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Women in science

February 11 is the International Day of Women and Girls in Science. The UN uses it to promote gender-equal access to careers in science. The Thünen Institute supports this cause. To promote gender equality and family-friendliness in the workplace, we have also been participating in the "audit berufundfamilie" since 2021.

On this page, female scientists and technicians at the Thünen Institute provide insights into their work. The examples are intended to encourage women to pursue a career in science, but not to hide the sometimes difficult working conditions.

On January 1, 2024, there were 1, 055 employees, 546 of them women. Of the 612 scientific employees, 275 are currently women.

Short protraits

Carolin Nodewald

Heads of finance department

Dr. Claudia Heidecke

The balance comes with enjoying your job and family.

Dr. Rattiya S. Lippe

Research is what I like to do.

Dr. Caroline Buchen-Tschiskale

Scientist and laboratory manager at the Thünen Institute of Climate-Smart Agriculture

Birgit Rönnpagel

Equal Opportunity Commissioner for more than 20 years

Dr. Nathalie Gottschalk

KIDA-Manager and family person

Babette Kania

First female driver at the Thünen Institute


Women in science - further portraits

The researcher at the Thünen Institute of Market Analysis lives on two continents.

Mavis Boimah has just spent a month with her family in Ghana. For the past three years, she has been living two lives: her professional life in Braunschweig at the Thünen Institute of Market Analysis and her family life in Ghana. In fact, she regularly commutes between Ghana, Germany and Senegal, which she visits regularly for the IMMPEX project, just like her home country. On the ground, she interviews poultry and dairy value chain actors and stakeholders, as well as consumers, with the goal of understanding the impact of dairy and poultry imports on developing countries. The data form the basis for advising, for example, the German Federal Ministry of Food and Agriculture on international trade policy.

"I've always wanted to make a bigger contribution to evidence-based policy solutions to the world's most pressing problems - climate change, sustainability and fairness in global agriculture. It's just a shame that my family doesn't live in Germany, too." Her husband and three children live in Accra, Ghana's capital city. Mavis Boimah studied agricultural economics there and then earned her doctorate. She sees her family for a month about every six months. Back in Braunschweig, she participates live in family life every day thanks to video chat.

Even though the goodbyes and long periods of separation are hard, she sees the positive: "I can pursue my dream job. And I appreciate the fair and clear structures in Germany. My path is also a valuable experience for the whole family." Despite the challenges, she can imagine continuing to work in Germany. "In the best case, as a family. It would be great if there was more support for raising families.

My advice to "Women Science": don't underestimate yourself! Build confidence, connect with other women in the field who you see as role models, and celebrate every milestone. Every contribution, no matter how small, is important to science. Balancing family life and career is difficult, but with good prioritization, you can find a good balance."

The forest adaptation expert knows how the trees are doing

When trees talk, they talk to Dr. Tanja Sanders: In the Brandenburg forest, there are trees that report daily to the scientist and her 17-member team at the Thünen Institute of Forest Ecosystems how they are doing. One of these trees even published its condition via Twitter for a while. Among other things, methods for electronic data transmission, but also remote sensing via drone and satellite, are being tested at the intensive measurement site in Britz.

Knowing how the forest is doing has become essential in times of climate change. Which tree species are adapting to the changes, and how quickly? Sanders, a geographer and sociologist, has been working on these kinds of questions about forest adaptation for her entire research life. Yet she actually wanted to go into development aid or to work for a newspaper. "I wanted to make a difference either way," she says. Then, however, the trees found her. After graduating, she moved to the United Kingdom to help set up a tree ring lab and begin her doctorate. Since 2011, she has been working at the Thünen Institute for Intensive Forest Monitoring, and since 2018 as the head of the Ecology and Forest Dynamics Unit.

Tanja Sanders has successfully made a career in science, although she has raised her two sons alone for stretches. She takes a critical view of the conditions for this: "Women are qualified enough, but working in science companies is uninteresting, too many business trips, too many evening appointments, too many things to keep in mind at the same time." Most family work still falls on mothers, he said. At the same time, women and careers are a difficult duo. "Women tick differently than men. They rarely actively position themselves for a leadership role," Sanders says. That's why she tries to make men aware not to overlook women and actively motivate them to make career leaps. That's why she also gets involved with young people, she says, imparting knowledge about her research to them, whether live on site or via video chat. Tanja Sanders wants to make a difference, still.

