Faces of the LIB: Katharina Schmidt-Loske
“I love looking closely at nature and understanding the bigger picture.”
© LIB, Schmidt-Loske
Katharina deals with issues related to historical biology: as Scientific Director of the Biohistoricum in Bonn, Dr Katharina Schmidt-Loske collects and researches bequests, letters, illustrations and portraits associated with the history of biology in German-speaking countries. While professionally she has a penchant for butterfly science, privately she enjoys hiking with her family in the Eifel.
What led you to biology? Was there a key experience?
My early childhood interest in animals and plants, which my parents always encouraged. My diploma thesis led me to the Museum Alexander Koenig and my close collaboration with Professor Clas Naumann and his team.
What aspect of your everyday professional life is your highlight?
The exciting content of my work and the analysis of bequests of important biologists in the Biohistoricum’s archive mainly inspire me. I also enjoy visiting the canteen with my colleagues, which have unfortunately become rarer in Corona times.
What does nature mean to you personally?
I love to look closely at nature and to understand the bigger picture. On a life-world level, it is being outdoors: relaxation, reflection, hiking and sports. The Ahr valley is just around the corner from us. We spend a lot of time there. The flood disaster there last year and the resulting hardship has distressed us greatly. As a family, we like to go hiking in the Eifel. Moreover, I am involved in our “Dörfergemeinschaft am Thürne e.V.” and am helping to rebuild the “Parcours der biologischen Vielfalt“. Come and visit us as soon as the flood damage has been repaired. It’s worth it!
What does your work mean to you?
It’s both a living and a personal fulfilment. I especially like the view into the atrium from the museum’s balustrade. Another special focal point for me is the hippo “Hippoline” in the reception area. I don’t know how many hundreds of times my children have jumped on it.
Which animal or plant species has your very personal affection?
Actually, I love all living things. I must admit, however, that during my early ornithological studies I was not exactly attracted to the louse flies on birds. Nor am I a great friend of ticks, especially when, once again, I have to rid our dog of dozens of these pests. But that’s life.
What is your favourite animal?
The crane. It represents freedom for me. The trumpeting of the large formations in the sky also always awakens wanderlust in me.
How do you explain biodiversity to children?
I had a sticker “Biodiversity is quality of life” on my bicycle when I was a young girl. Today we know that biodiversity is more than species diversity, but the basic message remains the same.
What do you want people to associate with the LIB in ten years’ time?
They should see the LIB not only as a place where species are being preserved and described, but also as a place that makes an important contribution to better understanding and preserving our natural foundations of life. If we manage to interest many people in participating, we will have achieved a lot.
What is the significance of your work?
You can only understand the world by going back, you can only shape it forwards. The two are important and I try to contribute to both with my work at the LIB. That historically significant things are not forgotten and will be considered in current and future-oriented research. When I look at the reviews of my published books in academic journals and newspapers, this seems to be quite successful.
What would you have become if biology had not worked out?
My second great passion is art: especially painting and drawing animals. For this reason, I also worked as a book illustrator for a while. Maybe I would have ended up in this field full-time.
Was your job your dream job from the beginning or did it develop into that? Were there alternatives?
There are always alternatives. In fact, I enjoyed the job from the beginning because it is so diverse and varied. At the beginning, with small children, it was of course challenging to juggle work and family, but I always kept going. And that was the right thing to do.
What advice do you have for young people at the beginning of their careers?
The right mix of specialisation and broad knowledge is very important to me. I find it important to be really knowledgeable in one or two areas, but at the same time to have an overview of the entire discipline, so that no one can fool me.
Have you ever thought in the wrong direction and succumbed to an error?
Basically, science always means being open to results, and that includes mistakes. When interpreting historical texts and images, I naturally have to deal with an extremely large number of unanswered questions, for example concerning the identification of species. Fortunately, however, I am part of a worldwide interdisciplinary network in which I can exchange ideas with colleagues from different disciplines at any time. At the moment, for example, I’m agonising over the question of whether the Polish cochineal scale insect was still used in the 17th century to produce crimson dye or whether the Mexican cochineal dominated the “world market” back then. With such a question, historians, trade economists and colour experts can help me just as much as biologists.
Your greatest professional success?
I enjoy most of my work, so I don’t like to single out individual activities. If I had to highlight something, it would be my books and the special exhibitions I have organised, for example on Fritz and Hermann Müller, on Alexander von Humboldt’s KOSMOS and on the artistic work of my esteemed former colleague Wolfgang Hartwig. Currently, the greatest success is certainly my volume on the letters of Maria Sibylla Merian, edited together with Helga Prüßmann-Zemper and Brigitte Wirth. I was delighted with the reviews in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Sonntagszeitung and the Naturwissenschaftliche Rundschau. The book “Tenture des Indes”, jointly written with Gerlinde Klatte and Helga Prüßmann-Zemper, can certainly be called a success. It is considered a standard work on the subject and is internationally recognised.
At the moment, I am looking forward to working in the Leibniz Association’s research network “Wert der Vergangenheit” (Value of the Past). This platform offers optimal networking opportunities. I am coordinating the “Anthropocene” lab and researching the wild forms of our cereal varieties on the basis of historical correspondence from the 19th century.
Dr. Katharina Schmidt-Loske studied biology in Münster, Bonn and Frankfurt am Main. She wrote her diploma thesis at the University of Bonn on the habitat requirements of diurnal butterflies. Her doctoral thesis at the University of Bonn was about Maria Sibylla Merian, an important naturalist of the 17th and 18th centuries, which she wrote under the supervision of Prof. Clas Naumann and Prof. Wolfgang Böhme.