Interview with ecologist Constant Swinkels
It has become painfully clear to us this year that the size of something doesn’t betray its impact. In the short film block Big Stories Behind Small Matters, we take a look at small life forms or elements that – despite their size – can have enormous value. Constant Swinkels is a PhD candidate in the Experimental Plant Ecology group at Radboud University under Prof. Hans de Kroon and knows everything about small insects, plants and their lifestyle. As an ecologist, he is concerned about the state of our biodiversity: is there still hope?
As a researcher at Radboud University you are mainly concerned with ecosystems and biodiversity. What prompted you to do research or to be a researcher?
That started when I was very young, about eight years old. I received a butterfly book from my grandparents. I memorized that from start to finish. My parents then made the big mistake of giving me binoculars. I was stomping down the creaking stairs at 6 in the morning, with my parents shouting, “Hush!” and to which I replied “but I’m going to watch birds!”.
That’s where the fascination began, actually. At first nature was one big mess, but the more you learned about it, the more you started to realize that nature is not random. Exploring that world – the secret world that opens up around you, of which you have always been a part – I thought that was really cool.
It soon became clear to me that I wanted to study biology. I had already participated in volunteer research. For me it was a natural transition to participate in research. I found solving issues together, and especially the together part, very motivating. I then had the opportunity to continue the research I am doing now in my work: it was a hobby that I have managed to turn into a job.
So it has actually become a hobby that got out of hand?
Yes exactly, it has become a way of life.
“After I hadn’t seen him for fifteen years, he said, ‘Oh you were that kid that came running downstairs and said, ‘Dirk! Dirk! The orange hawkweed is in bloom! “
That interest stems from what you saw around you and what you can find in nature, not necessarily something in film or media that attracted you?
I think it was a combination of both. My parents lived in Nijmegen, and my uncle [Dirk Hilbers] lived downstairs. He is really crazy about nature and does everything with it. One of his friends is a well-known botanist. After not seeing him for fifteen years, he said, “Oh you were that kid that came running downstairs and said, ‘Dirk! Dirk! The orange hawkweed is in bloom! “” I found that fascinating as a child, apparently!
I also often went on excursions with my uncle, and at the Dutch Youth Association for Nature Studies I met people with whom I went on excursions. The social aspect has always been an important part of research for me, but also in my fascination for nature. I also like to go into nature on my own, but I find it even more fun to go into nature with people.
You see more, you can learn from each other, think together about what is happening: that adds a dimension to something that already has so many dimensions.
Is that also reflected in your educational career?
Yes I have always liked that a lot. For example, I have always given excursions, it started there. I started assisting courses in my third year. I thought it was great that you could tell fellow students about things that you find very interesting yourself. The course I teach now needed renewal, and I was involved in that. I was then appointed as a teacher and was allowed to teach the course myself.
Why do you think it is important that students and young people become inspired and enthusiastic about themes such as biodiversity?
I think awareness is a big reason. I think there is a lot of misunderstanding in society for certain things. The problem is that someone who sees green – there is a tree, so what’s wrong with nature? – does not realize that there are also things he does not see. If you already realize that there is a lot that you do not see, it is easier to accept that there is someone who specializes in that. But if you do not understand in principle that nature is a very complex system with all kinds of species that enter into interactions that you certainly do not get, then you will not understand a thing. The more people you can tell from a young age that nature is complex and that there is a lot to discover, the more difference that makes to society as a whole.
“I think it would be nice to be able to leave something behind at the end of my life, to be able to say: ‘this is my piece, this is what I have contributed to the world as a person’”
And do you mean by awareness that people are more aware of nature?
Yes, but also better understand that when an ecologist says “hey guys, wait a minute, it’s not going quite well there”. Conversely, ecologists sometimes need to be more understanding towards a farmer who is attached to his land – I’m not here to say that ecologists are all right and the rest are all wrong – but understanding each other is fundamentally helpful.
What inspires you to continue to research these themes and to continue working in this field?
Earlier I mentioned my uncle who took me outside from an early age. During my studies, I was also lucky enough to be able to work with incredibly inspiring people who supported me in what I wanted to do. They also motivated me enormously.
