Gesichter des LIB: Alexander Suh

“I am concerned with understanding what we see with our eyes, what we sense, and how to bring these different pieces of the puzzle together to gain insight. Always with curiosity as the driving force behind it.”

 

Alexander Suh loves to explore nature with its animals and plants. © Mathilde Brunel

 

Curious, eager to experiment, connecting: with these portents, Alexander Suh took over the leadership of the Center for Molecular Biodiversity Research (zmb) at LIB in April 2023. In his view, highly specialized research benefits from the connection of different disciplines, from the change of perspective and the exchange of the people involved.

What led you to biology?

As a child, I used to walk with my father along various mountain rivers and the coast of South Korea. We caught crabs, shrimp and fish there. That created an early passion for animals in me. At the same time, my parents influenced me a lot because they love to garden and are very fond of plants. That’s why I’ve always had a strong passion for animals, plants and biodiversity in general. As a small child, I wanted to understand everything there is to know about organisms.

What would you have become if biology hadn’t worked out?

At one time, I had the idea of becoming an astronaut. But I get seasick very quickly. That’s why this career choice was quickly ruled out. Alternative professions for me were and still are gardener or animal keeper.

What drives you as a researcher?

In a word: curiosity. I’m interested in understanding what we see with our eyes, what we sense, and how to bring these different pieces of the puzzle together to gain knowledge. Always with curiosity as the driving force behind it.

What are the highlights of your day-to-day work?

It’s never the same. And you never know what research results or findings may come your way the next day. With many projects, it’s often frustrating at the same time but also the most exciting thing when you’ve been completely wrong with your expectations and something completely different has come out of it. Another highlight is that you gradually take on more responsibility in research, train a wide variety of students and then supervise doctoral students and postdocs. This results in the incredibly exciting interactions with people, the diversity of research fields, of ideas and also of backgrounds, of perspectives that you have in the research project. That is something that makes this profession very, very special.

What does nature mean to you personally? Is there a favorite place in nature?

Nature is everywhere. And of course it’s hard to pick out one particular place. But maybe it’s places that you’ve known for a long time and where you have the feeling that they’re still intact after all these years. Specifically, I can think of certain places in the South Korean tidal flats where I feel very, very comfortable.

Crayfish, fish, butterflies. What has your very personal affection and why?

Above all, fish. That came about as a result of early childhood experiences, but the bottom line is that I’m interested in everything. When I’m in nature, I want to look at what’s there, it’s a reflex for me to turn over rocks and see what’s underneath, to look at the bark on the tree, or to look into the water.

How do you explain the concept of biodiversity to children?

It’s a variety of shapes, colors and functions in the ecosystem.

What do you want people to associate with the LIB ten years from now?

We want it to be perceived even more as a place where people can understand what nature is all about, what biodiversity is specifically, and what the change in our name means. How do you measure and understand that? What does it mean for us as humans? And, conversely, what does it mean for nature? After all, we are part of nature. What does that mean for all other organisms? I also hope that in ten years, people might have more opportunities to get involved in exploring. Because there is so much to do in environmental protection.

What do you see as the biggest challenge in the field of environmental protection?

If we want to preserve certain species now, how do you decide? Take the big fluffy animals? Maybe we forget about all the animals that are maybe just as important for nature or for us and our human continued existence. Who decides that? All these things are important to clarify. The social awareness is now there and I think the biggest challenge now is to prioritize.

What advice do you have for young biologists starting their careers?

Openness. I would advise to learn modern and classical methods and to look at the many basic questions in nature from these two sides to properly understand the basic principles.

What subfield at the LIB are you most passionate about?

Close to my heart are the four complementary centers that explicitly collaborate across different thematic foci and visions and engage in collection- and collection-based exchange.

Prof. Dr. Alexander Suh has headed the Center for Molecular Biodiversity Research (zmb) at LIB since April 2023 and is Professor of Molecular Biodiversity Research at the University of Bonn. Previously, he taught in the UK at the University of East Anglia and was a group leader at Uppsala University in Sweden. He started here in 2012 as a postdoc in phylogenetic systematics already after studying biology at Freie Universität Berlin and earning his PhD at the University of Münster, and eventually became an assistant professor of evolutionary genomics at Uppsala University in Sweden.

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