Angelina Tittmann

"Great science is typically teamwork where everyone contributes their strengths, complementing each other“

An interview with Jonathan Jeschke
Professor Dr Jonathan Jeschke took over as head of the new IGB Department of Evolutionary and Integrative Ecology on 1 January 2022. His team is broadly oriented, dealing for example with eco-evolutionary consequences of global change, species interactions such as competition, parasitism and predation, and the synthesis of data and information. In an interview, he tells us why integration is his guiding principle, what new methods and approaches he is pursuing, and how he would like to promote young scientists in particular.

Photo: © David Ausserhofer/IGB

Mr Jeschke, you now head the Department of Evolutionary and Integrative Ecology at IGB – a completely new department. What will you be working on?

To me, the department is based on four key terms: ecology, evolution, the Anthropocene and integration. That the term “evolution” now appears so explicitly in the name of a department is new at IGB. It was also important to me to include the term “integration”, as that is a further strength of the five working groups that have come together in this new department: in addition to investigating ecological and evolutionary processes and their feedbacks, we are also very interested in building bridges to other disciplines, such as the social sciences.

What goal do you pursue in the process?

We want to work on important ecological questions of the Anthropocene and the 21st century, and believe that better answers can be found when taking an integrative perspective. That's why we combine the two already integrative disciplines of ecology and evolution with other approaches, perspectives and research fields. To me, integration also means fostering the dialogue with stakeholders beyond the scientific community. 

Which methods do you use for integration?

One example is our Hi Knowledge initiative, which we started at IGB a few years ago. We work with new methods like the hierarchy-of-hypotheses approach. This approach allows us to divide large hypotheses into smaller, specific hypotheses, and thus to link theory with empirical research. We have also developed methods for creating hypothesis networks to link the most important hypotheses and concepts in a research field. Two new projects undertaken together with experts from the fields of artificial intelligence, data science and related disciplines are currently under way to take the Hi Knowledge initiative to the next level, using algorithms and a wiki approach. The big goal is to create an interactive atlas of knowledge that is completely free and open. What I'm also increasingly excited about are applied games. We are working with game developers on a role-playing game for managing invasive species in different future scenarios. Scientifically, you can use this to derive management recommendations. In addition, it is possible to communicate a complex and problematic topic in a positive way: players can actively participate, enabling them to experience a complexity that could not be conveyed in a lecture or a publication.

What do you derive from this for the collaboration in your department? Will you, for example, reach decisions in a playful way in future?

Many department members do indeed very much like games [Jeschke smiles]. A playful element would be important to me in any case, even if we probably won't be able to make the majority of decisions in this way.

What role does leadership style play here?

I would like our department to have an environment that is inspiring and that fosters creativity, in which all colleagues respect each other highly and work together in a goal- and team-oriented manner. I am not fond of pronounced hierarchies and would describe my leadership style as supportive and participative. This is also because I have benefited a lot in my professional life from others who have supported me and given me the freedom to pursue the research I am most excited about. I am also grateful for this support and freedom to Rita Adrian, whose department I had the pleasure of working in over the last seven years. I would now like to pass that on.

Did that also motivate you to take on this position?

Absolutely. I have reached a point in my career where I have gained a lot of experience – at different institutions in different countries – and have noticed what works well for me and for others. I have also published some articles that illustrate quite well what I envision: people truly working together. Of course, there is always competition in academic research, but teamwork should take centre stage. We are in a very good position at IGB: we have good funding, most of our group leaders have permanent positions, and the working atmosphere is great. Something is also changing in the academic system as a whole. It's no longer always about metrics such as the number of publications or the amount of third-party funding, but there is increasing emphasis on teamwork and open science. And that's what I'm trying to promote as well.

Critics would probably argue that young scientists in particular depend on established metrics...

Of course, we have to keep that in mind, because young colleagues will usually have to apply elsewhere at some point, and it would not be good if they encountered completely different criteria there. So we need to find a good balance. We should think about what is best for each individual. Everyone has certain strengths and weaknesses. We cannot expect individuals to be good at everything. To me, great science is typically teamwork where everyone contributes their strengths, complementing each other. This includes non-scientists, of course, who form a team together with the scientists. We can promote teamwork by, for example, carefully considering which competencies and personalities we need at IGB when hiring new staff – and by that I don't just mean disciplinary expertise, but also other personal characteristics.

