Who we are: Aisa Manlosa

Hello. Introductions are not very easy for me, but because the good experience of coming to Joern’s group happened, here it is.

The name is Aisa and I’m from Asia – the Philippines, to be specific – where the sun shines bright the whole year round, the sea is always near, and there’s plenty of fish. I love fish.


I started in Joern’s group in late May this year, as one of four new PhD students for the ERC-project Identifying social-ecological system properties benefiting food security and biodiversity. Within this project, my research focuses on livelihood strategies of farming households in the highlands of southwestern Ethiopia and how these strategies relate to food security and biodiversity, and vice versa. Starting this PhD means a lot to me because of the opportunity it provides to do research on issues I care about (environment, agriculture, poverty), in a place I have dreamed of working in since I was a teenager (a part of Africa).

I grew up in a small, quiet town in a big island called Mindanao. I have memories of catching small fishes in the creek behind our house using fish nets that my friends and I made with our own hands and of putting them in our improvised aquarium. This was when the creek was still clean. There is another memory of my mother doing laundry in a spring not very far. There were three secluded shallow wells on a short slope facing a rice farm. She would always go early to have one well to herself, and the water would always be just enough for the washing of clothes and for us the children, when we come to bathe. We would finish the water to its last scoop. The following day, it would fill again, clean and clear as crystal. I remember fetching drinking water with my brother from a water pump a few hundred meters from our house, and collecting firewood from fallen twigs and branches in a wooded area not far. Many things have changed since, in my small town, as is doubtless the case in majority of the world. The piped water system and liquefied petroleum gas stoves came when I was about 11 and that made a lot of difference in terms of convenience. But I think a lot of other important things were lost in the process. The wooded area gave way to a fruit tree plantation owned by a rich family, which was eventually abandoned. The springs have dried. Our family, as was our town, was not economically advanced. But because of what we had around us, I can say we had a fair amount of what was needed for an active, robust, and good life (the way I define good life). I wonder how economically-challenged families in my home town and in other parts of the world cope, with most of the free amenities (free and clean water for example) now changed or gone.

The kind of life I lived as I was growing up shaped my affinity for what is natural and my desire to understand a bit more about changes in integrated natural and social systems and how they affect people. This led me to study Environmental Science in my bachelor’s degree at the Mindanao State University, and in my master’s degree at the University of the Philippines Los Baños. My research experience has primarily been on social systems: the first looked at communities’ willingness to pay for conserving a watershed and the second was an ex post microscale flood damage assessment in a lakeshore fishing-farming municipality. In 2013, I joined WorldFish as research analyst for the CGIAR Research Program on Aquatic Agricultural Systems where my colleagues and I looked at social norms that underlie differential access to resources and control of benefits from agricultural livelihoods among social groups. These research topics have been quite varied but they are valuable to me for several reasons. The first is for the quantitative and qualitative research skills that these enabled me to develop. The second is for the opportunity to observe a range of environment- and agriculture-related problems in different contexts, and in the process, seeing similarities and patterns.

This PhD position now enables me to further engage and work at the interface of issues that I care about – environment, agriculture, links between natural and social systems, agency of people whose dependence on agriculture make them more vulnerable to environmental and other types of changes, and food security. I intend to engage with the topics in a way that puts people at the center and asks how they participate in the process of changing their landscapes, what factors influence their participation, in turn how they are affected by the changes that result, and how they adapt to the changes through the strategies they employ using the resources at their disposal.

Coming here has also given me the opportunity to work with a vibrant academic group that is diverse in expertise, experience, and personalities, and is highly collaborative, as anyone who visits would not too long after observe.

In the next three years, I and the team will be spending more time in Ethiopia. I look forward to gaining a better understanding of the relationships between livelihood strategies of farming households, how these influence and are influenced by food security and biodiversity outcomes, how these are constrained or enabled by capitals, assets, and resources in context; and in collaboration with colleagues, identify relationships with other factors at higher scales, but that is in the future.