Part time deputy

For a long time, Dr. Janine Pelikan from the Institute of Market Analysis was the only deputy director in one of the 15 Thünen Institutes. For a few weeks now, she has had a colleague in Dr. Anja Kuenz at the Institute of Agricultural Technology. "I really enjoy the scientific work. And I enjoy being with my colleagues," says Janine Pelikan. But she emphasizes, "I also have a family that is a great support to me and provides a balance to the many challenges. It helps me to do a good job. Balancing my family and work is very important to me."

To ensure that the balance succeeds in everyday life, the family work is divided equally between the shoulders of father and mother. Her husband, also a scientist at the Thünen Institute, works part-time like Janine Pelikan. They both watch each other's backs so that, for example, business trips lasting several days are possible. "Of course, there is always a bit of time missing somewhere," says the agricultural economist, whose research area is international agricultural trade. Basically, she says, the good cooperation with Institute Director Dr. Martin Banse and with the team at the Institute of Market Analysis is important for her work. More women than men work there, and overall there is a great diversity in terms of age structure and nationalities among the employees. "This diversity enriches the work and promotes understanding for a wide variety of lifestyles," says Pelikan.

Before Janine Pelikan came to what is now the Thünen Institute in 2004, she studied agricultural sciences in Kiel and environmental economics for one semester in Norway, and earned her doctorate in Giessen. While she was still working on her doctorate, the then director of the institute and current president of the Leibniz Association, Prof. Dr. Martina Brockmeier, offered her a permanent position. For Janine Pelikan, her former boss is still an important role model today.

Work group leader in a man's world

Her path as a scientist opened up on a Portuguese fishing boat: "On the trips, I understood what it meant to make a living from fishing," says Dr. Sarah Simons. During her master's thesis at NOAA's renowned Northeast Fisheries Science Center in the U.S., she worked on bycatch avoidance in fisheries. After two and a half years abroad, she finally returned to Germany and became one of the first doctoral students at the Thünen Institute of Sea Fisheries. The result of her PhD was an innovative modeling approach that is currently being applied in international bodies for climate change impact assessment and future management measures. Since 2020, she has been a working group leader at the Institute of Sea Fisheries, primarily responsible for economic and social analyses in the fishing industry. "Finding topics that could become relevant and also doing application-oriented research - that's just my thing," says the scientist.

The start as a manager was anything but easy: Sarah Simons took over the position during the Corona pandemic and after her second parental leave. Individual coaching, flexible working hours, home office and consistent division of labor at home help her master the task. "As a mother of young children who works full time, I am an exotic in the neighborhood. And so is my husband, because we share the family chores fifty-fifty," she says with a laugh.

Her working group has grown quickly - the need to make the fisheries sector sustainable and bring environmentally friendly solutions into practice is greater than ever. "I'm proud to lead such a diverse team. We are 13 bright minds from young to experienced, men and women from diverse disciplines, from biology to social science," reports Sarah Simons. When she is deputized, she likes to rotate the deputies. That way, everyone takes responsibility for the working group and everyone has the same level of knowledge. She says she learned this from the U.S., where young people have much more equal rights in the scientific community than in Germany. Her motivation behind all this: "I want to create a fairer system.

Expertin für globale Rindfleischproduktion und Sprachtalent

Sie beherrscht vier Fremdsprachen, davon zwei fließend. „Der Blick über den Tellerrand hat mich immer gereizt“ erzählt Katrin Agethen. Reisen und landwirtschaftliche Prozesse seien schon seit ihrer Kindheit auf einem Hof in Ostwestfalen ihre Leidenschaften gewesen. Während des Studiums und in der ersten Anstellung ergreift sie daher immer wieder die Chance, ins Ausland zu gehen. Aufenthalte in Frankreich und Brasilien festigen den Wunsch, ihr internationales Netzwerk auszubauen und sich noch gezielter in der globalen Agrarforschung einzusetzen.

