In a highly industrialised country like Germany, where the employment market has shifted from primary production to provision of services, school graduates might easily get the impression that agricultural research is an outmoded dinosaur. But did you know that the Federal Ministry of Consumer Protection, Nutrition and Agriculture ( BMVEL) runs 17 research institutes? And that it allocates an additional ? 5.5 million of its budgetary funds to nongovernmental organisations and universities?
I have to admit that when I started my scientific career 10 years ago, I didn't know either. Being keen to find a career that would allow me to combine my passion for travelling and the outdoors, I decided, based on a lack of information rather than true conviction, to pursue an education as a biologist. In retrospect, an agricultural degree would have been a better choice, but it would also have been a less scenic one.
Being a keen diver and deterred by pale and overworked lab technicians, I decided, despite the good job opportunities within the biotechnology disciplines, to follow my heart and to hunt for universities that would allow me to specialise in marine biology. By pure chance, I was given the opportunity to study at the University of Cape Town, where I completed an Honour's degree in marine biology. Realising that there is a great difference between diving for pleasure and diving because it is one's job, I found myself transferring to the Freshwater Research Unit.
As a freshwater consultant, I got involved in water quality and river basin management, which soon led to a master's degree in environmental geochemistry.
This educational career would have never been possible for me at a German University, where the science stream does not allow you to change departments while studying for your Diploma. At least the Anglo-Saxon format, with its subdivisions of bachelor's, honour's, and master's, allows you to reorient yourself, so long as you stay within the science faculty.
As I was finishing my master thesis in 1999, I received a call from my supervisor, who was passing on a request from a German professor looking for an internship position in Africa for one of his students. I offered my help and contacts, but rather than getting the student his internship (he never did get to Africa ...), I got myself a job at the German Federal Agricultural Centre (FAL). The professor turned out to be the director of the Institute for Plant Nutrition and Soil Science at FAL, and during a visit to Germany he offered me a permanent position in his institute.
With 13 institutes, FAL, my employer since December 1999, is the main research pillar of BMVEL. Our research is aimed at developing basic knowledge on producing healthy foodstuffs of high quality, while maintaining active consumer protection and also the protection of natural resources and the environment. We also advise the ministry in establishing an agricultural policy that addresses these issues.
Although permanent positions for scientists within FAL are rare at the moment, temporary positions are more frequently available. The scientific team of the institute of plant nutrition and soil science, where I work within the "local resource management" group, consists of chemists, biologists, geographers, landscape planners, cartographers, and me, the environmental geochemist. This broad spectrum of educational backgrounds reflects the interdisciplinary nature of agricultural research today.
My work mainly involves assessing and modelling the variability of soil fertility features. Local resource management, better known as "precision agriculture", represents a reorientation of conventional farming to a farm management system that takes the variability of nature into account to protect the environment and increase the profitability of farmers. Traditionally, seeds, fertilisers, pesticides, tilling, or irrigation water were applied uniformly throughout a field, whereas today, satellites via GPS (global positioning systems) help the farmer to navigate so as to perform site-specific farm management. The prerequisite for practical implementation is the assessment of variability in soil texture, water and nutrients distribution, and pest infection.
Precision agriculture is only one example showing that the ancient science of agriculture is not as dusty as some might believe. Although it was originally aimed at increasing calories or yield per hectare, today in times of globalisation and accelerated population growth, agriculture's challenge is to develop supranational regulations that ensure the sustainability of production and global social justice.
My research group focuses mainly on assessing the variability of soil fertility, which we do via soil and plant analysis, and remotely sensed radar and spectral reflectance of crop and soil, airborne and video camera images. All this information is stored and processed in a geographical information system to produce images of fields that reflect the variability of the particular aspect of fertility under investigation. Apart from acquiring and processing data, my position offers a great deal of travel opportunities to national and international conferences, and partnerships and joint projects with foreign research institutes. Additionally, as a member of the editorial board of Wissenschaft erleben , I'm involved in disseminating and publishing FAL research activities for the nonscientific community.
Having just completed my doctoral thesis, I have applied for a 3-year sabbatical to broaden my horizon by working in the tropics. To my mind, the beauty of a scientific career is that for most of us, there is no clear recipe for arriving at the position we want. You might choose the direction, but the final outcome depends more on your personality and your willingness to grab opportunities that pop up along the way, rather than your university training and your grades.