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“Be passionate about your research” – Interview with Dr. Sarah Feron

2018-12-13 Assessing complex sustainability issues in a holistic and transdisciplinary manner – that is the approach Sarah Feron has followed throughout her PhD at the Leuphana and her current position in Stanford.

You obtained your PhD at the Institute of Sustainability Governance here at the Leuphana and pay a lot of attention to sustainability issues. Do you recognize a common theme from your master’s degree over your PhD to your current research? 

Although I have been working on diverse topics during the last couple of years, my main focus is linked to climate change, its impacts on different systems, and possible ways of mitigating or adapting to it. Geographically, my research has been focused on the southern Hemisphere, particularly South America, throughout my work. Unfortunately, the southern Hemisphere is still strongly underrepresented in the scientific community, despite the fact that the impacts of climate change are expected to be strongest in tropical regions - whose contribution to climate change has, by the way, been relatively low in general.

What distinguished your PhD at this university? How did you find your professorial guidance and the range of support of the Graduate School?

The Faculty of Sustainability at Leuphana represented exactly what I aimed at during my research: Assessing complex sustainability issues in a holistic and inter- and transidisciplinary manner. The university as a whole, and in particular the faculty of sustainability, has consistently institutionalized the concept of sustainability in a way that is still pretty unique in Germany - and even globally. It has been a great inspiration for my research. The same holds true for my former supervisor, Prof. Harald Heinrichs, who was a great guide for me during and even after my PhD at Leuphana. I must say that the readiness to help me out was remarkable, from a professional as well as from an administrative point of view, also from the graduate school. 

What sets your research apart? Do you have a particular angle?

I have been very lucky in the sense that I got the opportunity of doing research in both, social sciences and natural sciences. In addition to my dissertation, I participated in numerous field campaigns in Antarctica and northern Chile, which allowed me to conduct measurements - and better understand the physics of climate change. Assessing institutional barriers to sustainable solutions from a socio-political perspective on the one hand, and on the other hand crunching satellite and climate model data, allowed me to address very different dimensions of the very same problem. This is probably one of the greatest assets of my research. 

After you received your PhD you are now going to work at Stanford University. How did you receive this position? 

I reached out to professors with similar research interests, who had established an interdisciplinary research team, or who had proved an interest in interdisciplinary work. In my case, I contacted Professor Rob Jackson directly via e-mail and presented him the research proposal I was planning to work on as a postdoc.

Do you have any recommendations for graduates with similar ambitions?

I think it is important to be passionate about your research. To be seen or heard and enhance your credibility, try to get your work published in internationally recognized journals. Other than that, I think it is just a matter of finding someone who shares your research interests; just give it a try, and be persistent. 

How is life at Stanford? Is it different from your research activities in Germany?

I am located at Stanford`s Earth System Science Institute, which is also a very exciting and transdisciplinary Institute. It unites basic sciences of the Earth System with applications and impacts on humans and other species. Research has a very strong quantitative approach here in the US, which makes it different from research in Germany where qualitative research is equally acknowledged. Stanford offers a lot to its students: that begins with weekly talks by outstanding researchers, politicians, or leading company representatives. What has astonished me on a personal level is the amount of social activities and cohesion within the group as well as the whole department. The well being of the people is part of the whole concept, and this contributes to an inspiring place to work at. 

Thank you for the interview!

After graduating from Vienna University of Economics and Business in 2007 and working in Spain for six years, Dr. Sarah Feron obtained her PhD at the Institute of Sustainability Governance at the Leuphana University. Under her supervisor, Prof. Harald Heinrichs, Feron addressed factors that made “off-grid” photovoltaic (PV) systems (systems that are not connected to the national grid) sustainable in remote areas of three Andean countries: Chile, Ecuador, and Peru. Currently, she is studying the impact of climate change on the energy yield of PV systems in South America, particularly the Atacama Desert, at Stanford`s Earth System Science Institute.

The interview was conducted by Lea von Guttenberg.