Portrait Dr. Sandra Schmöckel

Current Research at the Institute of Crop Science

Crops of today for the climate of tomorrow

Dr. Sandra Schmöckel conducted research in Australia and Saudi Arabia on salt and drought stress in plants for years before she was appointed as a Junior Professor in 2018 to the “Physiology of Yield Stability” department at the Institute of Crop Science at the University of Hohenheim.

As one of the direct successors of Margarete von Wrangell, she investigates how agriculture can adapt to climate change and why quinoa could play a key role in this.


“It always fascinated me how living beings function. And then I specialized in crop plants.”

Dr. Sandra Schmöckel

How I found my passion

As a child, I wanted to understand how living beings function. That’s why I had a microscope at home and experimented with a chemistry set to unlock the secrets of life. Later, I studied life sciences. However, it was not until a research trip to Saudi Arabia that I fully realized my research was about the bigger picture: securing our food supply in the face of climate change.

Quinoa is one of our beacons of hope. It’s a highly nutritious plant, rich in iron and amino acids, and unlike wheat and barley, it’s very drought-resistant and salt-tolerant. My team and I want to discover why that is. That’s why we exposed 250 different quinoa lines to extreme conditions in the greenhouse and measured how the various lines respond to stress, such as changes in their photosynthesis rate. However, greenhouse experiments can only provide limited agricultural insights.

Therefore, we also conduct field trials. But in recent years, the weather has become increasingly unpredictable. One year, spring is rainy, and the next, it’s extremely dry. This variability can lead to total crop loss, forcing us to start over the following year. That’s why it takes time to derive concrete results from our experiments.

Once we identify which quinoa lines are particularly drought-tolerant, we can pinpoint the responsible genes using so-called gene markers. When we find them, we can pass this information to breeders. 

We collaborate with Professor Karl Schmid and his team from the Department of Crop Plant Biodiversity and Breeding Informatics. With our gene markers, breeders can develop drought- or salt-resistant plants, opening new avenues for agriculture.

Of course, other factors like soil composition or root systems play a role in the field. To explore these relationships, we exchange ideas with Professor Ludewig from the Department of Plant Nutrition Physiology or Professor Müller, who deals with fertilization and soil nutrient management. We work very interdisciplinary here at the Institute for Crop Science.

Yet, in essence, we continue what the institute’s founder, Margarete von Wrangell, started 100 years ago. Her vision was to overcome hunger and crop failures and secure Germany’s food supply. In the era of climate change, we’ve expanded this vision to include Africa, Arabia, or Australia, collaborating with these regions in various international research projects.

If we manage to make dried-up or salted lands usable again, we can secure the livelihood of many people. For me, it would be a significant success if families in North Africa could grow and live off quinoa. If our research achieves that, we can make a positive change despite climate change.

Sandra Schmöckel Versuch mit Mais im Forschungshaus
Sandra Schmöckel mit Hanfpflanzen

“As soon as we understand the mechanisms for salt stress tolerance, we can breed tolerant plants for saline soils.”

Dr. Sandra Schmöckel

Scientific career and family

“It’s crazy which significant problems still exist in 2023,” says Junior Professor Dr. Sandra Schmöckel. “I don’t know what I would have done without the support of the Office for Equality and Diversity.”

Sandra Schmöckel arrived in Hohenheim directly from Saudi Arabia in 2018 as a junior professor on the tenure track program. When she became pregnant, she faced a dilemma. How were her postdoctoral researcher and technical assistant supposed to keep teaching and research going while Sandra Schmöckel was on maternity leave? It was hardly manageable without support.
However, she received crucial advice at a professors’ lunch to visit the Office for Equality and Diversity. “I went there and explained my situation,” Sandra Schmöckel recounts. “It was important to me that there was support for my staff so that not everything fell on their shoulders,” Schmöckel emphasizes. In no time, the office organized financial resources to employ a research assistant. So far, so good.

But that wasn’t the end of the challenges. “I had no idea how hard it is to get a daycare spot for my child in Baden-Württemberg,” she says. Not only were spots scarce, but opening hours were reduced to mornings due to staff shortages. “How am I supposed to plan my courses for next semester when I don’t even know if my child will be cared for?”

For Sandra Schmöckel and her husband, it quickly became clear: having a family in this country is only possible if one spouse steps back. In this case, the father. In the end, they only got a daycare spot because the University of Hohenheim co-finances spots in a nearby daycare. This allowed Sandra Schmöckel’s husband to pursue a part-time job.

The Office for Equality and Diversity helped in this regard as well. It referred them to the Dual Career Service with its extensive network of contacts with companies and educational institutions in the region. Thus, Sandra Schmöckel’s husband eventually found suitable employment that allowed for balancing family and career.

Sandra Schmöckel is certain: “The work of the Office for Equality and Diversity has made it possible for us to reconcile career and child.”


“If our climate changes, we will have a Mediterranean climate in Germany with a lot of drought and extreme weather events. Our research helps to ensure that our agriculture is prepared for this.”

Dr. Sandra Schmöckel

Junior professorship

Since August 15th 2018, Sandra Schmöckel has been leading the new department for Physiology of Yield Stability at the Institute of Crop Science as a junior professor. A junior professorship with tenure track is supported by a federal-state program and is limited to six years. Afterward, it can be converted into a regular professorship.


Name: Sandra Schmöckel
Research Area: Salt and drought stress tolerance in crops
University and Institute: University of Hohenheim, Faculty of Agricultural Sciences, Institute of Crop Science, Department of Physiology of Yield Stability
Family: 1 child

Sandra Schmökel Portrait

Sandra Schmöckels Academic Profile


Since 08/2018 Junior professorship tenure track (W1), Physiology of Yield Stability at the University of Hohenheim, Germany


02/2014 – 08/2018 Postdoctoral-fellow Plant Science, Center for Desert Agriculture, King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (KAUST), Saudi Arabia


03/2010 – 06/2014 PhD at University of Adelaide and Australian Centre for Plant Functional Genomics, Adelaide, Australia with internship at Department of Plant Sciences, The University of Cambridge, UK.


06/2008 – 03/2010 Master of Science Cellular and Molecular Biology, University of Potsdam, Germany


10/2005 – 06/2008 Bachelor of Science Molecular Biology/Physiology, University of Potsdam, Germany



Interview with Jun.-Prof. Sandra Schmöckel on May 27, 2023

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