Interview | IGB | 15-06-2021

“And then suddenly I became known as the long-term woman”

Professor Rita Adrian is an expert in the long-term and climate impact research of lake ecosystems. She worked at IGB for 28 years, including ten years as head of the Department of Ecosystem Research. She is now going into retirement – well, almost.

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Professor Rita Adrian | Photo: David Ausserhofer

In this interview, she explains why she became a limnologist, when she discovered the first signs of climate change, why she is disappointed by environmental policy, and why she believes it is right to have a quota for women in science.

Ms. Adrian, you are a biologist, but soon focused on what was going on below the water surface. What did you find so fascinating about water?

Rita Adrian: In actual fact, I pretty much got into it by chance as an autodidact. After all, our research group at Freie Universität Berlin (FU) was primarily concerned with developmental biology and evolution at the time. Lake eutrophication triggered my interest in water – it was the issue back then. It was also the subject of my Diplom thesis. I later switched to trophic biology and explored copepods, while everyone else was busy studying daphnia. I was always keen to find my own niche and then devote myself wholeheartedly to it.

Was long-term research one of those niches where you have managed to develop unique expertise over the years?

Basically, yes. My first encounter with long-term research came about through Berlin’s Lake Heiligensee, where Diplom students and doctoral candidates from FU Berlin had been taking samples since the 1970s, creating a wealth of data. But I really only became aware of this as a postdoc at the Center for Limnology in Madison (USA), which featured an extensive long-term research programme. I found it innovative and exciting. And so, later on, I took the Heiligensee data with me to IGB and digitalised it along with my colleagues. This resulted in Germany’s first publication on the impact of climate change on lakes, which appeared in 1995. More or less in passing, because my actual research focus at IGB was trophic biology. By then, IGB was already running a long-term programme at the Lake Müggelsee. The first signs of climate change had become apparent. The obvious approach, I found, was to place long-term research in the context of global warming. So I took on the mission of conducting the Lake Müggelsee programme, and suddenly became known as the “long-term woman”.

Looking at the first set of data, what can you gather from it in retrospect?

Many changes that we are clearly witnessing – such as in the thermal regime or in temperature – were already starting to emerge at that time. But nobody else believed that it had anything to do with climate change. To be fair, our time series was comparatively short, and we were very cautious in our interpretation. But the winter signal was already quite noticeable in data from the late 1980s and early 1990s: short ice-cover periods, earlier algal blooms, the temperature trend – in fact, the changes were drastic. If you look at the time series today, it really leaps out at you. Now, of course, we have a much better understanding of how lakes are changing rapidly, and of how this puts their functioning and our basis of life at risk.

But still nothing happened for ages…

Exactly! And that is what disappoints me most. Why is it only now that we have concepts combining ecology, economy and social issues, such as the EU’s Green Deal? The knowledge was there a long time ago.

When should action have been taken?

30 years ago! But things have to get bad before we respond. The Green Deal has been struck now because large parts of Europe are affected by extreme heat waves. The impact of three extreme summers in Germany, which as yet overlay the long-term trend, is clear for all to see in agriculture and forestry.

Why are things still moving too slowly?

We rely too much on individuals, but we cannot manage it as individuals or consumers. What we need is a policy of precaution! I would like to see better protection for our remaining natural areas, which should actually be expanded. We need to create areas where nature can develop, because nature has an inherent value. It is primarily a political obligation to defend and preserve nature. I have become very aware of this in the course of my academic career. But that doesn’t mean that we, as individuals, can escape responsibility.

You’ve been contributing to the IPCC Assessment Report since 2014, including the current Sixth Report. What has it achieved?

Politically speaking, Greta Thunberg has achieved more than the IPCC Report. Having said that, Greta was only able to achieve success because we scientists have been working and collecting facts on this issue for all these years. That goes without saying. The IPCC is a success story, even if its implementation is difficult and insufficient. In the past, we were constantly told that our language was unintelligible. But this argument doesn’t count any more. As a scientific community, we do our job. There are very good concepts, such as on sustainability and transformation, and now we urgently need them to be implemented politically.

What should policymakers do now to ensure better protection of water bodies?

With regard to the effects of climate change, measures are clearly needed to curb further global warming – starting with the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions. Many changes that we observe in lakes are associated with changes in the thermal structure resulting from global warming. Fragmentation of water bodies and, last but not least, agriculture and its nutrient inputs are also major fields of political concern.

What can future climate impact research achieve?

Thanks to vast global networks of in situ measurements combined with data provided by modern satellites, we are now able to track and understand global trends much better. The data basis is growing both spatially and temporally, which is great! National and global initiatives that improve the availability of data, and modern data management in general play a major role in this connection. Methods based on artificial intelligence additionally offer excellent analytical tools. There’s tremendous potential for innovation in that field.