Working together on a problem that is also a social problem – so that you get the feeling that you are making a positive impact on the world – I really like that. In addition, there is of course an intrinsic motivation within me: I find it very interesting how nature works, so researching how nature works connects with that. I have always had such an image that it seems nice to be able to leave something behind at the end of my life, to be able to say: “this is my piece, this is what I have contributed to the world as a person”. This research area is extremely well suited for this. Whether it is good or bad, positive or negative, you leave your own mark and I just think that is something very beautiful!
At InScience you are this year’s speaker for the short film block Big Stories Behind Small Matters. What do you take with you?
I really enjoy talking to the audience. People often ask questions that you would never have thought of yourself. They force you to think about it on the spot and to give a very spontaneous answer. Sometimes there are really excellent questions that make you think: “good point, why have I never thought about it that way?”. I’m looking forward to that. The fellow speakers are also incredibly inspiring people. I am currently doing my PhD under Hans de Kroon, but Liesje Mommer is a former PhD candidate of Hans: so that is quite a coincidence!
“Of course it is nice to see that people get involved and find this important. The next step is: how are we going to learn to understand each other?”
This year’s InScience theme is “Future in the Making”, so we take a look at the future. What is one of the most important developments that you predict for your field; and what is something you hope will develop in your field?
Something that we will be experiencing more and more in the coming years is climate change in combination with the biodiversity crisis that we are now facing – that is inevitably diminishing and we will see more and more consequences. That is not a very positive picture, of course, but it also makes ecology an increasingly relevant field of work. There is thus a greater interference of society with ecology. Ultimately, our knowledge of ecosystems and how we can restore them is something that is increasing very quickly at the moment. We have many successful examples of areas that we have rebuilt from the ground up and have become super beautiful. So it is not fair to say that it is only negative.
The big question is: will we see entire ecosystems collapsing in the future? We play with fire for that matter. At a certain point, species numbers decrease too far. Take insects and flowers, for example: they depend on each other. When those decline together, there comes a point where that whole system collapses and we lose that system. We may experience this in places, but I hope we can be in time to act accordingly with the knowledge we are now gathering. So both protecting existing systems and developing places where by applying new restoration measures we can also go the other way is important.
I myself am positively realistic, I always say. I am convinced that we as humanity can do so much and that we can also achieve this. I just assume that we will all turn it around, albeit a bit late!
So it is not due to knowledge, do we know what to do?
We know what measures to take. In detail, I also think that there is a lot to improve. On the one hand: yes, we really do have enough knowledge to act accordingly. On the other hand, it will have to be a parallel process in which we have to evaluate these actions and at the same time look at the underlying causes for the recovery [of biodiversity].
You mentioned social interference earlier. Do you think this will affect the progress of this?
Hell yes. I think that can mainly have a positive impact, although it can sometimes become quite a polarized story …
That people get involved and find this important is of course nice to see. The next step is now: how are we going to learn to understand each other? How does society understand how we work as ecologists, but we as ecologists should also scratch our heads and listen to what people have to say. You will then arrive at the ivory tower statue of science. For example, we scientists want to build a heath field because it is good for “biodiversity”, but why is that better than a forest? Looking at these kinds of issues from a different angle can of course offer completely new perspectives, and that never hurts.
Social influence also means that politicians will get involved, which possibly means that more money will be released for nature conservation, for example. That alone is a positive effect. We are always talking about supporting local nature, but it would also be nice if there were larger-scale support from the government. Ultimately, we will never make it without social understanding. If you create a nature reserve and you put a fence around it, then nobody gets involved and there will be no understanding for it. I see social involvement primarily as a positive thing and I think it will grow, although it certainly already plays a major role.
Viewing tips from Constant Swinkels
- This is a fantastically beautiful documentary with Hans de Kroon who lays the foundation for what we are doing, namely the insect reduction and how we are going to restore it.
- The films of De Nieuwe Wildernis show how complex some interactions can be, how certain types of interactions enter into and how complex the life cycles of those species are.
- I introduced the film Het Wad to various primary school groups in previous editions of InScience. I really enjoyed doing that. The kids really blurt everything out! When it came to inspiration and role models – and Max Verstappen and Freek Vonk of course are mentioned – one child said at one point: “my greatest source of inspiration is my own ignorance”. I thought that was a good motto for science!
- For those who specifically want to know more about my research, I gave a lecture about my research last spring.
The short film block Big Stories Behind Small Matters can be seen from 11 to 22 November on the online platform of InScience. Constant Swinkels, Samantha Hughes and Liesje Mommer will talk to the audience about these films on Saturday 14 November from 16:30.