Dr. Leverkus has german roots02/18/2021
Postdoctoral researcher Alexandro Leverkus spent 10 months at the University of Würzburg’s Biozentrum at the chair of Professor Jörg Müller, where he was hosted at the field station Fabrikschleichach by Dr. Simon Thorn. He studies the effects of wildfires, storms and other natural disturbances on ecosystems, and the ecological implications of managing disturbed forests.
Dr. Leverkus, when I wrote to you that Leverkusen is a German city you sent me some very interesting historical facts.
The city got its name from a pharmacist, chemist and entrepreneur from the industrial revolution, Dr. Carl Leverkus. In 1826–8 he went to Paris to learn from its industry and academics and later invented a method to produce synthetic blue colour –a widely used and highly valued product at the time. After his return to Germany, he built a factory near Wermelskirchen. To improve transportation, he moved his factory to the shore of the Rhine in the early 1860s, on his family land Stammhof der Familie Leverkusen. The business was later acquired by Bayer, who turned Leverkusen into a large industrial city. Carl Leverkus was my great-great-great grandfather.
I wish to highlight that the development of this entire industry was strongly based on the knowledge and ideas that Carl obtained during his time in Paris. Nowadays, academic exchange is still paramount to expand one’s ideas and methods, which is what I was gratefully able to do during my time at the University of Würzburg.
Do you still have family in Leverkusen and do you visit them regularly?
I do visit my family regularly, but most live in northern Germany and none who I know in Leverkusen. I happen to have relatives in Franken, who I visited during my fellowship.
When we were teenagers, my grandfather took all of his grandchildren on a trip along the Rhine so that we could learn about the family’s –and, broader, to the country’s– heritage and history. In 2004 we were all invited to Carl Leverkus’ 200th birthday commemoration in Wermelskirchen, where he was born and was named honorary citizen (Ehrenbürger), partly because he funded the city’s first public lighting. This all made me conscious of my roots in history and in places –and helped me realise that it doesn’t require someone famous for that, as all other ancestors also played some role in defining who we are.
As you are a Spanish Alumnus of the University may we ask you how the Spanish influence came into your family?
As a child I moved from Germany to Mexico, near my mother’s family. For my undergraduate studies I then moved to Spain, which is somewhat in the middle between my two countries of origin in geographic, cultural, economic, and other ways. As far as I know, it was only in the next generation –my children– that our surname was printed in a Spanish passport. But there is quite some spread of the family to other countries such as Switzerland, Japan, Canada and Mexico, as we all pursue new experiences and opportunities. We all have some projects we strive at, perhaps partly inspired by our ancestor’s history, which my grandfather told us and wrote so much about.
Of course we have to ask you if you liked Wuerzburg and why?
Absolutely! It has a vibrant academic life and is a beautiful city to visit. But I spent most of my time at the field station in the Steigerwald, which is a very pretty area. There is a lot of forest, which was great both for leisure and for my own work.
Now I am changing the subject :) How would you describe your scientific field to a non-professional?
I’m an ecologist –that is, a scientist who tries to understand how living things interact with their surrounding world. More specifically, my research focuses on how the living organisms and the processes that occur in forests respond to events such as wildfires, storms and bark beetle outbreaks, which we call natural disturbances. It may be surprising to many, but not all about natural disturbances is negative; for instance, the existence of many plant species depends on the regular occurrence of fire because their seeds can’t germinate without it. My key interests are the ways in which human management interventions can alter the relationship between natural disturbances and ecosystems, both in positive and in negative ways. As more natural disturbances are happening around the world, we need to understand them better, as well as know what we should do or avoid doing.
What do you like the most about your subject and what is your next goal?
Ecology weaves together intellectual curiosity, a passion for the living world, the opportunity to combine desk-based work with outdoor activities, and the possibility to contribute to solving some of the most pressing issues that humanity faces. For instance, after unprecedentedly large natural disturbances around the world, we recently published an opinion article proposing ways to manage ecosystems to prevent the disappearance of species and habitats doe to such events.
I currently work in Spain. I have new projects that aim to improve ecological restoration and to better understand the implications of new types of disturbances in ecosystems. My hope is to obtain a stable position and continue strengthening scientific partnerships to further pursue such projects.
As an ecologist, it is frustrating to witness first-hand the mounting impacts of human actions. For this reason, it is more important than ever to incentivize scientific exchange so that people like my ancestor –and hopefully myself– come up with novel ideas on how to address societal and environmental challenges.
I wish to thank the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation for its generous support in funding my postdoctoral fellowship and, more generally, in promoting global scientific exchange.