Dieser Wunsch bringt sie 2018 ans Thünen-Institut für Betriebswirtschaft. Zunächst geht die Doktorandin auf einer Projektstelle der Forschungsfrage nach, wie weltweite Rindfleischproduktion im Angesicht aktueller Klimafragen und politischer Anforderungen funktionieren kann. Seit 2020 erforscht sie diese Fragen auf einer Planstelle.

Beruflich und privat beginnt mit dem Einstieg am Thünen-Institut eine ereignisreiche Zeit für die junge Wissenschaftlerin. Das Reisen zu Konferenzen und Auslandsaufenthalte sind Teil ihrer Arbeit und damit auch Teil ihres Lebens. Zu diesem gehört inzwischen auch ein Kind. Funktioniert es, internationale Forschung und Familie zu vereinen? Diese Frage habe sie sich nie gestellt. „Ich habe neue Prioritäten gesetzt und eine Balance gefunden. Wichtig ist, zu wissen, was man will und dann findet sich auch ein Weg!“ Neue Aufgaben mit Personalverantwortung im Institut zählen zu den jüngsten, willkommenen Herausforderungen für Katrin Agethen.

Baum-Forscherin, Holzdetektivin und Vertrauensfrau am Standort Großhansdorf

Aus welchem Holz ist das gemacht? Diese Frage kann Dr. Céline Blanc-Jolivet beantworten. Wie eine Detektivin ermittelt sie die Herkunft von Hölzern per DNA-Test im Labor. Neben dieser praktischen Seite erforscht sie am Thünen-Institut für Forstgenetik in zahlreichen Projekten wie z.B. ForGer, zur Erhaltung genetischer Ressourcen von Bäumen als wichtigen Faktor der Klimaanpassung. Ständige Neuerungen der Methoden und das Füttern großer Datenbanken brauchen Zeit und einen guten Überblick.

Den muss sie auch zu Hause behalten – dort managt sie ihre fünfköpfige Familie. Für Céline Blanc-Jolivet stand immer fest: „Ich möchte Wissenschaftlerin und für meine Kinder da sein“. Um bei ihren Projekten den Anschluss zu behalten, hat sie deshalb ihr erstes Kind kurzerhand mit ins Büro genommen. „Das war für alle neu und ein ungewohnter Zustand. Aber ich konnte damit zeigen, dass Mutter sein und Forschung betreiben funktioniert!“ Solche Beispiele zu geben und damit auch Kolleginnen neue Wege zu ebnen, ist ihr ein Anliegen. Deshalb hat sie sich auch als Vertrauensfrau am Standort Großhansdorf gemeldet. Flexiblere Elternzeitvorgaben, bessere Home-Office-Möglichkeiten und einen größeren Vertrauensvorschuss formuliert sie als Ziele für Wissenschaftlerinnen mit Kindern. „Durch Corona haben sich Home-Office-Optionen zwar verbessert, aber es muss noch viel passieren, bis eine Vita wie meine als selbstverständlich angesehen wird.“

Céline Blanc-Jolivet kommt aus Fontainebleau nahe Paris und hat in Montpellier Agrarwissenschaften studiert. Ihren Doktor mit den Schwerpunkten Ökologie und Evolution hat sie 2006 in der Schweiz gemacht. Seit 2007 ist sie im Thünen-Institut für Forstgenetik tätig.

Mittlerin zwischen Informatik und Information

Die Frau mit den rosa Katzenohren auf den Kopfhörern kennt wohl jede*r am Thünen-Institut: Wenn es auf der Website hakt, weiß Dana Heinemann, wo der Haken fehlt. Sie ist die Herrin des Redaktionssystems und oft genug Retterin in der Not, eine Mittlerin zwischen Informatik und Information.

