Countries: Netherlands

Clarissa Rios Rojas

Clarissa Rios Rojas
Molecular biologist, policymaking advisor

Scientist who after finishing her bachelor in Biology in Peru (UNMSM) decided to look for new avenues of professional development. She did exchange studies in Finland at the University of Turku, got her master in Biomedicine at Karolinska Institutet University in Sweden, worked in a pharmaceutical company in Germany and later got a PhD in Molecular Biology in Australia at the University of Queensland.

While finishing the PhD, she started to feel the urge to contribute to the world with something else than only her scientific work at the laboratory. This feeling pushed her to create an organization called Ekpa’palek that empowers Latin-American young professionals through different free mentorship programs that align with the Sustainable Development Goals of reduction of inequalities, gender equality and education.

Encouraged by the impact these programs had on young professionals, she discovered the need for creating new local, regional, and international policies that could help to tackle global issues. Motivated by this, she applied and was selected to participate in numerous events (international conferences, forums, and workshops) in science policy, citizen engagement in policy relevant to science & innovation, science diplomacy, open science & education, science outreach and global governance in different countries (Argentina, Jordan, Bosnia & Herzegovina, Canada, India, Chile, Germany, Thailand and Morocco).

In 2017, she worked at the Agency for Environmental Assessment and Enforcement (OEFA) from the Ministry of Environment in Peru and since May 2018, she works at the EU Science Hub, also known as the Joint Research Center from the European Commission’s science and knowledge service where she provides scientific advice and support to EU policy. Also, as a member of the Global Young Academy, she works on initiatives related to science outreach, women empowerment and science advise.

Empowering Latinos and filling the gap between science and society

What is the social purpose of science today? How are ethics and research linked in the modern world? What are the policies that keep scientific and social paths going in the same direction? Clarissa Rios answers these questions from her position as a molecular Biologist and policy maker at the European Commission, deriving from her experience in both the social and scientific aspects of research the core values of the purpose of science in favor of the smaller communities.

Founder of Ekpa’palek, an organization destined to offer academic help to Latin American students who want to broaden their horizons and stock up on the experience and advice from other professionals before entering their own fields, Clarissa expands on the need for science to hold a truly useful track of investment to help indigenous communities and developing countries through scientific research and the encouragement of young professionals to assist in these projects. The values of growth and development through inclusion and action make Ekpa’palek a unique vision for the young professionals who will contribute to wholesome communities, richer societies and a brighter future.

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Read the transcript of Clarissa Rios Rojas's Video here

Nerina: Thank you, Clarissa, for joining me. Could you please introduce yourself?

Clarissa Rios: I am Clarissa Ríos Rojas, form Peru. I am a molecular biologist, and now I’m working in the interface of science and policy making, the European Commission in Italy and also, I’m the founder and director of Ekpa’palek, which is an organization that empowers Latin-American professionals.

Nerina: Could you tell us a little bit more about your position and your work right now?

Clarissa Rios: My project right now at the European Commission is to write recommendations for citizen engagement initiatives in the topic of social and ethical aspects of emerging technology, in this case, genomics and gene editing, and so on. So, for what I have found on my research so far, is that technology goes faster than policies, and sometimes it’s really hard to keep track of everything that is happening, and to implement the laws and the policies that need to be implemented in order to regulate science, as well.

So science, as we now, is research and innovation, but sometimes it goes to the next steps and becomes a start-up or a company that offers services that can be used for different reasons and by different types of people. I have seen right now that there are, for example, genetic testing companies offering a lot of ancestry testing and health testing, so it would be good to know who’s regulating these companies; are really experts the ones who are providing the information about your genes? What happens with your DNA once it is stored in their company? Is it in store forever or is it sold to another company? Can they trace it was your DNA?

These are things that are happening right now, and people don’t really know much about it. For example, genomics is also working at the interface with blockchain, so now we are having cryptocurrecy that is based on selling your DNA data, so what does that represent for business and society? Again, we have those ethical questions, but does it really help big companies to have more genetic data to have a better analysis of which diseases can come from different types of genes? There are many things that have to be evaluated, but it’s important to citizens to know what is happening, where it’s happening, and what is going to happen in their society if they accept it, or if they are consumers or become users of it.

Nerina: Why did you decide to take this new challenge?