Who we are: Neil Collier

By Neil Collier

I joined Leuphana University in February of this year to work on a project investigating system properties that contribute to food security and biodiversity. ‘Mixed’ is the best way to describe my professional experience, but I suppose that is typical of most people researching sustainability and social-ecological systems. I’m trained as an ecologist and studied butterflies as a postgraduate at Flinders University in Adelaide, Australia. After graduating I returned to my hometown and spent three years in the Livelihoods and Policy group at Charles Darwin University (CDU). We worked on social-ecological systems mainly in the wet-dry tropics of northern Australia and other tropical forest biomes of the world.

A short stint as a credit risk analyst/modeller with a private company was soul-destroying and so I moved back to academic research. The most recent role I had in a university was working as a research and statistical consultant for Edith Cowan University. Most of the time I helped Master and PhD students with their experimental designs and data analyses. It was a very rewarding role but also very challenging. During this time I developed an introductory R course and trained about fifty students, postdocs and academics.

Prior to moving to Germany I spent most of 2014 as a beer tourist in Belgium, and trying to learn Dutch in a region that speaks an incomprehensible form of Dutch (Flemish). Lucky for me the Belgians are an adaptive lot and most speak at least three languages, English one of them. When I’m not working I search for interesting types of beer, take pictures, listen to blues, and dream about freediving.

Who we are: Julia Leventon

I’m Julia, and I have been working with Joern’s group at Leuphana since February this year.  I joined as part of a project called MULTAGRI on the governance of multifunctional agricultural landscapes.  In this project I work closely with Joern and with Prof. Jens Newig in the governance working group of the Institute of Sustainability Communication (INFU).  I was asked to introduce myself via the blog, and I thought I would do so by giving 5 facts about myself, loosely related to research:


Julia Leventon

  1. I started out as a natural scientist.  I am now on the more social side of interdisciplinary, but I did my undergraduate degree in Environmental Science at the University of Manchester in the UK.  Its provided me with a great overview of some fundamental concepts in ecology, geology and chemistry.  In every research project since, I have been grateful that I can begin to understand the physical processes that I am dealing with.
  2. I run.  My favourite thing to do with a free day is to spend it running through hills and mountains.  In northern Germany, I have to make do with flat forests, but that’s not really something to complain about.
  3. I like to define my research by concepts rather than by topic.  I am a governance researcher; I examine how diverse interests come together to manage natural resources.  For example, how interests around mineral extraction, climate change mitigation, community development, agriculture and biodiversity compete over the same area of forest for conflicting interests, whose interests are represented (how and why) and what impact this has.  The resources (topics) I have worked on include groundwater, forests, soils and biodiversity.
  4. I’m nomadic (and have a nomadic cat).  After finishing school at 18, I went to Peru for a few months and stayed for a couple of years, and I’ve had ‘itchy feet’ ever since.  After doing my BSc and MSc at Manchester (UK) I went to Budapest for my PhD, including secondments in Greece and Italy. I’ve also lived in the Czech Republic, then time back in the UK working at University of Leeds, with fieldwork in Malawi, Zambia and Tanzania.  Now I’m in Germany.  The cat has been moving around with me since the Czech Republic.
  5. I’m scared of snakes.  I know they aren’t slimy, and I’m sure they are very beautiful, but I would rather never make contact with a snake.  Unfortunately, there have been a few snake close encounters… including an anaconda in the Amazon, a puff adder in Malawi (that I narrowly avoided running over on a mountain bike) and a spitting cobra in Zambia.

Who we are: Friederike Mikulcak

Hi everyone! Even though I am part of Joern’s Sustainable Land Use Group since October 2011, I obviously managed to hide pretty well from this blog – completely unintended and rather due to unpleasant developments in my personal life.


Anyway, being one of Joern’s PhD students in this project, I wish to briefly introduce myself to you. To start with – as my name is rather long, I’d suggest just calling me Frieda. Within the project, I am dealing with the impact of the EU common agricultural policy (CAP) on smallholder farming and biodiversity conservation in Romania (click here), with barriers to rural development, and overall with formal and informal institutions governing natural resource usage in the region. What made me join this project? I have long been interested in human-environment interactions, rural development, and in particular institutional aspects, but my (academic) career prior to this PhD position wasn’t perfectly straightforward.