Dabei wollte die Wolfsburgerin ursprünglich Bücher katalogisieren und verwalten. Und weil sie sich für Naturwissenschaften begeistert, war die Bibliothek eines Forschungsinstituts genau der richtige Arbeitsplatz. Doch schon während ihrer Ausbildung zur Fachangestellten für Medien- und Informationsdienste zeichnete sich ab, dass das Bibliothekswesen zum Sprung ins digitale Zeitalter ansetzen musste. Zudem endete Heinemanns Ausbildung just zu dem Zeitpunkt, als das Thünen-Institut gegründet und damit ein neuer Internetauftritt fällig wurde. Sie wechselte in den IT-Bereich. Seither schult sie die Webredakteurinnen und -redakteure und sorgt unter anderem für die Barrierefreiheit der Website – alles online. „Manchmal fehlt mir der Publikumsverkehr“, sagt Dana Heinemann. „Aber theoretisch können mich jeden Tag 100 Webredakteurinnen und -redakteure anrufen.“

Wichtig ist ihr, dass sie sich trotz des immer gleichen Arbeitgebers weiterentwickeln kann. So hat sie berufsbegleitend Medienwissenschaften und Kommunikationsdesign studiert. Den inzwischen zweiten Relaunch der Website hat sie als Projektmanagerin gesteuert. Vieles von dem, was sie kann, hat sie sich jedoch selbst und über den Fachaustausch in Foren beigebracht. „Ich schätze die gestalterischen Freiräume und die Flexibilität des Forschungsbetriebes“, sagt sie.

In der IT-Branche ist Dana Heinemann noch immer eine Ausnahme: Nur knapp 17 Prozent der Jobs werden in Deutschland von Frauen besetzt. Damit liegt unser Land im Mittelfeld der OECD-Staaten. Immerhin: Dana Heinemann hat eine Chefin. Am Thünen-Institut wird das Zentrum für Informationsmanagement von einer Frau geleitet.

Ausbilderin von Chemielaborant*innen

Forschen in der Chemie war immer ihr Traum. Den hat sich Marina Heuer auch in gewisser Weise erfüllt. Als Ausbilderin von Chemielaborantinnen und -laboranten hat sie in den vergangenen acht Jahren Azubis ihr Wissen vermittelt. „Besonders hat mir an dieser Aufgabe gefallen, junge Menschen zu fördern und zu fordern. Und natürlich das Forschen im Rahmen der Doktorandenprojekte“ berichtet sie. Im Sommer 2023 geht sie in den Ruhestand.

Dass sie doch noch an einer Forschungseinrichtung wie dem Thünen-Institut Fuß fassen würde, hätte sie als Schülerin nie geglaubt. Anfang der 80er Jahre verwirft sie ihren Wunsch Chemie zu studieren, macht stattdessen eine Ausbildung zur Chemielaborantin und arbeitet im Bereich Umweltchemie. „Ich hatte Angst davor. Ein Chemiestudium war damals eine Männerdomäne. Generell zieht sich die Beobachtung durch mein Leben, dass Mädchen und Frauen davor zurückscheuen, leitende Positionen oder eine wissenschaftliche Karriere anzustreben. Dabei können sie es mindestens genauso gut!“

Am Thünen-Institut für Agrartechnologie schafft sie ab 2009 zunächst den Ausbildungsrahmen für Chemielaborantinnen und -laboranten. „Das Geschlechterverhältnis der Kandidatinnen und Kandidaten war stets ausgeglichen und auch unter den Doktoranden waren immer viele Frauen“ berichtet sie. 2022 haben die letzten von Marina Heuers Azubis ihre Abschlussprüfung gemacht. „Die Ausbildung wird es in der derzeitigen Form nicht mehr geben. Ich kann mir aber vorstellen, dass sich unter der engagierten, weiblichen Leitung des Instituts ein neues Ausbildungsangebot formiert, diesmal aber mit digitalem Schwerpunkt.“

Was sie „Women in Science“ mit auf den Weg geben möchte? „Nicht nur fleißig sein, sondern auch sichtbar. Und als Frauen in der Wissenschaft zusammenhalten, egal, ob studierte Frau oder nicht, ob mit oder ohne Kinder, mit Mann oder Frau oder ohne.“