Clarissa: I think that the in the European Commission, the Joined Research Center is the best place to learn about how scientists can contribute to society in terms of policy making, so I thought that this would be the best place to work and learn and contribute to, and I hope that this will be one of the first steps into a career and to a lot of work; I hope to use science-based evidence to create policies and help policy makers to better understand not only the citizens, but also the science behind every decision.

Nerina: Why is this relevant?

Clarissa: I think that the biggest problem that I see right now is that scientists are doing science just because; just because of curiosity and I now that’s a main drive that many of us had to become scientists, but I think we need to build places or spaces where we as scientists can speak with citizens. We can understand what are their needs, because I have seen during my time as a scientist that there are many projects that really don’t have any implications in solving anything at the moment; it’s just knowledge that is being generated with the hope that in the future is going to be used.

We can relocate not only the money, but the human capital, the PhD students that are being put into these projects, into something that society really needs. I think that we should have a priority table and see what the problems to see how we can fix the first hundred, instead of having fifty thousand projects and giving money to all of them and keep going.

I think that basic research is important, but I also think that basic research should be always tailored into fixing something, or producing some kind of technology. Without that, I think trust in science will never be achievable because citizens see this, citizens see their taxes are being used in projects that may never be published, that cannot be replicated, or that are not helping anything in their communities and local problems, and that just one side.

I also see that there is a problem with citizens not learning or trying to have some curiosity about science. I think they could interact more with scientists, see what they are doing, visit open days at universities, see where taxes are being used and have an opinion about it and learn from scientists, what they are producing, how they’re doing and use this scientific knowledge in order to make better decisions on the government they’re going to choose, about the political party they are going to vote for, what is this political party focusing on. Is it correct? Is it based on science, which is the most trustful thing that se have at the moment? Of course, it has its pitfalls, but it’s the best thing that we can work with.

The citizens should also think on how to improve science. If they don’t have faith in science, then tell us how we can improve it, how can science and society and citizens work together in order to make science better , achievable for everyone, and open in a way that everyone can understand it, and use it for the best of society and the environment, because sometimes we are just super anthropocentric and thinking about humans, but we are responsible, whether we want it or not, for all the species that are around us, and the ecosystems and the habitats we have, so I think that we should take our citizens’ role a little bit more responsibly.

Nerina: What would you suggest?

Clarissa: I think that’s why I was mentioning before that we should have these spaces where scientists can talk to other scientists, for example, about social science, as I talk about the ethics. I know that during university we have courses on ethics – animal ethics and human ethics -, but I think that we should have also courses with politics in science. Have courses where we bring politicians and scientist to understand how we’re both working together and making things better.

Other courses could be about scientists and citizens, and scientists and society, and create debate between them, answering questions form both sides, and trying to think how we can work together, because as you said, the theory of science in great, but who is doing the science? Us humans, with our imperfections, with our sometimes poor equipment, and with the limited knowledge that we have. I think it’s very important for scientists and citizens to acknowledge that scientists are not perfect; they are humans and make mistakes, and also the equipment and machines that they use make mistakes from time to time, but then having that as a premise to figure what we can do based on that, and then is when all these interactions with all the different groups take place, and then all three groups together can think about how science can be better, how can it have less errors and less mistakes, and how to bring all the traditional knowledge into it, as well as the ethics and the social aspects.

Sometimes we think that the problem has to be fixed by only one expert. That, for example, climate change has to be fixed by an environmentalist or a biologist, when in reality, problems are fixed by everyone. By economists, lawyers, citizens, biologists; it has to be fixed by everyone, because otherwise we are not creating a solution, we are just fixing a little patch, not the whole picture.

Nerina: You just mentioned traditional knowledge, and this is something that very often comes up when speaking with you. Why this interest in aboriginal culture?

Clarissa: Yes, well, my dad is from the jungle. Of course, he is part of an aboriginal community, but I guess that was my first encounter with aboriginal tribes and with people who are part that whole society. Also, when I was working with one of the agencies in the Ministry of Environment in Peru, one part of my job was to try to understand the narratives and how to bring the projects that the government had for these communities, how to make them learn, and how to learn from them what were their needs and priorities, and I think that all these encounters made me realize that they are not heard enough, their voices are not shared enough, their needs and their priorities are not communicated, and sometimes, with friends, I’ve heard them say things like “No, they should evolve like us, like the city people”, and I’ve been hurt by those comments, because I feel like our opinions are too superficial always, not just in these topic, but in many. It’s just something that has not has been thought through, you have not had an encounter with them, so how come you have a conscious and educated opinion about that?

