Interview with Wrangell-Fellow Prof. Stefanie Lemke
How my research in South Africa fundamentally changed my career
Stefanie Lemke only pursued a scientific career path later on, after she had already worked as a nutritionist for six years. However, with a doctoral thesis in South Africa, she returned to research and it was the Wrangell Fellowship which enabled her to pursue her academic career.
In 2021, Stefanie Lemke became a professor at the University of Natural Resources and Life Sciences, Vienna. In her research she collaborates with civil society organisations and social movements, exploring how people in different regions of the world can secure their livelihoods, their food and nutrition security. In this interview, she talks about how her stays abroad changed her perspective and shares some of the challenges she experienced.
“With my research, I can contribute to effecting societal changes.”
When did you discover your passion for science?
I truly found my calling during my university studies. Initially, after completing my A-levels, I had planned to spend a year abroad, engaging in practical work. However, I had reservations about potentially losing my direction without a clear purpose. In retrospect, starting university immediately was the right decision. I applied for a place at the Technical University of Munich-Weihenstephan in Home Economics and Nutrition Sciences. The interdisciplinary nature of the programme, combining both natural and social sciences, was a perfect fit for me, and I was fortunate to receive an offer.
Although the mandatory internship was initially only six months, I extended it to over a year, gaining diverse experience: at the Consumer Advice Centre of Bavaria in Munich, in several large-scale kitchens, with the Evaluation and Information Service for Nutrition, Agriculture and Forestry e.V. (AID) in Bonn – later renamed aid Infodienst e.V. – and with ANAD e.V. in Munich, a self-help organisation for individuals with eating disorders. It was then that I realised the importance of translating academic language into a more accessible form to truly connect with people. These experiences cultivated my interest in social issues.
The idea of pursuing a professorship was not evident to me at that time. After graduation, I worked for several years as an employee. Initially in Dresden, leading a mobile consumer awareness project just after the reunification of Germany.
When this mobile initiative transitioned to the newly established consumer advice centres in the new federal states, I took a position in the nutrition counselling department of the AOK in Bad Tölz, south of Munich, where I remained for five years. While I found the counselling work rewarding, I sensed that other topics intrigued me.
The pivotal turn towards academia was influenced by my husband. As a geologist, he went to South Africa for his doctoral research. Eager to accompany him, I decided to undertake my PhD there as well. My former professor at the Technical University of Munich-Weihenstephan, Joachim Ziche, afforded me the flexibility to do so. Before I left, he advised, “Find your topic there, and then get back to me.” Having spent several years in Zambia, he understood the importance of immersing oneself in the local context. However, for me, this meant starting from scratch once again.
This marked a profound turning point in my life. I was entering a nation in the midst of political and societal upheaval – it was 1997, relatively shortly after the first democratic elections following the end of apartheid. South Africa bears one of the highest rates of violence, especially against women. The more impoverished segments of the population are particularly vulnerable to violence. This deeply resonated with me, as did the ongoing extreme social inequality that persists to this day.
“Perhaps my biggest challenge was giving up my secure job in Bavaria after six years of professional experience, going to South Africa, and starting from scratch again.”
What was the biggest challenge on your career path?
There were numerous challenges along the way. Perhaps the most significant was relinquishing my secure job in Bavaria after six years of professional experience, moving to South Africa, and starting afresh from scratch. Venturing into a completely new environment without any contacts or funding was daunting.
At the North West University, I found a research project I could participate in. There was funding available for a topic in nutritional physiology, but it wasn’t what I was passionate about. Instead, I was keen on delving into the subject of “nutrition security with a focus on social factors” – a rather niche area at the time. This choice was risky, but it granted me the freedom to define my own topic, even if it meant forgoing financial support.
Initially, I sustained myself on my savings, keeping my expenditures to a minimum.
It was only in the final phase of my doctoral research that I secured a scholarship as part of the Special University Programme (HSP III) from the Technical University of Munich. This support played a crucial role in concluding my research successfully.
Equally challenging was navigating the lingering aftermath of apartheid. The conservative nature of the university was still heavily tinted with racial prejudices. It was a rather alien and unsettling environment for me. Initially, there were hardly any students of colour, and the few coloured individuals on campus were not involved in academia; they predominantly served in roles such as janitors, gardeners, or cleaning staff. Observing this protracted journey of transformation and the palpable tensions was enlightening.
My time abroad made me deeply appreciate many things we often take for granted.
Did you have a mentor or a role model?
