopes have long since had a number of different uses. These optical instruments enable insights into a world that would otherwise remain hidden because we cannot see it with the naked eye. The world of micro- and nanometers provides scientists with numerous insights into the environment and our lives. Charles Darwin used microscopes to prove the origin of species and develop his theory of evolution. In a letter dated 1881 he states that he was already familiar with the high quality of ZEISS microscopes.
ZEISS was founded in 1846 as a small workshop for precision mechanics and optics in Jena that focused on microscope production. This led to the creation of one of the world’s leading companies in the optics industry. The first microscopes from the 19th century bear no resemblance to today’s high-end instruments. Anita Sonnenfroh became aware of this impressive development on one of her first customer visits as a Sales Manager for the Microscopy business group at ZEISS: “I paid a visit to a neurobiology institute in Spain and I can still remember the walls: they were decorated with impressive drawings by doctor Ramón y Cajal, who won the Nobel Prize in 1906 for his work on the structure of the nervous system. Microscopes were one of his preferred tools, but at the time they had no way of holding specimens. Scientists created drawings of what they saw under the microscope. I was most impressed by how similar these drawings were to today’s digital photos. In this moment I witnessed history firsthand – and I couldn’t have been more excited. I was suddenly a part of it,” she recalls.
Anita Sonnenfroh has been a part of the ZEISS workforce for over ten years. “I studied International Business at Aalen University and was determined to write my dissertation at ZEISS in 2006. I’m originally from Nattheim and so ZEISS was always part of my life in some way, meaning I knew early on that the company behind the blue logo was an excellent employer. This attitude still applies today,” she says. After her dissertation, she held a number of different positions at Microscopy in Oberkochen, until 2014 when she was offered a job as Head of the Microscopy production site in Iberia. Now she works permanently in Spain and this year began heading the sales and service company there, which brings together the Microscopy, Industrial Metrology and Medical Technology business groups. She never would have pictured herself living abroad. “I spent a practical semester in Puerto Rico when I was a student, but I’m very connected to my hometown,” she admits. When the job in Spain became available, however, curiosity and the promise of a new challenge won out. “My husband and I had packed up our life and were ready to go, raring to discover what lay ahead, but once we started work there were definitely a few occasions where I felt lost – this was mainly due to the language barrier at the office,” says the Madrid-based manager. But now everything’s different. “Our daughter was born in Spain and is growing up bilingually. That means I often find myself speaking Spanish at home. And now, when I come back home, I have to watch out that I don’t accidentally slip into Spanish,” she laughs.
Her many experiences over the years and numerous extraordinary moments have only caused her fascination for microscopy to grow: “I’m not a physicist, biologist or chemist, but I get very excited about the ZEISS products and technologies they’re made up of, and am impressed time and again by the many applications of microscopy. In material science and analysis, for instance, they enable us to identify microstructures that have an impact on material properties. Or for detecting illnesses when examining cell structures. For conducting research into animals and fossils. But also in sparkling wine production, to examine the yeast bacteria involved in fermentation. And for restoring artworks and determining their authenticity, when developing the perfect toothpaste, during DNA analysis to solve crimes, or when searching for raw materials in rocks. The list is endless,” she says with a smile. Today, it’s not just light microscopes that are used, but also electron, X-ray and helium-ion ones. ZEISS is actually the world’s only producer of helium-iron microscopes. “Our microscopes can even generate images in the nano range in both HD and 3D. Our comprehensive product portfolio can also be combined, which makes it possible to cover an incredible range of dimensions. This opens up whole new possibilities in medical and biological research,” she adds. The most significant science project at present is one that uses a ZEISS electron microscope to collect and process data: the Blue Brain project. It involves the creation of a completely 3D map of the human brain, including its smallest parts. A VR headset can use the data collected to embark on a virtual journey through the human brain.
Anita Sonnenfroh certainly appreciates that she works at a company whose products and services have played such a major role in people’s lives: “I think it’s great that ZEISS is still an important part of our world to this day and is as stable as it is. Every company goes through tough times – and ZEISS has always stayed true to its founding principles, i.e. to be precise, innovative, and take social responsibility.” When Anita Sonnenfroh looks back over her time at the company, she can’t help but smile: “ZEISS has invested a lot in helping me get where I am today.” For instance, she has taken part in a Junior Leadership Program that prepared her very well for her current duties as a top manager. “ZEISS offers a host of development opportunities. You have to be open, take risks and accept new challenges. Then the world will be your oyster,” she says, speaking from experience. And she’s not the only one who’s happy with her choice of employer: “My dad is my biggest fan – I mean sure, I’m his daughter, but he’s very proud of the fact that I have such a great job at ZEISS.”