For example, Ekpa’palek is a way to promote indigenous languages. Ekpa’palek comes from the Shiwilu language, form the Amazon in Peru, and it means to teach a little kid to take his first steps. Trying to translate everything in our programs on indigenous communities is a way to make it more accessible.

Nerina: You are the founder of Ekpa’palek. Can you tell us more about this organization?

Clarissa: We are an organization of around 45 to 50 people, and what we do is to offer programs for free to any Latinamerican students that want it. One of them is the professional mentorship, so we connect the students with professionals that are a little bit advanced in their careers so they can guide them, they can talk, they can tell them how to gain certain scholarships, but also about what’s out there. If I am a psychologist, if I am an economist, I want to know what’s happening in Australia, what’s happening in China, so that person can get inside information, so students in Latinamerica can shape their minds thinking about what’s next, and they should be studying now, or working on, or doing an internship with.

The second program is women empowerment. The first year, we were bringing new women from all over to schools; we had five professional women bringing their stories, bringing their pitfalls, the experiences they had been through and how they got where they are now. That worked for one year and then we had to stop it, so now we are focusing more on campaigns on line; we are doing the same, showing new women role models but in a visual way. We have engineers, economists, from different parts of the world that are Latinamerican women, and then they send a three minute video telling how they are there and why they decided on that career.

The third program will be the empowerment of indigenous languages, so basically we want our programs to reach everyone. We have started translating the articles on our blog into Quechua, which is a language that is spoken in Peru and Bolivia, and it’s a official language in Peru as well. Also, we have tree videos in Quechua, as well; we had one of our mentors make theses videos, telling how he went from a little town in the highlands of Peru to do his Master in France, and to study in Lima, Peru, as well. We are trying to promote translating everything that we are producing into different languages, not only Quechua.

Nerina: What motivated you to start this organization?

Clarissa: Well, because when I started my professional path, I was a bachelor student that really wanted to learn and to go more from theory to practice, and that was something that was not happening in Peru in terms of molecular biology. I think my motivation was to learn more, and I could do it with scholarships and people helping me take the next steps, as you mentioned, and then after ten years of doing my master and my PhD I realized that I was not the only one, and that the case that I had ten years ago where I didn’t have money to pursue studies, I didn’t have connections to create opportunities in professional development were still existing in Latin America, and we were at a disadvantage with the rest of the world.

So I thought about what I could do with this tools that I had gathered over the years, and one of them was my network. So I think it was really personal, because it was not that I was trying to fix something that happens somewhere else to some other people, but I was trying to help someone like me at this moment, someone who didn’t have opportunities, didn’t have the network, didn’t have ideas, or someone from outside to talk to and just get inspired.

Nerina: How did you become what you are now?

Clarissa: I studied Biology and Genetics in Peru; I was very interested and curious about science. Then I went to Finland for exchange studies, and I did a Master in Biomedicine and Neuroscience, which I was also completely in love with, specifying different types of neurons in the brain, and then I decided to move to Australia to do my PhD in sex development; how the sperm cells and the egg cells develop.

When I was finishing my PhD was when I decided to create Ekpa’palek, this organization that empowers Latinamerican professionals. And then, looking at the results and the people that we were helping, I started to realize that a nes passion was growing inside myself, and then I decided to leave the lab where I was doing experiments and start to communicate with citizens and policy makers and start to find a way where I could use my scientific background and I could help society in a different way, and that way is creating better policies for everyone. Now it’s in the European Union, but later I hope it will be in Latinamerica and in Peru.

Nerina: What is the most important lesson that you have learned?

Clarissa: I started this project thinking that I would help many people, but I’m being helped as well. I’m learning so much, I’m meeting so many people, we are doing so many nice projects outside Ekpa’palek as well. This has also motivated me to change my career; as I said, I was working in the lab as a scientist, and the Ekpa’palek happened, and then I started to pursue new paths within myself that make me happy, so what I would recommend to anyone is that if you always think that there is a problem and you want to fix it, try to do it with one friend, and it may grow and it may not, but you have the satisfaction to learn from it.

