Spotlight Professor Christian Borgemeister

“They [human, animal, plant and ecological health] are all interconnected. This interconnectedness is what makes it interesting.”

Interview with Professor Christian Borgemeister, Managing Director, ZEF (Center of Development Research), University of Bonn, Germany

In Professor Borgemeister’s office, there is a huge painting hanging above one of the couches of various commercialized snack packages that are spelled incorrectly. It acts to highlight the internationality of his experiences. He had a couple minutes to share his insights on this upcoming symposium and partnership over a cup of coffee.  

As a first question, can you tell me a little about your research journey?

I started with diploma studies – which is an equivalent to a Master’s – which taught me science. My progression into Ph.D. was seamless, a logical and temporal continuation in entomology, the study of insects as pests. After my 5 years to do the Ph.D., which is a little on the long side, I reached a fork in the road. I could choose to work in an international research center or work in a prestigious lab in the US.

On one hand, I had the opportunity to achieve the classic academic dream at a school well known in the field. This mean that I have to choose one area and mercilessly pursue it. On the other, I chose to work in an international research center. Right off the bat, it was an interdisciplinary experience; I worked with not only other entomologists, but also economists, breeders, plant pathologists, anthropologists. The 6 years in West Africa was a turning point. I got to work where people were really suffering because of pest outbreaks because of failing harvest, because of crop diseases. Working in West Africa showed me that I didn’t want return to the narrow target. While other academics would call these kinds of academics could be called pollinators, which is not the most positive compliment.

Do you this outlook to those with an interdisciplinary background is changing?

Oh, yes, it’s changing.

What do you think are the biggest drivers to interdisciplinary work?

People get stuck. Complex problems require complex answers. The most complex challenges we are faced with: Alzheimer’s, cancer, climate change. They require complex answer. Complex answers cannot come from only one discipline. They are an intelligent combination of disciplines that interact. It’s not only that it’s fun to study in interdisciplinary, but you get stuck and you want to crack this nut of problems in our world. And you need to utilize several tools.

I want to go to the upcoming symposium in which you will be covering the 4H’s, human, animal, plant, and ecological health, what exactly is the 4H’s?

They [human, animal, plant and ecological health] are all interconnected. This interconnectedness is what makes it interesting.
To give you an example, in Kenya, rift valley fever is a viral disease transmitted by mosquitos. It’s our pet disease. It affects humans and livestock. There is a vaccine for livestock but it is unfit for humans. There is often the case where the herd is protected but the herdsman dies.
The dynamic between the wild animals, the livestock, the vectors, and the humans also has business implications. Herds are driven through towns. There is an urbanization element and a generational element. Traditionally, the herds were driven by young men along routes in North Eastern Kenya, Somalia, into Ethiopia. They follow the vegetation and the water. More and more the young men are interested in the cities. More and more the elders are having difficulty for finding young men that will drive these herds along these paths for 7 months of the year to the middle of nowhere. So they are keeping the herds closer to urban environments because they are lack the manpower to drive them. This has the implication on disease transmissions. Mosquitos that have developed with the urbanization and with humans are also exposed to the animals increasing the rate of possible transfer. Urban areas have higher density of human hosts. On top of that economic, ecological, and even climate change have altered the routes and there is less predictability in managing herds.
Now, you can really see that this problem can’t only be addressed of veterinarian or vector specialist. When you address a problem from only one point of view will miss 80% of the story.
That’s what this symposium is all about.

Can you expand on ZEF’s role as a think tank in the interdisciplinary research?

When I came here [to ZEF], I was used to ‘interdisciplinary’. But I got here and they started throwing around ‘transdisciplinary’. As a scientist, you do not want to produce for the shelf. Scientific documentation is very important in economize research. However, with research that has the potential to impact society, you have got to do something with it. This is what we at ZEF, and many other international research centers, want to get at with transdisciplinary research. Turning research into tools and products that can have an impact.
I studied diseases of insects, how they get sick and how we can use fungal disease to control them.. We wrote about it and then moved on. We ended up teaming up with a company to develop a product that small scale farmers could use. A species specific fungal pathogen spray to manage pests. Here at ZEF, student’s work has a lot of value to policy makers. We have to transform our work to a product: translate our scientific work into something that is understandable and can inform policy makers. This is what we strive to do.

Just a year and a half ago, IPADS and ZEF have been forming a partnership. What are you looking forward to in the partnership between IPADS and ZEF?

The last time I visited Japan was about 6 years ago and I am very excited to visit again in March. It will also be my first time visiting the IPADS program.
Our careers, Okada-sensei and myself, has many parallels and I think that shared background has led to a similar mindset. I met Okada sensei in Nairobi and Tokyo while he was still working in JICA. Much like myself, he also jumped into international research, before recently shifting back into academia.
Our great ambition is to turn into a dual degree course. While the current environment, between University of Bonn and University of Tokyo, is very supportive of this partnership, developing that will be a marathon. I would like to see more of these things that we have already been doing, the lecturer exchange, the student exchange, this symposium in order to continue to forge this bond.

So I just finished up with this two month interdisciplinary Ph.D. course. What did you want students to take away from the 2 month course?

Get a broad and diverse exposure to things that they might not touch upon in their Ph.D. studies. It’s an extra and hopefully, an eye opener. It has some effect on how you approach your research thereafter. You may feel like you don’t need this, but knowing it, might change your mindset.
And the exchange! The course is one thing. The peer-to-peer exchange is far more important. It’s being exposed to not different nationalities but different biographies. Diversity has enriched my life tremendously and I hope it does the same for the students here.

I definitely saw this in my experience here. The international environment here is different than other places I’ve been to.

Thank you! I feel the same [about ZEF]. It is less about assimilation and more on diversity. I love it.

As a final note, do you have advice for young researchers trying to navigate through their career?

My advice could probably be found on page three of some cheesy newspaper. [Laughs] Follow your heart. If you find something that interests you and fascinates you, go for it. Never get carried away by career and economic considerations, you find something that you like and you will excel in it. And then bingo.

Thanks for reading! Be sure to attend the upcoming symposium to meet Professor Borgemeister, the endlessly friendly, enthusiastic, and intelligent, Director of ZEF.

Mariko Nakamura, Graduate of IPADS 2015 September Entry.

          ➡ Mariko’s story