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Katharina Bunk

“It is important to me that IGB is a community”

Getting to know the new IGB director Luc De Meester
The Belgian aquatic ecologist and evolutionary biologist Luc De Meester is the new Director of IGB and Professor of Freshwater Science at Freie Universität Berlin. Where is he from, and where does he want to go with IGB and its staff? On his first days in office, he told us about what motivates him, and what plans he has.

Luc De Meester is the new director of IGB. He has been a professor in ecology and evolutionary biology at the University of Leuven (KU Leuven) in Belgium for more than 20 years. | Photo: David Ausserhofer

Luc De Meester, we wish you a warm welcome to IGB! You have already disclosed the fact that you are very direct. This fits in well with the reputation of the capital region. Thus, let us come straight to the point: What made you want to become the director of IGB?

I am indeed in favour of a quite direct style, although perhaps direct Belgian style might still be somewhat different from direct Berlin and Brandenburg style. Above all I think clarity and transparency is important. It strongly reduces the likelihood of misunderstandings. But let me come straight to your question: IGB is one of the most outstanding freshwater research institutes in Europe and worldwide. The institute has achieved a phenomenal development, and so this is an ideal moment in time to take on this position – IGB is highly recognised internationally, while there is still much scope for growth. This potential to further grow in excellence and broaden the research portfolio of the institute is very attractive. The breadth in scope, that we can study all aspects of entire ecosystems, combined with the long-term perspective sets us apart from typical settings in university laboratories, where research activities are often largely driven by the short-term perspectives offered by standard research projects. Here at IGB, we have the opportunity to really think long-term, and to combine the development of innovative research ideas with the translation of research outcomes to practice. I think this breadth and flexibility is wonderful, and extremely important for conducting relevant future-oriented research. The past twenty years at the university in Leuven, I led a quite large research group, conducted research, and contributed a lot to teaching. It was at times challenging to combine all this, but it was very rewarding and I very much enjoyed it. But as IGB’s director, I envisage being able to make a greater contribution to society, promoting a more sustainable management of our freshwater resources.

So IGB’s guiding principle – research for the future of our freshwaters – appeals to you entirely?

Absolutely. It is precisely this guiding principle that has made IGB what it is today. I find IGB’s holistic approach of bringing together the different disciplines and facets of freshwater research and considering ecosystems in their entirety both visionary and essential. One of my key strategic tasks will be to further refine the objective of IGB in close cooperation with the researchers, whilst preserving the productive diversity of the institute’s expertise and topics.

What challenges do you expect to face in your new position?

In my own research, I am fascinated by how communities and populations of organisms respond to environmental change or extreme events. Resilience and the flexibility to respond to and take profit of change are very important. But it is also important that changes are not too drastic or extreme. I think this also holds for an institute such as IGB. Changes are often necessary and can create new momentum. But, similarly to how evolution works, one builds on existing structures. Evolution resulted in a dazzling variety of species and traits, amongst others because it builds on existing structures, which often leads to creative solutions. It will be a balancing act to radiate a strong vision without going too far, keeping all staff on board. It is important to me that IGB is a community, that we jointly pursue the same goals. Being a Belgian, there is the additional challenge for me to familiarise myself with the German language and the German science landscape and research policy. But challenges…

...can also be opportunities?

Yes, sure. In Germany, large investments are being made in sustainability research, which is a terrific opportunity. And I get the impression that German society has a very positive attitude towards science and scientific insights, and that politicians in this country are open to research-based consultancy.

Is there anything that you would like to share with us – the IGB team – right now?

Enthusiasm is a character trait I consider very important. I hope my new colleagues at IGB feel and share my enthusiasm for the institute and the research opportunities ahead. The flexibility to embrace new ideas without losing track of the “grand picture” is, I think, of key importance. Tolerance, gender equality and sustainability are also matters of great importance to me, and should be core to IGB. A research institute is a community of individuals who spend a considerable part of their lives together, achieving goals as a team. I would like to help creating the best possible conditions for this community so that we can continue to be successful in research both to the profit of the institute as a whole as well as for the development of the careers of the individual people. In the case of IGB, being “successful in research” also naturally means: inform society and politicians, co-develop research with societal stakeholders and increase society’s resilience in the face of a rapidly changing global environment. It will be key to strike the right balance between protecting and using freshwater-based resources and ecosystems, considering that sufficient protection is necessary to enable use in the future. I really look forward to meeting all of my IGB colleagues soon – and have a small request: a bit of leniency with regard to my current, still very limited knowledge of German.

The interview was conducted by Nadja Neumann and Katharina Bunk.

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