Nerina: What is your vision for Ekpa’palek?

Clarissa: When I created Ekpa’palek, it was only for Latinamericans, but in my wild dreams we have Ekpa’palek Asia and Ekpa’palek Africa interacting with each other. But that is also based on the idea of the «brain drain» – I think that’s what they call it in English -, when professionals and all the talent goes from the south to the north and then never go back, or just a few of them. So I thought it would be very interesting to have a blog of developing countries in the south, exchanging professionals, exchanging knowledge, exchanging what we already know how to do best, and empower each other, because the south also need to keep growing, to keep learning, and it would be really good to create these alliances between universities, student associations, and governments, and think about what are the good things and benefits that can come from it.

Of course, going to the north and having the technology to learn is really good, but I think the next step on that path could be to start doing these collaborations.

Nerina: Is there something you believe we should think more about?

Clarissa: I would just like to point out that we are creating so much technology, and these technologies are mostly created in developed countries, and are mostly created to fix and find solutions for local problems, so that means that the problem that, for example, indigenous communities have will never be solved by the technology that we are creating now, and I think they would benefit so much from that.

Sometimes we are talking about gene editing and blockchain, and how does that benefit indigenous communities? They are people who also have struggles and many local problems that they would like to solve; how good would it be if used these technologies to find solutions for those problems as well? So that would be my contribution, to make people think about technology is being biased towards certain problems, certain “local” problems, and not really towards developing countries and indigenous communities.

Nerina: And what is the relation between science and traditional knowledge, in your opinion?

Clarissa: It has always been known about, this traditional knowledge. Sometimes it is treated with respect, and sometimes it’s treated like it’s not science. It’s very curious that you ask me this, because in my group, one of the projects is about mapping arctic communities, so they are mapping every community that is Finland, Norway, Iceland, U.S, Canada, and besides doing the mapping, they are gathering the information that they have in the terms of climate change. They’re voices about climate change and how that’s impacting them in the first place because they are close to the first places where the impact is being observed, and what they have to say about.

I think that nowadays it is taken more seriously, and I’m glad to see that the European Commission, for example, is also taking them seriously and writing reports about it, having their voices heard and their opinions shared with policy makers and with people in the European Union.

I’ve seen this happening in Europe, but I have not seen it in Latinamerica. However, when I was working at the agency of the Ministry of Environment, I could see that the interaction between the experts, the biologists, the chemists was really open when they were informing them about what was happening, I think the efforts are becoming more and more important, and in order to listen from them as well, not just coming and giving a lecture about what is going to happen and what they need to know, but also empowering them in teaching them how to use equipment to measure pollution, how to analyze data so they can have their own data analyzed. Also, I heard that in Bolivia, if you want to be part of the government, you have to speak one of the indigenous languages, and I think that’s important, because, for example, for these types of jobs you can speak in Spanish and then you have a translator, but how would it be if you could speak to them in Quechua, in Aymara, and hear them, so they also feel more comfortable in sharing their ideas in their own language.

I think languages are a very powerful thing. I am going to learn more about different types of languages because I think that is the way to really go into a deeper connection with someone, especially if you’re working in this field, and understand what they want to see in their environment, what they want to contribute to the government, for example, in terms of analyzing the data, letting them know when they see a case of contamination, on the river, on the cause, etc.

Nerina: Do you have a wish or a dream?

Clarissa: Yes. I really dream sometimes that there is a society that is respectful of everyone, but more than anything, they have empathy. Everyone in this society has empathy that makes them really feel how the other person would feel in every situation, not only in how we interact as friends, but in different geographical parts. How these people may feel in different social classes; how these people must feel, what can I do to help this person. I think empathy should be the key factor in this society that I envision.

I think the society that I dream of in one where there is the feeling of connection and belonging with every single part of this habitat; not only humans, but plants, insects, birds, the rivers – I mean, the water we drink comes from the river -, so I think that connection is missing sometimes. We don’t feel like we belong or that we are part of something bigger that needs us to take care of it and to contribute to keep it going in a healthy way, so I think if that could be spread into all citizens and make them feel responsible for each other, for other species, for the soil, for the river, for the climate, it would be my second wish. That feeling of belonging and connection.