My research activities started with a Bachelor in European Studies at Chemnitz Technical University, where I focused on European law and politics. Because the study program specialized on Eastern EU member states, I became quite familiar with this part of Europe and joined a student association organizing (political) seminars with students from Central and Eastern Europe (CEE). I wrote my Bachelor thesis about the EU’s human rights policy in non-EU countries, using the example of Russia. Besides, I did a four month internship at the European Parliament (MEP) in Brussels and Strasbourg.

I soon realized that the EU wasn’t the end of the story for me; I wanted to become familiar with other institutions and international (development) politics. I became a student research assistant with the “Business and Biodiversity Initiative” of the German organization for development cooperation (GIZ) and chose to study the Master program “Globalization, Environment and Social Change” at Stockholm University, focusing on human geography. As part of the research project “Human dimensions behind the greening of Sahel” in cooperation with the Stockholm Resilience Centre I conducted 2 months of field work in the West African Republic of Niger and wrote my Master thesis on “the implications of formal and informal institutions on the conservation of on-farm trees”.

During my time in Sweden I became acquainted with political ecology, resilience theory and systems thinking, which to me served as ‘eye-openers’ and useful approaches to understand and analyse social-ecological relations. I finally joined Joern’s project as it just fitted perfectly the way I had gone by then – combining my interest in the role of institutions in sustainable (rural) development, framed by systems thinking, and focusing on Eastern Europe.

Who we are: Marta Nieto Romero

(by Marta Nieto Romero)

Hi readers! I am Marta, a new member of this group of research.

I arrived in Germany in November to start my Master thesis in the framework of the Master on “Integrated Planning for Rural Development and Environmental Management” of the Agronomic Mediterranean Institute of Zaragoza (Spain). After a few drawbacks, I am now happily doing a project titled “Controversial views and actions within local organizations: opportunities for collective action of Southern Transylvania”.


Before starting talking about this current project, I want first to introduce myself. In 2006, I started a bachelor called something like “medical biology” in France, being persuaded that I wanted to become a researcher on neurobiology. Fortunately, after two years of Bachelor I realized that even if I enjoyed the laboratory work I wanted to get professionally involved in sustainability issues. From then, I strongly tried to change my curricula. On my third year of Bachelor I made an Erasmus in Portugal where I started learning Ecology related courses, and of course, this beautiful and melodic language. I finally came back to my home town (Madrid) the following year, where I continued a Master on Ecology. There, I discovered the Social-Ecological System framework and I finally felt that something made sense for me. I started to be interested in the social side of sustainability which I am now convinced that is the main factor of the success or failure of projects aiming to preserve ecosystem’s values. Working with the Socio-ecosystems Laboratory of Madrid I started reading (a lot!) about the resilience thinking, the ecosystem service framework, the environmental and ecological economy and the main socio-cultural methods for assessing ecosystems values. That opened me a huge and exciting field(s) of knowledge that made me start a second Master (the one I am now doing now) about the management of human-shaped ecosystems in a holistic and inter-disciplinary way.

Now, I can say that my expertise is on territorial planning of rural areas and I am particularly interested in institutional schemes and social aspects for the design of successful and sustainable plans for rural areas.

My project within the Sustainable Landscapes group aims to explore which future do local actors engaged in organizations related to regional development prefer, which actions they think should be done in order to achieve this future and which trade-offs they are willing to accept if necessary. For that purpose, I have done 24 interviews to a diverse set of local organizations (mainly NGOs and associations) in Southern Transylvania in which I showed them the four scenarios for the year 2043 developed in previous research and ask them which one they preferred and other questions related to my objectives. In the following paragraphs I will explain the first insights that I had after my field-work, trying to answer the main questions that initially drove my research: (1) Have local actors in the region contradictory goals? (2) What are the barriers towards the creation of a shared vision between them? (3) What are the opportunities to create a shared vision?

