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What does diversity mean to you in your work and how do you approach it?

The current cohort of dissertation writing-up fellows were selected from last year's fellowship call: “Dealing with diversity in the life and sustainability sciences." They were invited to the KLI for their unique and innovative approaches to "diversity,"  both in terms of their research as well as their professional lives. To get a taste of the diversity of our "diversity" fellows, we asked Marina Knickel, Rongkun Liu, Ely Mermans, Afika Njwaxu, and Vitor Renck to kindly respond to a prompt:


What does "diversity" mean to you in your work and how do you approach it?


Find out their answers below or click their names above to directly jump to their entries!

(in alphabetic order)

Marina Knickel

Personally, I have always appreciated diversity in all its manifestations and seen it as an impetus for learning and personal development. Ever since my studying and working across different geographies, diversity has grown further in its importance. It means many things to me: plurality of perspectives, knowledge and experiences, genuine inclusion, and creativity to name a few. But diversity also comes with challenges - for example in communication and group dynamics - and therefore requires appropriate conditions to remain beneficial for all involved. Diversity means a great deal in my work too, which I would place at the intersection of social science, innovation studies and transdisciplinary research. Concepts like co-learning, hybridisation and a Living Lab are central for my PhD research, and what’s more - they all imply bringing the knowledge of different societal actors together, often with the aim to address complex, multidimensional challenges.

Having applied the concept of “hybridisation” in my work, I believe that it can be powerful as it calls for acknowledging and valorising mutual differences, reconciling frictions, and fostering mutual learning (Kraeger et al., 2010; Newman, 2003; Sohn, 2014). I examined similarities and differences between how academic institutions and innovation brokers support innovation in agri-food SMEs in the two Dutch and German border regions. I argued that while similarities provide a common ground for regional innovation actors, it is the differences that can potentially be recognised as complementary regional strengths and enhance cross-border cooperation (Knickel et al., 2021). 

(Photo credit: Marina Knickel)

Another example of the importance of diversity is transdisciplinary research, where it is essentially one of the preconditions. The challenges of today are too complex to address only with disciplinary research excluding societal actors and their needs. Thus, different forms of knowledge (e.g., academic and practitioner knowledge) need to be combined through a facilitated process to develop an optimal and practically applicable solution. With the necessity of scientists working together with practice partners being increasingly recognised, the question is how that diversity of knowledge and approaches, and group dynamics, etc., can be managed so the team can actually achieve its goals. This is what I am exploring in my PhD on the basis of an EU-funded transdisciplinary project on rural-urban relations, where the capacity to learn and collaborate turned out to be fundamental.

Rongkun Liu

My research focuses on knowledge engagement for resilience building in remote mountain regions. One of the keywords is “hybridity,” or knowledge hybridity in particular, an emergent outcome of dynamic encounters and interactions across diverse knowledge systems, e.g., indigenous local knowledge and professional scientific knowledge. In that sense, I approach diversity as a prerequisite for potential encounters and interactions that allow hybridization to take place, where, in turn, new hybrids would emerge to enrich the depth and width of diversity.

In my anthropological work, I am not only trying to advance the understanding of knowledge diversity and hybridity, but also to adhere to the notion of disciplinary diversity and hybridity by integrating theories in decision-making, sustainable resource management, disaster risk reduction, citizen science, and development studies, and by incorporating multiple methodologies from the humanities and social sciences. My work in its very nature therefore aims to honor the interdisciplinarity of anthropology “as the most scientific of the humanities, and the most humanistic of the sciences” (Wolf 1964: 88), offering in-between spaces where disciplinary diversity and hybridity would thrive.  

Ely Mermans (they/them, he/him)

I am a philosopher specializing in philosophy of ecology, feminist philosophy of sciences and environmental ethics. My PhD dissertation focuses on a particular ecological concept of species, the “keystone species” concept, and on how this concept relates to “ecocentric“ ethics – ethical approaches in Western environmental philosophy that acknowledge the moral standing of species and ecological systems.