Nerina: What was the most beautiful day, and what was the mist awful one?

Clarissa: I think the most beautiful day for me is just being with my family having lunch together. It is something that I haven’t had for many years as a daily thing. I did a little bit when I finished my PhD; I could go back and leave again for six months back in Peru with my family, so I think my most warm and beautiful feeling is to have just that: my mom, my dad, my brother, now my partner as well. Laughing, talking about what happened during the day, maybe complaining about something that happened at university or at our jobs, just sharing and being together in a peaceful, quiet place.

Maybe the most horrible moment has been when sometimes I feel that I’m in a place where there is just too much horror, too much darkness, that all the good things really don’t compensate for the bad things, and that it’s not a nice world. Sometimes I feel like this world is the hell of someone else, or is the imagination of how hell should be, because I see so many awful things, so much suffering, even though I’m not experiencing it myself. I’m not a someone that has been a sex slave, or someone that has been raped, or someone who wakes up with bombs ten meters from them, but I still feel like it could be me, I feel people don’t deserve to grow in an environment like that; they didn’t ask to be born in this world.

I think those have been the hardest moments in my life; just to be overwhelmed by sorrow, by sadness, and to think that there is really nothing that we can do to change it, I’ve had those times as well. I think activists are always in that twilight, where you think that everything can get better if you do something, but you’re also on the other side where you think that everything is horrible and terrible and too much to take in.

Nerina: And what brings you up?

Clarissa: What brings me up is to see people doing amazing things. Because I’m doing Ekpa’palek, for example, I’m in touch with different organizations and meet people that are always doing something, and I see them and I think that there is hope.

There are a lot of amazing people doing things for animals, for the environment, for other humans, and I thin, Yes, things can change. At some point.

Nerina: What is life about, Clarissa?

Clarissa: I think life is about learning, experiencing all the feelings; sadness is part of and part of what we are as humans. I think we should be grateful that we can experience it, although it’s not a nice thing, but sometimes good things come out of it. Sometimes, not always.

It’s about meeting other people; trying to be, as Maya Angelou said, a rainbow in someone else’s cloud, and just to try and make other people happy, because sometimes you’re sad and the other can make you happy. Sometime the other person is sad and you can make them happy.

It’s just about trying to enjoy what we have. Talking as a biologist, we have theses fabulous senses of touch, smelling, seeing. It’s enjoying theses things that we can give ourselves. About learning more about what’s happening in all parts of the world, to see documentaries about the life of animals and how they interact; it’s absolutely beautiful.

I think those are pleasures that even if you cannot travel, you can see it and sort of experience it from afar, and I those are the things that bring me happiness and joy, besides being with my family and friends, and also things like reading books and entering the mind of someone else that you never met but they wrote a book and let you go inside their minds for a little bit and have a taste of it. Like music; humans make music and it’s beautiful, so I think that if we focus on those things, that is what life is, or what life should be.

Nerina: Thank you so much, Clarissa, for this conversation.

Clarissa: Thank you, Nerina.

Nerina: And thank you for listening, thank you for watching and thank you for sharing. Keep wondering and see you next time again. Goodbye and ciao.


Scientist who after finishing her bachelor in Biology in Peru (UNMSM) decided to look for new avenues of professional development. She did exchange studies in Finland at the University of Turku, got her master in Biomedicine at Karolinska Institutet University in Sweden, worked in a pharmaceutical company in Germany and later got a PhD in Molecular Biology in Australia at the University of Queensland.

While finishing the PhD, she started to feel the urge to contribute to the world with something else than only her scientific work at the laboratory. This feeling pushed her to create an organization called Ekpa’palek that empowers Latin-American young professionals through different free mentorship programs that align with the Sustainable Development Goals of reduction of inequalities, gender equality and education.

Encouraged by the impact these programs had on young professionals, she discovered the need for creating new local, regional, and international policies that could help to tackle global issues. Motivated by this, she applied and was selected to participate in numerous events (international conferences, forums, and workshops) in science policy, citizen engagement in policy relevant to science & innovation, science diplomacy, open science & education, science outreach and global governance in different countries (Argentina, Jordan, Bosnia & Herzegovina, Canada, India, Chile, Germany, Thailand and Morocco).