All the interviewees preferred the scenario 3 – “Balance brings beauty”. That is quite normal, since on this scenario there is a wealthy and diverse economic development combined with a sustainable use of their natural and cultural heritage. But what I think was surprising was that 52% of them think that this same scenario is the most likely. I believe that in order manage something you have first to deeply believe on it, so for me it was really hopeful and inspiring that those people were so sure and convinced that it could happen. Moreover, when discussing further the type of development they would like to achieve, many common points aroused between all the respondents- e.g. they all want to maintain small-scale farming practices, and they are extremely aware of the danger of foreign investment on the area if it doesn’t involve local population. Nevertheless, when respondents had to deal with compromises – e.g. water is polluted but people have a higher monetary well-being- two main profiles of responses aroused. On the one hand, some people think that the conservation of natural resources must be a priority and should not be sacrifice in order to improve the local’s standard of living. This group of people is characterized by statements as the following “people can change their behavior if one day they change their mind, but if we destroy nature, it can’t never come back”. On the other hand, another group of respondents think is worthy to destroy the environment if people are better off: “if people are better off, the educational system can improve, and naturally, they will start to appreciate their natural environment and try to preserve it”. While these two profiles largely prefer a scenario where the improvement of local’s standard of living and the resource exploitation is balanced (scenario 3), the trade-offs they are willing to accept are completely different- i.e. the first profile could accept a nature lose – locals win paradigm while the second group would rather accept a nature win- locals lose one.

In conclusion, my first impression is that, first, the sample of local organizations interviewed is generally working for a common goal: achieving the scenario 3. Second, there are many common points on what do they like and don’t like which could help to mainstream future collaborations. And finally, differences exist on the trade-offs they are willing to accept – i.e. nature lose – locals win vs. nature win- locals lose– if compromises have to be made in the future.

Finally, my impression was that some “collaboration” between organizations exist but it is on its early stage. Some organizations have recently started partnerships or periodical meetings, but still, these frequently do not end up with activities in common or projects looking for synergistic effects. The non-collaborative attitude is not only (neither mainly) driven by differences in scopes and aims, and other financial, political, historical factors are involved. Nevertheless, if collaboration starts, a threat exist that those organizations with an environmental focus and those with a community focus will follow different paths of actions, diluting their power to make lobby and act in common against what they ALL don’t want: a nature lose – locals lose future (scenario 2). From here, I send them all my best to continue this difficult but passionately driven task, hoping that they will manage to conserve the main features of this beautiful part of the planet.

Who we are: Dave Abson

Note by Joern: I’m pasting in Dave’s introduction to the world here. We’ll get some academic content from him on this blog very soon. For now, enjoy a slightly less academic introduction below.

Who am I? A highly cynical, slightly grumpy and rapidly aging ersatz Yorkshire man (or Island Monkey as some Germans charmingly refer to the English… well mainly my German in-laws). Academically I guess I am a social-scientist/economist/landscape-ecologist/geographer (a less charitable description might be jack of all trades and master of none). After an undergraduate degree in mechanical engineering and three years as a design engineer I decided to take a short holiday (six years) and see a bit of the world, from this experience I concluded that the world (rather than just Yorkshire) is rather nice and that I would quite like for it to remain nice in the future. So I went back to University did a Master’s degree in sustainable development and then a PhD in social-science/economics/landscape-ecology/geography. In my PhD I used the notion of landscape heterogeneity as integrating concept to link the ecological (farmland bird conservation) and socio-economic (stability and resilience of farmed incomes) functions of agricultural landscapes.

(Serious academic profile picture, balloon models on request)

(Serious academic profile picture, balloon models on request)

I was convinced to move to Germany based on the promise of warm, sunny summers (a terrible lie if last year is anything to go by) and the high quality bread (no complaints there). Since May 2012 I have been a post doc at Leuphana university working for the FuturES Research Center on ecosystem services and generally sticking my oar/voicing my (often unasked for) opinion on various bits of the Fostering sustainable development in Eastern Europe project.

My research interests can be summed up as an interest in the integration of social and natural science conceptualisations/perspectives of sustainability in rural landscapes, with particular interests in systems thinking, the meaning and application of value theory to ecosystem services and spatially explicit modelling of socio-ecological systems, more about me can be found here.

Who we are: Marlene Roellig

Hi everyone, I’m Marlene and I’ve just started my PhD in this working group. My PhD project is on The future of European wood-pastures, so I’m the first one in this working group who is not directly involved in the well-known Fostering sustainable development in Romania project. But of course my work will build on the Romania project, and as a country with many beautiful wood pastures I will partly do my research in Romania.

What about me?

