What is your scientific background?
Being a biologist by training, I generally focus on behavioral research in primates, especially with regard to the ecological and evolutionary backgrounds for behavior. Therefore, I studied a range of primates – the Sahamalaza sportive lemur, cotton-top tamarins, yellow-breasted capuchins, humans – in their natural habitat as well as in zoos (non-human primates) or in laboratory settings (humans). Topics I studied include ecological preferences, social systems, social behavior, non-verbal communication, vocalization, habitat preferences, anti-predator behavior, the impact of habitat destruction on behavior, stress and its impact on Self-touch movements, as well as neurological background for non-verbal behavior.
Why did you choose to become a scientist? How did you choose your field of study?
Working with animals, understanding their behavior, and conserving their natural habitat have been on my mind really early. I always had lots of different pets, and my parents loved to watch nature documentaries with me. It was always clear to me that I had to study biology, especially with focus on conservation and behavioral research, and that’s what I did. While I was studying biology at the University of Cologne, I had the opportunity to study cotton-top tamarins and later yellow-breasted capuchins at the Cologne zoo. Finally, I got the chance to observe primates in their natural habitat – a life-goal coming true – when I was offered a Ph.D. position to help research a newly described sportive lemur species in Madagascar. Though I loved doing fieldwork, I was happy to follow another scientific interest of mine – comparative behavioral research – when accepting the position as a behavioral scientist at the German Sports University Cologne.
What are your biggest achievements, and what your biggest failures?
Work wise, I am most proud of the results of my Ph.D. studies about influences of habitat degradation on ecology and behavior of a recently described Lepilemur species. I published seven papers, covering social behavior, vocalization, sleeping site and home range choice, anti-predator behavior as well as habitat descriptions, in scientific journals. I published reports about the problems of conservation work in the study area and informed the local government about this (with very little outcome). And finally, I was invited to take part in the IUCN/ SSC Lemur Red Listing and Conservation Planning Workshop and contributed an action plan to maintain the few remaining forest in Sahamalaza to the resulting Lemur Action Plan. By now, so many donations were made that some of the measures developed can be financed. Being part of such an important project, and being able to change something, definitely is the best part of this work.
More personally, in retrospective, I am proud that I obtained a Ph.D., though I do not originate from an academic family that was able to help me (besides emotional support) on this path. It never occurred to me as a big problem, especially because we do not have huge study fees in Germany. Still, the statistics clearly show that only a few children from non-academic families gain an academic degree, for various reasons, and it would surely have been easier if I have had someone with a similar background and experiences giving me advice. I remember starting to study and daydreaming about finally having a Ph.D.. Nonetheless, this did not seem to be realistic option – it was so far from anything I knew. I’m still sometimes really surprised that I actually hold a Ph.D. now, and that it was not as hard as I thought it had to be.
Failures are all the grants I did not receive, jobs I applied for that I did not get, and the rounds of revisions for papers I (finally) published. Though this is a daily routine for a scientist, it still feels like a failure.
What are the hardest parts related to your work?
The best and the worse memories take me back to the fieldwork in Madagascar. Besides the very basic conditions (sleeping in a tent, bathing in a river, eating rice three times a day, no telephone/internet, far off from hospitals), my team and me regularly had to stop bush and forest fires. In addition to the habitat degradation, we saw evidence of poaching relatively often, and once even disturbed locals who were in the middle of cooking a female sportive lemur, which was hanging from its feet above a little fire. We immediately informed the authorities and hoped that they could and would take action, but nothing ever happened. This was extremely frustrating, as we were all there to save this species and felt extremely helpless observing this species moving closer to extinction day by day.
Besides the challenges of fieldwork, the most difficult part of working in science is the constant financial insecurity. Besides professors, nearly no scientific position is permanent, and scientists often are employed for projects lasting 1 to 3 years. Furthermore, universities often only pay for part-time positions – but it is often expected that you work full time, as you love being a scientist (and you really want that follow-up contract). Usually, it is not clear if the university gives you that follow-up contract in good time before your contract ends. If you are not able to gain a research grant in time, you do not stand a chance to get a follow-up contract. So, overall, though I love doing scientific work, I think that the terms of employment in science are often bad and urgently need to change. A lot of great scientists are forced to leave universities to avoid a financial insecure situation, and we as a society lose their qualifications, and all the potentially important contributions to science they could have made if only they would have been paid adequately for their great work.