Would you argue in favour of doing away completely with traditional factors?

No, they are also relevant. But it becomes problematic when such metrics change the academic system to an extent that people are no longer primarily oriented towards doing good science, but towards optimising their metrics. Then the whole thing no longer really works, as the metrics cannot capture all aspects of good science. It is therefore important to always look at the people: What have they done, how do they fit in, and what strengths do they have? At Charité, for example, there is the QUEST Center, which develops new recommendations for hiring and tenure-track decisions.

An inspiration for your own department?

I would like to encourage and try out such new approaches in my new position. However, it is always harder to implement things in practice than to come up with them in theory. I also seek this challenge in my new role.

What could be improved for young researchers as a result?

Young researchers who want to stay in academia should be supported in the best possible way. The same applies to all those wishing to find a job outside of academia. There are many different career paths for ecologists, and we should do justice to them: We should support young colleagues to find their own personal path, independently of whether it means to stay in or leave academia. In fact, it might even be good if more people with an academic background were to become established outside science. Then we can foster the dialogue between scientific and non-scientific stakeholders – with contact persons who are familiar with both sides.

Transfer of skills and expertise is currently the term for this in German research policy discussions...

... it's important, because I think it's a shame when a non-scientific career is perceived as a failure.

What role does diversity play for you?

This aspect has accompanied me throughout my life. It is a matter of fairness to promote underrepresented groups. As someone with a disability status, I too belong to an underrepresented group. I think it is important to consider the different facets of diversity. This also includes the diversity of individual strengths and weaknesses. As already mentioned, it is important to me that the personal strengths of team members complement each other. It can be very inspiring when diverse perspectives come together in a team.

Your department works closely with the Freie Universität Berlin (FUB). All the group leaders teach there, four have a professorship, and so do you. What makes this collaboration so special?

The strong ties with the Freie Universität are not only due to our classes and professorships there, but also to the presence of some department members on the FUB campus in Dahlem, particularly members of Michael Monaghan’s and my research group. When the new joint science building is ready for moving in, this bridge will be strengthened even more. Networks and cooperative activities with institutions in and outside of Berlin have great potential, because integration thrives when different perspectives come together. Under the umbrella of the Berlin-Brandenburg Institute of Advanced Biodiversity Research (BBIB), we work together with researchers at FUB, IZW, MfN, ZALF, the University of Potsdam and other Berlin universities. Another example of successful cooperation is the genome centre BeGenDiv, whose speaker is Michael Monaghan from our department. We are also involved in several international networks: the Alliance for Freshwater Life (AFL) is an initiative that we have built up together with Sonja Jähnig, another new department head at IGB, and other researchers. We are also involved in Future Earth, as well as in the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), where we for example contribute to the Invasive Species Specialist Group.

Speaking of cooperation: apart from the Alliance for Freshwater Life, where else do you see links with other departments at IGB?

There are exciting contact points with all departments: we share a strong interest in aquatic biodiversity with Department 2, from which we emerged, and with Department 3; we share an interest in urban systems with Department 1; and we would also like to strengthen our links to Department 4, where evolutionary ecology plays a major role, as it does in our department. We are very much looking forward to working together with all our colleagues at IGB and beyond!


Congratulations on the new position, Jonathan! We are very much looking forward to working together, to new networks, approaches and methods that will make IGB an (even) more innovative, creative and diverse place!


About Jonathan Jeschke

Jonathan Jeschke completed his dissertation in biology at LMU Munich in 2002. After working at the Cary Institute in Millbrook, New York/USA and the University of Helsinki/Finland, he returned to LMU Munich in 2007 and then moved to TU Munich in 2011. Since 2014, he has been Professor of Ecological Novelty at the Freie Universität Berlin and IGB, where he was also speaker of the Cross-Cutting Research Domain Aquatic Biodiversity from 2016 to 2021.


Further reading

Read also our interview about Dark Knowledge or the following publication by Jonathan Jeschke:
Kaushal, S.S.; Jeschke, J.M. 2013. Collegiality versus competition: how metrics shape scientific communities. BioScience 63, 155-156.

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