My greatest role model has been my mother. I’ve always admired how she managed her career as a teacher whilst raising three children. Given my father’s frequent work-related travels and the lack of day-to-day support from grandparents who lived far away, her tenacity was remarkable. At 41, she undertook further studies in special education teaching (Note: now called ‘support school’) in Munich.
I believe her journey inspired me to return to university mid-career. My parents have always been supportive of me pursuing my passion, always believing that I would find my path. This fundamental trust has been a significant pillar for me.
I’ve had the privilege of both female and male mentors. To begin with, Professor Joachim Ziche, my doctoral advisor at the Technical University of Munich-Weihenstephan, was immensely supportive. He provided stability, agreeing to oversee my studies remotely and enabling me to carve out my niche. His intervention ensured that my initial published conference paper secured a modest scholarship. While it was just 5,000 DM, it was a lifeline for me as I had no income in South Africa. It also marked the first recognition of my academic work, further galvanising me to continue.
His support meant the world to me. To this day, I maintain contact with Professor Ziche, who is now retired, and he remains keenly interested in my endeavours.
In South Africa, Professor Este Vorster welcomed me into her research project. Arriving out of my own volition, I was one of the very few European students at the university during that period. An expert in nutritional physiology, she identified the burgeoning importance of my focus on nutrition security.
Later, as a postdoc at the University of Giessen and a visiting scholar in South Africa, I had the opportunity to live with her and her husband for a period. I continued to visit them regularly; sadly, they have both since passed away.
Additionally, Dr. Fanie Jansen van Rensburg, a social anthropologist, was an invaluable ally. I met him at the university and would often borrow books from him. We frequently discussed societal issues and methodologies relevant to my research. He helped alleviate my reservations about being a white European conducting research in Africa. His words resonate with me to this day, and I often share them with students grappling with similar concerns. He remains a cherished pillar of support and a close friend.
At the University of Giessen, it was Professor Ingrid-Ute Leonhäuser who enabled me to establish my own DFG project after my doctorate, ensuring continued funding.
Later at the University of Hohenheim, Professor Anne Bellows played the role of my mentor. Our rigorous academic exchanges facilitated my engagement with my current research focus on the right to food. It was she who recommended that I apply for the Margarete-von-Wrangell Fellowship. When she returned to the USA in 2013, I took over the responsibilities of her chair. Following her departure, Professor Regina Birner became my mentor, providing invaluable support during the crucial final stages of my post-doctoral qualification.
I’d also like to mention Professor Iris Lewandowski, who instilled in me the confidence to continue my academic journey.
„As a nutritionist, I realized that I have to translate technical language into another language to reach people. This is how I developed my connection to social issues.”
When did you know you wanted to become a professor?
Becoming a professor wasn’t initially my objective, and I was always uncertain about remaining in academia. This uncertainty persisted post-doctorate. When I returned to Germany, I had lost my network and had to start from scratch. However, my doctoral thesis opened a new avenue for me, as it was honoured with an award from the Association of Graduate Nutritionists. This caught the attention of Professor Ingrid-Ute Leonhäuser, who invited me to apply for a position at the University of Giessen. Consequently, I secured my own position through the German Research Foundation (DFG). This was a pivotal moment.
Even though I was only employed at the university for about four years – serving as a research assistant and acting professor – and having predominantly funded myself both during and after my doctorate, the stipulated twelve-year term limit for research assistants at German universities applied to me as well.
I found this unfair and occasionally contemplated reverting to nutritional counselling. This was always my fallback if my academic trajectory had stalled.
In very few countries other than Germany is there a requirement to produce another significant academic work for professorship.
In England, South Africa, and many other countries, there are different evaluation tiers where, of course, publications and the acquisition of research funds play significant roles. When I applied for the Wrangell Fellowship, it marked my commitment to this path, setting the stage for my post-doctoral qualification.
Simultaneously, during my post-doctoral work in 2013, I assumed the role of acting professor for Anne Bellows. This gave me an insightful look into university structures, significantly enhancing my visibility both internally within Hohenheim and externally.
However, the combined responsibilities at times pushed me to my limits.
Prof. Stefanie Lemke: Focus Group Discussion
“Without the Wrangell Fellowship, I probably wouldn’t have become a professor.”
How do you rate the Wrangell fellowship in retrospect?