I am trans and non-binary, white and non-disabled, and I have only been conducting research in Western institutions. Through my PhD, I have had the chance to work within various interdisciplinary research environments. This, however, did not prevent them to be highly homogeneous and hierarchical in other respects, i.e., mostly composed by and made for white, cisgender, heterosexual, non-disabled persons (especially men). From a trans- and intersectional feminist perspective, I believe that diversity in research cannot be achieved without involving underrepresented and marginalized approaches and viewpoints. This is part of what makes the KLI a special place.

In my PhD dissertation, I approach the idea of diversity in at least two ways. First, I show that the concept of keystone species, as used in the ecological and conservation sciences, involves different ideas of “diversity”, notably various ideas of ecological diversity. Second, I argue, as part of my KLI research project, that this concept involves a variety of aims and values, which might stand as “epistemic” – e.g., knowledge or truth related – as well as “non-epistemic” – e.g., as ethical and political values often qualified – depending on context.

Afika Njwaxu

“Emotions of fear and hatred stick to certain bodies, some bodies become understood as the rightful occupants of certain spaces” – Sara Ahmed, 2012.  This quote makes it easy for me to answer what diversity means to me and it is simply inclusion, freedom to exist in any space I want. To just, be!

It was very important for me to answer what diversity means to me before explaining what it means in my work. My work is an extension of who I am as a person, and therefore how I see and interpret the world influences the actions I take to contribute to my own version of the big picture. So, for me diversity is inclusion with no bodies or voices reigning supreme than others. As a black woman researcher, this is very important to me, with the gender pay gap, silencing of women and historical exclusion of black people, it is imperative that my work leaves no voice unheard.Photo: Afika Njwaxu

Now coming to my work; diversity takes many forms. The title of my PhD is assessing cultural keystone species in the Wild Coast, South Africa. The study sites of my work alone are a big exhibit of exclusion because these are homelands where black people were moved to by the apartheid government to exclude them from economy access and sustainable livelihoods. These areas remain some of the poorest areas of the country, to this day.  My work takes place within many sensitive spaces of extreme exclusion. These are the Nguni cultures of Xhosa and Mpondo people, rural areas of the Eastern Cape, South Africa, environmental policy and decision making, and rural livelihoods and religion. Taking all that into consideration, diversity in my work means the inclusion of women participants, giving a voice to rural people and presenting multiple as well as diverse ways of solving environmental problems. Taking all this into consideration, diversity in my work can be summed up in one term; Biocultural diversity, which is a prime example of inclusion. Globally, the most biodiverse areas are inhabited by indigenous and traditional people. Initiatives such as the Declaration of Belém are some of the efforts I would like to contribute to with my work as means of fostering inclusion.

(Photo credit: Afika Njwaxu)

Vitor Renck (they/they, he/him)

The KLI is all about diversity. Diversity in terms of research topics, gender, sexual orientation, ethnicity, you name it. I’ve always cherished this diversity, whether at work or with the people I choose to relate to. Being in a more privileged position in this society (that is, being a white middle class male), I know that I have a lot to learn from people from completely different backgrounds and walks of life. That is  why I chose to work with indigenous people and traditional communities in Brazil, people from different cultures and languages who are often marginalized and unacknowledged despite their essential roles in biodiversity conservation. Their struggle becomes my struggle and I choose to walk by their side as they fight  to be heard and have their rights guaranteed.

My PhD at the Federal University of Bahia is part of a bigger research project that studies biodiversity conservation, ethnobiology and education practices in the artisanal fishing communities of the Itapicuru estuary, northeast coast of Brazil.  With a transdisciplinary and bottom-up research approach, the fishers are not the targets of our study, but our allies in tackling these issues.

My project at the KLI “Can Knowledge Integration Help in Biodiversity Conservation? A Case Study in a Brazilian Fishing Community” discusses the need to incorporate indigenous and local knowledge into policy making. By addressing the challenges and tensions that comes with the integration and coproduction of knowledge systems, we aim to develop a more effective model to improve conservation management practices and, by doing so, playing an empowering role to traditional communities and indigenous people, contributing to their self-determination.

(Photo credit: David Ludwig)