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Meet the MARS Team: Sebastian Birk

March 11, 2014
Seb presenting to the  MARS kickoff meeting in Mallorca (photo: Christian Feld)

Sebastian presenting to the MARS kickoff meeting in Mallorca (photo: Christian Feld)

Today we begin the first in a series of ‘Meet the Team’ articles where we talk to the people involved in the MARS project to find out more about their work.  

Sebastian Birk is a researcher at the University of Duisburg-Essen in Germany. He is a specialist in the ecological assessment of European freshwaters, and his work on the topic has contributed to the design and implementation of the Water Framework Directive.  

1. What is the focus of your work for MARS?

I am part of the MARS coordination team at the University of Duisburg-Essen, and I lead the scientific work package on defining the frameworks for understanding and studying multiple stressors. I am especially interested in tasks covering indicators of the effects that the multiple pressures have on our freshwater.

2. Why is your work important?

Recently I read a newspaper article about the growing public awareness regarding environmental issues. Despite this, however, there is no effective halting of biodiversity loss in our freshwaters, and salmon shoals do not yet return to German rivers.

This seems contradictory, but it is symptomatic of our modern-day society: walking the thin line between green consciousness and green-washing. I believe that MARS can provide a fundamental contribution to enhance sustainable management of our freshwaters for the benefits of humans and nature.


A silent cruise across the Dalälven, Sweden (photo: Sebastian Birk)

3. What are the key challenges for freshwater management in Europe?

In my opinion it is the diverging priorities of wider society, which does not value Europe’s ecosystem health highly. Environmental issues call for constant advocacy.

And here I think of our scientific commitment, for instance, to responsibly implement the idea of ecosystem services (one strand of research we are following in MARS). And beyond the ecological sphere, to think of how alternative socio-economic models such as the steady state economy (see this Herman Daly article on the subject) may allow us to frame a different agenda for Europe’s environments.

Muddy waters: the Garonne river near Bordeaux (photo: Sebastian Birk)

Muddy waters: the Garonne river near Bordeaux (photo: Sebastian Birk)

4. Tell us about a memorable experience in your career.

There are quite a few that I remember. Meeting with people, exchanging views and ideas, creating common ambitions and solutions, and building friendships across this beautiful European continent.

Canoeing the sea stretch of the Miño, searching for foggy ponds in Les Landes or cooling down from the Pannonian heat on the Danube bend are all memories to remember.

A Swedish spring: the perfect working environment (photo: Sebastian Birk)

A Swedish spring: the perfect working environment (photo: Sebastian Birk)

5. What inspired you to become a scientist?

Let me answer with the quote by Nobel laureate Sir Peter Medawar:

Scientists are people of very dissimilar temperaments doing different things in very different ways. Among scientists are collectors, classifiers and compulsive tidiers-up; many are detectives by temperament and many are explorers; some are artists and others artisans. There are poet-scientists and philosopher-scientists and even a few mystics. What sort of mind or temperament can all these people be supposed to have in common? Obligative scientists must be very rare, and most people who are in fact scientists could easily have been something else instead.

I guess doing science simply has the most of everything.

6. What are your plans and ambitions for your future scientific work?

On this ‘voyage’ to MARS I am focused on keeping my direction. Once landed, new  horizons will appear that will certainly motivate me to face fresh challenges. I am already curious …

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