I studied my Bachelor here at Leuphana in Lüneburg in Empirical Economics and Social Sciences. My focus was sustainability management which I really enjoyed. After my Bachelor I did a Traineeship at Volkswagen AG in a team working on Sustainability in supplier relationships. It was a great experience, working in an ambitious team on such important topics like human rights, safety at work and environmental standards. But even though the working group was kind of interdisciplinary, the focus was always on financial economics and I missed a broader view on sustainability. So I decided to study the Master program Sustainability Sciences at Leuphana, which allowed me to combine my background in economics and social sciences with ecology and nature conservation – one of my childhood dreams.  In my second semester we started an inter- and transdiciplinary research project on sustainable agriculture for the region around Lüneburg, which inspired me to look for a Masters project related to agriculture. During my third semester I met Joern in the class Conservation Biology and got the great possibility to join his team as a master student in Romania. My Master thesis was on  Bear activity in traditional wood-pastures in Transylvania  and I had the privilege of working in Romania looking for bear signs in this beautiful wood-pastures (see picture).

Marlene Roellig_Transylvania

The time in Romania was inspiring and a steep learning curve. I loved to be in the field as well as working in an interdisciplinary, highly motivated team. Above all, Romanian wood-pastures are fascinating. The combination of veteran trees and the extensive grazing with a high biodiversity is worthy of protection. But I learned fast the threats and problem for these landscapes in Romania – as well as across Europe as a whole.

Luckily I got the opportunity to apply for a position in Joern´s working group on European wood-pastures. This PhD project fits perfect for me to combine my knowledge in social science and ecology to realize this type of interdisciplinary research project. I am looking forward to work in wood-pastures as well as talk to people in the next 3 years.

So, here I am, happy to be here and willing to do my best- not only for my PhD, but also for the team.

Who we are: Ine Dorresteijn

Hello, I am Ine and a PhD-student in the group of Joern Fisher since October 2011. During the next years, I will focus on how land use is related to bird and carnivore distribution and how these distributions may change in the future. My interest for nature started already at a very young age and while growing up on a farm I was always surrounded by animals. My choice to study biology was partly influenced by my high school biology teacher whom was one of the most enthusiastic teachers at school. When I started with my bachelor biology at Utrecht University I had no idea yet in what field I would like to work and was interested in ecology but also in other fields such as molecular cell biology and physiology.

My interest in conservation biology was first sparked during my minor in Arctic Biology when I studied for a year on Spitsbergen. It was great to live for a long time in such a remote place and to be so close to nature. However, I learned about and could see the threats of climate change to the Polar Regions. During the summer I worked as a research assistant with kittiwakes which evoked my interest in birds.

After my bachelor I started a master at the University of Amsterdam. For my master thesis I went to the University of Alaska Fairbanks and studied the effects of climate on food availability to seabirds breeding on the Pribilof Islands. My thesis was part of the BSIERP-project that examines how climate controls the time and place of production of species at different trophic levels in the Bering Sea. I was very happy to be able to work in a larger set-up and collaborate with scientists working on different projects. Furthermore, this project gave me another chance to spend two summers in the field on another beautiful remote island. Besides catching birds, I worked together with another student on a project studying the importance of birds for subsistence and cultural values in the native Aleut community. For this study we used questionnaires and I enjoyed it very much to discuss the birds with the local people. Working on this project and the kind hospitality and enthusiasm of the community fueled my interest in the connections between nature and society.

After my master I spend half a year in Kenya volunteering for a community project that aims to conserve the local rainforest. During this time I tried to understand the conflicts between the local community and the forest authorities and I helped to increase the community awareness. Together with the local teachers we set up a curriculum to teach the communities about the importance of the rainforest. After this experience I knew I wanted to continue working in a project that links conservation with our society.

Therefore, I am very happy to be a PhD-student in this interdisciplinary project and I hope to learn more about how sociological and political processes can be linked to ecological issues. I am excited about my project since I can continue working on birds but also explore a new field and work on human-carnivore conflicts. Already when I was a child, I learned about the conflicts between the farmers and the geese in the Netherlands and now I am looking forward to work on human-carnivore conflicts in Romania.