In 2017, she worked at the Agency for Environmental Assessment and Enforcement (OEFA) from the Ministry of Environment in Peru and since May 2018, she works at the EU Science Hub, also known as the Joint Research Center from the European Commission’s science and knowledge service where she provides scientific advice and support to EU policy. Also, as a member of the Global Young Academy, she works on initiatives related to science outreach, women empowerment and science advise.

Lysanne Snijders

Lysanne Snijders
Postdoctoral researcher in animal behavior

Leibniz Institute of Freshwater Ecology and Inland Fisheries, Germany

Do birds have a personality?

Observing animal behaviour can tell us a lot about evolutional behaviour. It can also be an invaluable practical knowledge if you are working with farm animals. But, there is more to it than just raw data. Lysanne Snijders, from the Leibniz Institute of Freshwater Ecology and Inland Fisheries, has discovered something much more interesting. She’s found, that not only do birds have personalities, but that there are whole social networks between these animals. They love, they hate, they cheat, and they take care of each other.

Find out more about Lysanne’s search for the personality of animals in our new video.

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Listen to the Audiofile here:
Read the transcript of Lysanne Snijders's Video here

Lysanne: My name is Lysanne Snijders. I’m an academic researcher interested in Animal behavior. I’m very interested in animal social behavior and animal spatial behavior. I’ve been studying migration in geese and I just did my Ph.D. on the social networks of Great Tits or small song birds.

Nerina: Why are you so passionate about animal behavior?

Lysanne: Well, actually, I don’t really know. I’ve always been passionate about animal behavior. I really like observing animals. I think it broadens your world if you are aware of all the animals that always are around you and how they behave and why they behave the way they do. That’s why I also became a biologist because I was observing animals anyway, so I might as well make a profession out of it.

Nerina: Why is it relevant to know about animal behavior, in your opinion?

Lysanne: Well, there are several reasons. They can tell us more about the evolution of behavior in general, but also it can be very practical if you’re working with farm animals, to know what causes stress, what is the ideal social situation. It can be very relevant if you are working with threatened populations to know what are the risks, what is their behavior, how do they respond to stressors. But for me, it is relevant because I think we live with a lot of animals on this world and we’re often not even aware of them. And the  more you learn about them, themore you learn about their behavior, the more you realize that they’re actually not so different from us and that maybe in some cases, we should also treat them a bit different than we do now. That’s why for me, personally, studying animal behavior is very relevant.

Nerina: You work on birds, more specifically on Great Tits. How do you research them?

Lysanne: There are actually two main methods with Great Tits. For my Ph.D., I worked with captive Great Tits. We brought them in captivity and we keep them in aviaries so we can do behavioral experiments with them, but we also work with wild birds. We have a number of nest box populations. In the forest, we hang up a lot of nest boxes, like 200 of them. Great Tits really like to breed in nest boxes and also to sleep in nest boxes in the winter, so you can easily check on them. They put collar rings and aluminum rings on them so we can identify and we can keep track of the individuals. This way, we can study the behavior, spatial behavior and breeding behavior of these individuals in the wild also.

Nerina: This is also my question. Do birds have a personality?

Lysanne: Yes. Yeah, that has actually been a topic of my latest studies. A lot of animals, almost all species actually, has been discovered in recent years, that you really see differences between individuals of the same species. Individuals react differently to the same situation as other individuals do. If you put them in the same situation again, you will the same differences. For Great Tits, for instance, we use a number of environments tests. We place them in a new room, which is a bit of a stressful  situation and we study how they react to this stressful situation. We see that some individuals, will just go out and explore the whole room, being a bit adventurous, while others actually are quite a bit stressed and scared and they will just stay in one place and wait for the test to be over. That makes it very fascinating for me because you see these differences that you will also see with people if you put them in a stressful situation. Some are quite comfortable with stress and others just get sort of paralyzed by it.

Nerina: Your Ph.D. was about social networks of birds. Could you tell me more about it?

Lysanne: The interesting thing with looking at social networks, is that you’ll realize that a lot of these individuals, these birds, are connected to each other directly because they are just close to each other or indirectly because they’re singing to each other from far away. These Great Tits, for instance, they form monogamous pairs, so they form social pairs, that usually stay together for their life. It doesn’t mean that they don’t cheat… If you look at offspring, you will sometimes find that there are also some offsprings, some chicks that are not from the partner of the female. These are also interesting relationships going on. You don’t really see it.