Very positively! Without the Wrangell Fellowship, I likely wouldn’t have become a professor. It facilitated my post-doctoral qualification, which in turn opened new doors. The fellowship granted me invaluable breathing space. I particularly appreciated the interactions with other fellows. Recognizing that they faced similar topics and challenges, especially concerning self-worth and recognition in academia, was enlightening. I observe in my environment that women sometimes still doubt themselves excessively.
Therefore, I find exchanges among women, as in the Wrangell program, extremely beneficial and essential.
At that time, I was in an environment where higher positions were predominantly held by men. That undoubtedly has an impact. Simply knowing that my subject was deemed worthy of support gave me courage. It was a form of recognition that helped me gain visibility.
The fellowship essentially provided me the legitimacy to pursue my subject, even though I was well aware that there were no guarantees of securing a professorship after my post-doctoral qualification.
Comparing the Wrangell Fellowship with my DFG scholarship, I perceive the advantage of teaching experience. The DFG scholarship – in my case, the ‘Individual Position’ – was a comprehensive package consisting of a position, travel expenses, research funds, and an additional doctoral position. It allowed me to focus entirely on my research.
With the fellowship, I was firmly integrated into the institute and involved in teaching and other processes, gathering administrative experience. I consider this a very commendable approach.
Do women still need special support or programs?
I would say yes, primarily because we evidently still don’t have enough women in higher positions in academia. While women, depending on the discipline, sometimes complete more doctorates or even post-doctoral qualifications, they often subsequently face the decision of starting a family. A scientific career inherently carries many uncertainties – this holds true for men as well.
If we ever reach a point where childcare is genuinely shared equally between mothers and fathers, an inclusive family program would be practical. I personally know how challenging it is to balance academic pursuits with private life. Hence, I support the continuation and potential adaptation of successful programs.
It is essential to advance family-friendly concepts in academia and promote the compatibility of an academic career and family life for both women and men.
“At the University of Hohenheim, I clearly felt that the atmosphere changed when more women were appointed as professors.”
Have you ever felt disadvantaged because you are a woman?
I’ve never felt directly disadvantaged. However, it is evident that the entire academic system remains predominantly male-dominated. Three examples from my personal experience illustrate this: When I joined the University of Gießen in 2003, I collaborated with a professor who, aside from her academic chair, was the sole female researcher at a research center. She felt the need to prove herself more than her male counterparts.
The second instance is the University of Hohenheim. When I began there in 2008, very few professorships within the Faculty of Agricultural Sciences were held by women. I distinctly noticed a shift in atmosphere as more women were appointed.
At the University of Natural Resources and Life Sciences in Vienna, where I now work, the 2019/2020 report on Equality and Diversity showed that less than a third of the university professorship roles were held by women. I am the first female professor in the Department of Sustainable Agricultural Systems.
What weighed on me more was the question, “What’s next?” The limited positions available post-doctorate, known as mid-level academic roles, and the associated uncertainty were more challenging for me.
Has the pathway to an academic career changed?
Many are at a crossroads post-doctorate. Permanent positions are scarce. It was crucial for me back then to forge my path, and I encourage students and staff to do the same today. I support them through collaborative research proposals, forwarding job opportunities, and other avenues for development.
In Austria, there’s a regulation on sequential contracts, albeit with different conditions than in Germany — in Austria, it’s possible to move to another university after a certain duration, not so in Germany. While universities indeed thrive on dynamism and exchange, there needs to be more prospects.
“My overseas experience changed my perspective. When I see the challenges young people in Africa face and yet they don’t lose their optimism, I think we can learn a lot from them.”
How do you reflect on your achievements?
I have no regrets about my journey. I can do what I believe is meaningful, passionately pursuing my research and teaching. Seeing the challenges young individuals face in many countries, like in Africa, and their unwavering determination and optimism, I believe we have much to learn from them. My research contributes to societal changes. My experiences abroad have provided me with a unique perspective.
In England, I had my first permanent academic position. At Hohenheim, I couldn’t apply to succeed the academic chair since internal promotions were not permitted at that time.
In retrospect, moving to England was the right decision, significantly broadening my horizons. However, with Brexit, the conditions became less favorable.
The job advertisement from the University of Natural Resources and Life Sciences in Vienna came at an opportune moment, aligning perfectly with my research area. The application process was challenging, especially since everything was online due to the Corona lockdown.
Now, I feel settled in Vienna, actively shaping vital and exciting developments.