Who we are: Andra Milcu

I like to think that my first steps to where I am now go back to middle school when I was browsing a nice magazine recommended by our biology teacher. It was called the Blue Planet and the article I started reading was “The Photosynthesis Civilization at Sunset”. I remember the phrase “Mankind produces, consumes and throws away… produces, consumes and throws away, again and again…” a process entirely out of the cyclic spirit of nature. That was the moment when at the age of 13 I solemnly decided what I shall do for the rest of my life. It’s clear that I was not able to figure it precisely, but I was definitely feeling in that direction.

In the coming years I was inflexible and naïve enough to take myself very seriously. I was head of graduates of the Department of System Ecology of the University of Bucharest where I had the opportunity to practice in the field of freshwater ecosystem research. My license thesis examined the use of mathematical modelling in the development of water quality scenarios and the contribution of these scenarios to regional development planning. In parallel, I was volunteering for NGOs (Terra Mileniul III, European Environmental Sciences Students’ Association-EURENSSA) which contributed to shifting my interest towards policy making and its scientific foundation.

I pursued with a master in environmental sciences and management at the Free University of Brussels. My dissertation paper “The post-2012 climate policy for Romania” analysed Romania’s constraints and opportunities in the context of international political agreements, its specific interests and instruments. During my master studies I completed a long series of internships: UNDP-Romania, Institute for European Environmental Policy-IEEP, Permanent Representation of Romania to the EU and finally the Committee of the Regions of the European Union. Before starting my PhD I also worked for a brief period for the Climate Change and Sustainable Development Directorate of the Romanian Ministry of Environment. All these stages played a major role in my growing up as a hybrid between a researcher, an activist and an environmental bureaucrat.

A PhD  position in Joern’s Sustainable Land Use group came as the perfect continuation of my professional experience and studies and as the ideal incarnation of my personal motivation and career ambitions. At the same time this PhD allows me to work in a very positive academic environment and to keep strong ties with my home country (Romania) to which I feel deeply attached. After being quite familiar with the world of climate change, I am happy to investigate another challenge in the history of humanity that is rather poorly handled by national governments: land use change. I am also happy to research on a subject I only touched briefly during my professional journey so far: ecosystem services and people’s perception of it. Understanding ecosystem services from the perspective of the inhabitants of Transylvania and the correlation with land use history and perceived well-being is my aim for the next three years.

Who we are: Jan Hanspach

By Jan Hanspach

My name is Jan and for a few months, I have now been working in Joern’s Sustainable Land Use group. During my university studies at the Martin-Luther-University in Halle I focused on plant ecology and vegetation science. My diploma thesis was about vegetation on rock fall sites in central Bolivia. I loved Bolivia and hope to get there again sometime. By the way, seeing the Andes was one of my childhood dreams and I was pretty happy when my feet touched that ground. Another dream came true when we roamed the Gobi desert during a university excursion to Mongolia, which is also where my interest for dryland ecology started.

Following my university studies, I moved to a research institute called the ‘Helmholtz Centre for Environmental Research’ which is also in Halle. In my time there I learnt a lot about databases, statistics and GIS. Being in charge of various projects I got glimpses of many different fields of ecology. First, I analyzed which traits were related with introduced species becoming established and spreading in Germany. Invasion ecology is a fascinating topic though one must say that it feels much more relevant when you are outside of Europe. Later, I did a lot of species distribution modeling and predicted species distributions under climate and land use change scenarios. I got especially hooked on the prediction errors that are inherent to those models. I also did an analysis on the host plant limitation of butterfly distribution in Switzerland (still got to write the paper). In between, I did some vegetation surveys in Tibet (not among the childhood dreams but no less impressive), which further cemented my interest in central Asia.

It was last year that due to some coincidences and my extraordinary 😉 stat skills I was lucky to be contracted by Joern to jointly analyse some data and thereby visit Australia (another childhood dream:  seeing all these weird marsupial creatures I knew only from my books). The analyses were about birds and bats in the grazing landscapes of southeastern Australia. Since then I have been on the course of getting into landscape ecology, sustainability science and our new study area in Transylvania. I am rather excited about my new tasks and hope to make some contribution not only in terms of scientific findings, but also in terms of the sustainability of land use in that unique region.