Pionierin auf dem Gebiet der Pflanzengenetik

Bäume haben Birgit Kersten schon bei Waldspaziergängen als Kind fasziniert. Dieses Interesse bewegt sie zum Biologie-Studium in Ost-Berlin in den 1980er Jahren. Zeitgleich bekommt sie ihre beiden Kinder. „In der DDR war es üblich, früh Familien zu gründen. Durch die vorhandene Kinderbetreuung war das gut machbar!“ Die Wissenschaft hat sie deshalb nie aufgegeben. Die Kinder sind inzwischen aus dem Haus. Die Objekte ihrer Forschung sind geblieben. Seit 2010 arbeitet sie am Thünen-Institut für Forstgenetik etwa im Projekt TaxGen, in dem es um die Entschlüsselung des Genoms der Europäischen Eibe (Taxus baccata) geht. Hierbei interessiert sich die Molekularbiologin insbesondere für die genetischen Grundlagen der Geschlechtsdeterminierung. Auf diesem Gebiet hat sie echte Pionierarbeit in der Erforschung des Pappel-Genoms geleistet. Gemeinsam mit zwei Kollegen erhielt sie dafür einen der Thünen-Forschungspreise 2021.

Pionierin in der Forschung war sie schon einmal – während ihres Post-Doc-Projektes im Bereich Pflanzenproteinchips am Max-Planck-Institut (MPI) für Molekulare Genetik: „Wir waren 2005 die Ersten, die Ergebnisse in diesem Bereich vorlegen konnten und haben sie noch vor amerikanischen Kollegen veröffentlicht!“ 2006 wechselt Birgit Kersten in die Pflanzenbioinformatik und übernimmt die Leitung der GABI-Primärdatenbank ( am MPI für Molekulare Pflanzenphysiologie.

Umbrüche nach dem Mauerfall 1989 und Verpflichtungen in Job und Familie bedingen Verzögerungen in ihrer Forschungslaufbahn. Im Jahr 2000 schließt sie ihre Promotion an der Berliner Charité ab. 17 Jahre später habilitiert sie sich an der Universität Potsdam. „Zum Glück hatte ich immer wieder Mentorinnen, Kolleginnen und Vorgesetzte, die mich unterstützt haben!“

Nach zahlreichen befristeten Projekten schätzt Birgit Kersten ihre Festanstellung als wissenschaftliche Mitarbeiterin. Außerdem lehrt sie als Privatdozentin an der Universität Hamburg. „Die Lehre finde ich spannend. Und sie berechtigt mich offiziell, Promovierende extern zu betreuen“

Institute Directors at the Thünen Institute

Hiltrud Nieberg (60) and Christina Umstätter (48) head two of the 15 institutes at the Thünen Institute. The proportion of women among their scientists varies greatly. In the Institute of Farm Economics, which Hiltrud Nieberg has headed for twelve years, the proportion is almost 50 percent. In the Institute of Agricultural Technology, which Christina Umstätter took over in 2021, there are only two women among eleven scientist colleagues with permanent positions.

Agriculture still seems to be a male preserve. 36 percent of employees in German agriculture are female, according to the agricultural census. But only one in nine farms is run by a woman. However, the figures in the agricultural statistics do not do justice to the actual role of women in agriculture. This is shown by the initial results of the study on the living and working situation of women in agriculture, which is being conducted jointly by the Thünen Institute and the University of Göttingen.

In science, the picture is similar: It is true that many women study agricultural sciences, the proportion is about half of the students. But the higher the position, the fewer women are still visible. "Men also dominate agricultural committees, and in discussion events or meetings I am often one of the very few women," says Hiltrud Nieberg. However, she has also participated in committees such as the Future Commission for Agriculture and has been a member of the Scientific Advisory Council for Agricultural Policy, Nutrition and Consumer Health Protection at the BMEL for many years - committees that already have almost equal representation.

According to Hiltrud Nieberg and Christina Umstätter, promoting women in science means, above all, encouraging women to choose and qualify for a career in science. "Women need to be encouraged much more in their self-confidence; they too often doubt their abilities," says Christina Umstätter, who would like to see more creative leeway in filling new positions. This would benefit the higher qualification of women.