Prof. Stefanie Lemke: Group photo research trip in Uganda
The predominant challenges of our time are the climate crisis and ensuring sustainable food security. My research revolves around understanding how people, primarily in Africa but also in Europe, can sustain their livelihoods through agriculture in increasingly difficult conditions. To this end, I collaborate with social movements and civil society organizations. A significant concern in this context is land access, especially for women who frequently don’t have the legal right to own land. The goal is to bolster collective land rights for men, women, and most importantly, the youth, allowing them to counteract investor groups. Land, being a scarce resource, is coveted for large agricultural investments or reforestation projects, often as part of climate initiatives.
Yet many of these projects don’t consider the local inhabitants. How can they secure their livelihoods and nutrition? What prospects exist for the youth and small-scale farms? The local populace must have a say in these matters and implement strategies they deem fit. We can methodologically guide processes and gather data, providing empirical evidence to pressure policymakers into creating the necessary legal frameworks, ensuring the right to food and nutrition for everyone.
Engaging men more extensively is crucial. Planning nutrition programs exclusively for women is unproductive if they lack decision-making power over household finances, land access, or family planning, with men or mothers-in-law having the final say. Notably, gender equality remains a pertinent issue in Europe. For instance, in Austria, Germany, or Switzerland’s agriculture sectors, women often contribute significantly but aren’t officially recognized or registered as partners. In cases of separation, they usually lack financial security. The bulk of caregiving tasks still predominantly falls upon women. The overarching goal is to transform societal structures.
In a European Union project, we employ participatory action research in collaboration with small-scale and other rural enterprises to empower families, especially women, fostering unity, and urging policymakers to establish improved conditions.
Name: Stefanie Lemke
The human right to adequate food and nutrition, women’s rights, gender, intersectionality, sustainable food systems, food and nutrition security and livelihoods, sustainable resource management
University and Chair:
Institute of Development Research, Department of Sustainable Agricultural Systems, University of Natural Resources and Life Sciences, Vienna
Family:Married, no children
Career Path of Stefanie Lemke
Master's Degree in Home Economics and Nutrition Sciences, Technical University of Munich-Weihenstephan (TUM) (1984 – 1991)
Team Leader, Evaluation and Information Service for Nutrition, Agriculture and Forestry (AID) e.V. and Federal Ministry of Food, Agriculture and Forestry, 'Mobile Nutrition Consultation and Information in the state of Saxony' (1991 – 1992)
Head of Nutrition Counseling, AOK Bayern, districts of Bad Tölz-Wolfratshausen and Miesbach-Tegernsee (1992 – 1997)
Doctoral Candidate in Rural Sociology, Technical University of Munich-Weihenstephan (1997 – 2001). During this period, she also spent time as a visiting researcher at the Nutrition Department, North West University, South Africa.
Freelance Consultant for InWent-Capacity Building International, Feldafing; aid Infoservice e.V. Bonn; AOK Bayern, Bad Tölz; and Bavarian State Institute for Agriculture (LfL) on a project called 'Market Analysis Holiday on Farms', empirical social research, Bavaria & Tyrol (2001 – 2002)
Project lead, DFG postdoctoral research, situated at the Centre for International Development and Environmental Research, Justus Liebig University Giessen (2003 – 2008). Concurrently, she also served as a visiting researcher at the Africa Unit for Transdisciplinary Health Research (AUTHeR), North West University, South Africa.
Senior Research Fellow, Department of Gender and Nutrition, Institute of Social Sciences in the Agricultural Sector, University of Hohenheim (2008 – 2010)
Habilitation (Postdoctoral Qualification) in the field of 'Gender and Nutrition', Institute of Social Sciences in Agriculture, Faculty of Agricultural Sciences, University of Hohenheim (2010 – 2015)
Margarete-von-Wrangell Habilitation Program, Ministry of Science, Research & the Arts, Baden-Württemberg & European Social Fund (2010 – 2012)
Acting Chair, Department of Gender and Nutrition, Institute of Social Sciences in Agriculture, University of Hohenheim (2013 – 2015)
Associate Professor (PD), Department of Societal Transformation and Agriculture, University of Hohenheim (2015 – 2021)
Senior Research Fellow, Centre for Agroecology, Water and Resilience, Coventry University, UK (2015 – 2018)
Associate Professor, Centre for Agroecology, Water and Resilience, Coventry University, UK (2019 – 2021)
Professor and Head of the Institute of Development Research, Department of Sustainable Agricultural Systems, University of Natural Resources and Life Sciences, Vienna (since 2021)
Interview with Stefanie Lemke at 08.08.2023