Let’s go back to the past: you led the Department of Ecosystem Research at IGB for a decade – for many years, you were the only woman in the institute’s management. How did you feel about that?

I come from a generation where emancipation was a major issue. And I consider it important to this day. Back then, I was the only female researcher to start on a permanent basis at IGB – the only woman among a group of men. And I didn’t find it strange at all, because it was the norm. Nor was it much of an issue at the time. In the meantime, it has become a political issue. And it was only political pressure for quotas that made things better. You may find it unfortunate, but it’s still the case.

Did you also benefit from this quota?

Yes, of course! When the position of head of department was advertised, not a single woman was shortlisted. Internal applications were possible – but there was no chance of success. The Chairwoman of the Scientific Advisory Board at the time stopped the procedure, and brought me into the game. I had previously led the department on an acting basis, and was deputy head of department for a long time. So I knew what to expect, and for me, the challenge came at the right time. Two women, great researchers, from the Scientific Advisory Board said back then: “Rita, do it!” Two men advised me not to. But I didn’t just want to keep complaining about being the only woman, and then bottle out.

Now it’s the case that every second research group in Department 2 is led by a woman. It’s the highest proportion at IGB, well above the average figure in research. Is that also down to you?

No, it’s also thanks to the quota, which has accelerated the recruitment of excellent women. A male boss once asked me how we could improve the quota of women at the institute. I answered: It’s simple, you just have to appoint these excellent women, because they are out there! I was always astonished that such mundane things went unnoticed. Nowadays, no one can overlook women’s qualifications.

Nevertheless, the quota is controversial. Critics say it undermines the principle of selecting the best candidate, and is detrimental to science. How do you respond to them?

The opposite is the case! Until then, we paid too little attention to such great potential. And in the reverse sense, the quota has been in place for centuries. It really annoys me when we are forced into a corner and someone says: “You’re just a token woman”. All of those men are token men. I know it’s a bit mean, but men have dominated societies for so long, and now, at last, things are changing. You can’t blame individuals for it. But I feel that the few women who have made it under these conditions, their achievements cannot be valued highly enough. Which does not diminish the achievements of men.

And yet a disproportionately high number of women still leave the academic career ladder after completing their doctorate. What could be the reason for this?

It’s a multifaceted issue, and the family is just one aspect of it. Not everybody wants to hold a management position – whether male or female. But of course there are differences: women have a wider range of interests. That is a major strength. But if you want to focus on something and strive towards it, this breadth can also be a big weakness. Men are better at that. When I became head of department, I asked my husband if I should now act the same way as men. He has always supported and encouraged me to do my own thing. Maybe we women have tried to copy men for too long – we were wrong to do so. We must have confidence in ourselves and embrace the fact that we are different. Which reminds me of a little story from my postdoc days...

Do tell us about it!

Somebody said to me: “If you want to achieve success in science, you need to be a shark.” When I was invited to give a lecture in Sweden, a large group of us sat together one evening and I told them about it. They all looked at me and asked if I was a shark. After some consideration, I had to admit that, in a way, I was. Stories like this have made me realise that you must – and are allowed to – be hawkish. I got to where I am with a bit of luck and chance – but also due to a lot of hard work, I put a lot of time and effort into it.

Speaking of time, you joined IGB in 1993 and remained ever since. What made you so strongly attached to the institute?

I very quickly developed a very positive feeling because I saw the potential from the outset. The different disciplines and opportunities for cooperation, the freedom to establish my own group, the freedom of science – that was of greatest importance to me! In my experience, interdisciplinarity is only good if all the contributing disciplines are of an excellent standard. And IGB usually knew how to promote both aspects, which I appreciated enormously. I enjoyed going to IGB nearly every day – a fantastic institute from which I benefited greatly. I look back at that time with great fondness.

By the way, when I was clearing up, I came across a letter sent to me by the then IGB Director Peter Mauersberger after my job interview. It was all about what I had to achieve for the institute – written in a very friendly and polite way, of course. But today it’s exactly the other way round, things have changed considerably!

What issues and tasks are you planning to pursue in the future?

Everyone told me: “Rita, don’t withdraw completely, it wouldn’t be good for you!” I shall stay on at IGB for another year and help organise the major SIL Congress in summer 2022, which will celebrate the 100th anniversary of the International Society of Limnology.I’m looking forward to it. It will give me the opportunity to rearrange my life. I’m not yet sure which direction it will go in. But I won’t continue as I did in science, it will be somewhere else. It has to be something new – I know that much!


Angelina Tittmann
IGB Press Office