Did you ever doubt your abilities as a scientist? Why? How did you handle these situations/feelings?
Of course, I did! Especially in the early stages of my career, I often had the strange feeling that I am only acting to be a scientist and that at some point someone will figure out that I am worse than everybody else at science. Well, that never happened, and finally, I figured out that I am actually quite good at what I am doing. But it took me some time to see that. When talking to fellow researchers later on about that feeling, I found that most of them felt the same – but, like me, never talked about their self-doubts. That is part of the problem – we only talk about our successes, not about the failures or self-doubts we experience along the way.
During your career, have you been specifically mentored or supported by someone?
I was really lucky with my supervisors in my early career. I started studying social relationships in different primates at Cologne Zoo, and finally wrote my dissertation about social relationships in yellow-breasted capuchins in comparison to tufted capuchins. The curator of mammals at Cologne Zoo, Dr. Werner Kaumanns, being primatologist himself, recognized my love for behavioural studies in primates and invested a lot of time to supervise and mentor me. Most important, he always took my ideas seriously and treated me like a fellow scientist. At that time I also met one of my future Ph.D. supervisors, who offered me the Ph.D. position after my former supervisor suggested me for the job.
I was then equally lucky with my Ph.D. supervisors. My Ph.D. was conducted in collaboration between Bristol Zoological Society and the University of Bristol, so I had two fantastic supervisors, Dr. Christoph Schwitzer and Dr. Marc W. Holderied. Both valued my research suggestions and let me realize my own ideas, and were available for help whenever I needed it. They advised me where needed, but always took me serious as a scientist, and also highlighted whenever they thought I was doing a good job. That motivated me a lot and made me believe in myself, and my abilities as a scientist.
If you were completely free to choose a scientific topic to work on, which would it be?
Most interesting for me are all sorts of comparative research with an evolutionary background in the comparison between primates (including humans). Cognitive abilities, but most preferably behaviour related to emotions and moral behaviour – I am a big fan of the work of Frans de Waal, and think it is important for conservation efforts to make humans see the close (physiological as well as psychological) relatedness between us and other primates (and further animals). In a similar line, I really would like to study the most effective way to motivate people to change their behaviour towards a more sustainable lifestyle, as this occurs to me as the most important factor in conserving this planet and the precious species living on it, including our own species.
Besides your scientific interests, what are your personal interests?
My main passion is traveling and getting to know other cultures. A life aim of mine is to travel every country in the world – though I’m afraid I’ll probably never be able to get done with that completely, but I’ll try! When I am not traveling, I love going hiking with my friends on the weekends, and try to do a lot of different sports to compensate for the physically not very demanding scientific work (excluding times in the field here!) and to clear my mind before/after work.
I am quite obsessed with learning new things, and love connecting with people of other fields of knowledge, and chatting about all sorts of scientific, political or social topics. Furthermore, I am a big fan of MOOCs (free online university courses) and usually make use of platforms like EdX or Coursera to take courses about a range of topics of interest to me.
Related to my conservation work, I am engaged in sustainability in everyday life. I try to reduce my own footprint, e.g. by eating no meat, and dairy products or eggs only occasionally, buying clothes mainly second hand, reducing plastic waste and similar. Furthermore, I am founding member of the Green Office Initiative Cologne, which is committed to setting up offices for integrative sustainability at universities. The long-term goal of this project is to integrate the topic of sustainability in teaching, research and university operations, and to find long-term solutions for the ecological, social and economic problems of our time.
If you had the option to give advice to a younger version of yourself, what would that be?
First of all: Trust in yourself and believe in your abilities. I wish I would have been aware of how important it is to connect to companies/ organisations very early – thus I would advise a younger me to start with internships and honorary work already during undergraduate studies. And: Connect to all sorts of people. Do not be shy to contact people whose work you find inspiring.
If you want to know more about the work of Melanie Seiler, find her on research gate, or contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.