Then with Great Tits, what’s also interesting is that in the spring and in the summer, they have these territories. They defend the territories also by singing. Both the male and the female defend it. They use this territory to raise their family. When the kids fledge, they will move around the territory and also further away exploring the area, but as soon as it gets cold, and it really gets really cold, they all go into flocks. Not only the Great Tits, also the Blue Tits will move in. They form one big group of birds and they will move around the forest and also in the gardens of people looking for food. They change their social behavior also depending on the time of the year.

Nerina: Why do birds sing?

Lysanne: That’s actually a very crucial question in animal behavior. There are two main answers that can both be true. One is to keep competitors at a distance. Especially in Great Tits it has been proven that if you remove the Great Tit from its territory but you keep playing the song of this Great Tits, it will take a long time before another bird takes over the territory. But if you do not do that, if you just keep silence, then really quickly, another bird will move in. They use the use to say, “Hey, I’m here. Keep away.” But also song is very important to attract females. There’s a lot of information in how birds sing. Sings that you can tell something about how the body condition of this bird is, how the quality is, how big the bird is and how much more energy it has, how much more vigorously it can sing, and females can use this information also to learn something about this potential partner and base their choice for mates also on this song.

Nerina: Can you recognize a bird from its personality?

Lysanne: Yes, for some you can really recognize from the behavior. For instance, in a nest box population with Great Tits, every year we do nest box checks to see how far they are with breeding, and then you will notice that for some birds, even if you’re just approaching the nest box, they cannot see you but they hear you, and you’ll already hear like a hissing sound and a lot of noise coming from the box, and then it’s a female trying to scare you away by… That was a different hypothesis, but maybe they’re pretending to be a snake, chasing away predators. Not all females do this. At some point, you’ll get to notice this box with this female again.

Nerina: What do we know about the relationship with each other?

Still a lot of research is being done. Until now, it has been very difficult to really track these bird every day or every minute of the day. Now we get new technology, really small little transmitters, and we can really track these birds and with whom they stay together. With Great Tits, it seems that they already, in their first winter – they get born at the end of spring – in the winter, they mate up so they don’t mate, but they get a partner in this winter flocks. They stay together and they try and raise their first broods. You will see, if it doesn’t work, then sometimes they will try and find a new partner, but if they succeed, they usually stay together. They will stay together throughout winter and throughout the summer. Just the whole year around.

Nerina: What does it mean that it doesn’t work? For people, I know what it means when it doesn’t work but what does it mean for two birds?

Lysanne: Colleagues of mine are really looking into that, like what is the value of compatibility, how important is that in birds. The problem is a bit when a male and a female are taking care of a nest, both individuals have an interest when the other would do more. If you can just do less and the other one does all the work, that’s good for you because you lose less energy and so your chicks will survive, but both individuals have this motivation for the other maybe to do less. At some point, if one of the individuals for instance really says, “Okay, you do all the work,” then at some point maybe the partner will say, “Okay, now I’ve had enough,” and goes away and tries to find a new partner. These kinds of mechanisms can cause that these birds just don’t work together. They cannot find a good balance in how much they both take care of the chicks. Then it can go wrong and they try to find a partner that matches better.

Nerina: Are we affecting their habitat?

Lysanne: Great Tits are a bit of an exception because they, until now, have been very well in adapting to the human environments. You see them a lot in your backyards, but a lot of studies also show that the birds breeding in the cities actually do worse than the birds in the forest. If you look at the long-term, it’s probably not a good thing. But then you also have that most birds, most animals, they cannot adapt or not so quickly as we are increasing our infrastructure in our cities. They are pushed more and more into little areas, especially if you look at the Meadow-Birds for instance. The smaller the areas, the more risks there will be because it will be much easier for predators to find them. They will not only have a reduced area to find food but also increased the likelihood of being caught, being killed. There’s this extra stress so you see for many animals, that their populations are declining. Especially what we build and what we consume is an important factor. For a lot of people who live in the cities, it feels so far away what is happening in the rain forest for instance, but everything you buy, all the ingredients that are in your products come from somewhere. It’s important to, even if you’re not living in the rain forest, that your behavior, your choices, have an important impact on the habitats of these animals.