Both institute directors see their own position as an important role model. Their message to young female scientists: "Have courage, always be curious and don't let old role models stop you from pursuing your goals."

Cruise leader of the Baltic Sea Sprat Acoustic Survey

When a young female scientist on a commercial fishing vessel leads one of the most important research cruises of the year - it's still not an everyday occurrence. In 2021, fisheries biologist Stefanie Haase (27) from the Thünen Institute of Baltic Sea Fisheries led the International Baltic Sea Sprat Acoustic Survey as cruise leader on the most modern vessel in German fisheries, the Kristin.

To counter prejudices against women on board, she has been helped by clear announcements and a great deal of knowledge. She also contributes this to two ICES working groups on stock assessment of Baltic Sea sprat. The fisheries biologist has been active at the Thünen Institute of Baltic Sea Fisheries since her first internship at the age of 14. And she is no longer an exotic figure in fisheries research there, where female scientists now hold 50 percent of the positions.

Stefanie Haase has written a sea blog about her experiences on the fishing vessel.

Expert on plastic in the environment

The topic of water protection, which brought her to the Thünen Institute of Rural Studies as a scientist in 2017, has opened up a whole new field of work for Elke Brandes over the past five years. Today, the biologist with a PhD is an expert in the still fairly young research area of plastics in the environment.

The MicroCatch_Balt and PLAWES projects, which she has been supervising since 2017, came to an end last year - with exciting findings. For the first time, the spatial distribution of microplastic inputs into agricultural soils was estimated; nationwide and in detail for the Weser and Warnow river basins. Elke Brandes also uses social media to share her scientific findings and network. To enable her to continue researching the topic of microplastics, she recently submitted a project proposal to the DFG.

Science or business? Elke Brandes knows both sides. After earning her doctorate in 2007 at the Institute of Forest Botany and Tree Physiology at the Albert Ludwigs University in Freiburg, she worked for medical companies for several years. In 2013, however, she returned to research. Before joining the Thünen Institute, she conducted research at Iowa State University in the USA on the effects of diverse agricultural landscapes on the environment and the profitability of farms.

Specialist for wood species identification in fibers and paper

Before Andrea Olbrich moved from Göttingen to Hamburg to start a family, she asked herself one question, not without concern: What's next for her profession - as a biologist with a doctorate in botany and microscopy? Olbrich has found her new home in wood species identification at the Thünen Institute of Wood Research. Alongside 12 colleagues, she is the only scientist with a permanent position.

Andrea Olbrich works in wood species identification and as head of electron microscopy. Her research area is wood species identification in paper and fiberboard. The biologist has brought the method to the Thünen Institute and built up new references there, which now help to identify illegal wood even in fiber materials. Her latest project: to automate wood species recognition using AI systems.

Before joining the University of Hamburg and the Thünen Institute, Andrea Olbrich worked in the scientific service of the Department of Forest Botany and Tree Physiology at the Büsgen Institute of the Georg August University in Göttingen. From 1994 to 2000, she studied biology at the Georg-August University of Göttingen, and in 2004 she completed her doctorate at the Ruprecht-Karls University of Heidelberg.

More information on the topic of wood species identification can be found on the pages of the Thünen Centre of Competence on the Origin of Timber.

About the diversity of the potato to biodiversity monitoring

Through the diversity of the potato and smallholder livelihoods, which she has researched primarily in South America, Africa and Europe, geoecologist Diana Sietz has become a specialist in the interactions of biodiversity, food and climate, and agroecological transformation. As such, she is one of the main authors of the Nexus Assessment of the World Biodiversity Council IPBES. She also leads the Archetype Analysis in Sustainability and Land Governance Research working group of the Global Land Programme. Her research has taken Sietz to the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research (PIK), the UN University - Institute for the Advanced Study of Sustainability in Japan, the International Potato Center (CIP) in Peru and Wageningen University.

With her expertise in biodiversity and policy advice, the researcher is helping to develop biodiversity monitoring for agriculture at the Thünen Institute of Biodiversity.

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