Nerina: What was the most unexpected experience you have had, watching birds?

Lysanne: The most unexpected one and that was not so nice actually, was when we were doing the nest box checks. I was doing them for one of the first times. I came to a nest box and I opened it and there was a dead Blue Tits in there. Then I went to the next nest box and again, there was a dead Blue Tits in there. Then I learned that these nice Great Tits, my study species, can actually be quite mean, killing machines also. When they chose a nest box and then they find that another bird is inspecting this nest box, because a lot of birds are looking for a nesting place, I guess it turns red for their eyes and they just attack these birds in the nest box. Great Tits are quite strong. They are bigger and stronger than Blue Tits. These Blue Tits, they’ll lose and they will kill the birds. It’s not only that they’re really cute little social birds. They also have a little bit of a mean side.

Nerina: What is the most important lesson that you have learned from your Ph.D.?

Lysanne: Of course, before I started with my Ph.D., I didn’t know so much about animal personality yet. I actually found it a bit of a difficult topic. It sounded very subjective. In biology, they use the term anthropomorphism. Attributing human characteristics to animals. I felt a bit critical about it, but them working with these birds, doing these personality tests and following these birds year round, I really also just saw and was convinced that they are very different. This personality thing is really something real. I think that was the most important thing, what I learned from my Ph.D., that you really have distinct individual animals.

Nerina: What is next? What would you like to work on?

I think bats are one of these creatures that they are so many of them. One fifth of all the mammal species is actually a bat, and we know almost nothing about them. Especially compared to birds. From birds, we’ve learned quite a lot about their migration strategies and their ecology, and bats, we know very little. I want to investigate their migration strategy. Some bats, they stay in one place the whole year, while others make this really long distance flight with all these risks. So why do they do this? Then I’ll look at do they differ in their personalities also, do they differ in their social behavior, to learn more about these animals we know so little about, and to also share this information so we can better protect them in the future.

Nerina: What is the question nobody ever asked you but you wish they would?

Lysanne: About how we, as people, can take better care of our animals. How can we take their behavior into account, to improve their well-being? Yeah. How can we make people aware that we are not the only important species on this planet? I think that, for me, is a very important question. I think in science, we know a lot. Especially if you now look at this climate change debates, there’s at least 97% of scientists that say that this is really happening, this is really a problem, and still, there are people that just seem to think that it’s still up for debate. That it might not be happening. For me, it’s important to know how can scientists communicate better to the general audience and make our research clear. Not that it’s just another opinion, but it’s objective measurements about how the world is very likely to work. I think that’s not only for me but for many scientists, that’s a very important topic and important question. How can we bring our knowledge across and how can we have people really trust our findings and our results? What do we need? What does research need in order to be able to communicate better?

Nerina: What do we need? What does research need in order to be able to communicate better?

Lysanne: I think there needs to be, also for scientists, more opportunities and more positive reinforcement of them communicating with the public. At the moment, especially academic scientists, are mostly valued for the scientific publications they make and the grants they bring in, but not so much about how they communicate their knowledge to the general public, which is a bit weird for me because, in the end, it’s all about impact. We tend to measure impact by where you published your research, in which journal and how much it gets cited, just because it’s easy to measure; it’s quantitative. But this is not the only impact and certainly not the only important impact we can make. I think there should be much more positive reinforcement for scientists to tell their story and to bring this knowledge across. More stimulation, more positive reinforcements from higher up, the people who distribute the money, I think would be very valuable.

Nerina: Do you have a dream or a wish for the future?

Lysanne: My wish for the future would be what we already talked about a bit also, is that people really start recognizing that all these animals have individual personalities, and especially also regarding production animals like the chickens and the pigs and the cows, to really realize that these are all individuals with feelings, with stress, with emotions, especially with pigs, which are also very intelligent animals. They are equal or even more intelligent than dogs. That we just should not turn away because it’s easier not to think about it, but that we should really realize how we are treating them.

Nerina: Thank you so much for this conversation.

Lysanne: Yeah. Very nice. Thank you for these interesting questions.


Leibniz Institute of Freshwater Ecology and Inland Fisheries, Germany

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