Tell us a little bit about your career up to this point.
I started out at the Development Center for X-ray Technology (EZRT) in 2013. After completing my doctorate, I became a postdoctoral research associate there and had the opportunity to get involved in agriculture. As part of that work, I developed a concrete idea for a non-destructive way to evaluate a plant's underground growth. We were able to leverage our knowledge of computed tomography to, say, observe the growth of potato tubers. That was the focus of our early research projects.
I became group manager in 2016 and established a group for this particular topic. In 2020, I accepted the position as head of department in a co-leadership role together with Alexander Ennen. As head of department, I'm focused on integrating X-ray systems in general in different business areas – from portable systems all the way to extremely large, high-energy X-ray systems. One of our successes as a team is the way we turned computed tomography into a tool for plant phenotyping. Since then, our work has advanced to the point where we are integrating computed tomography systems into conveyor belt operations for plant testing at companies and research institutes.
How would you describe your particular skills?
One of the things that contributed most to our success was, to a large extent, interdisciplinary communication with our project partners: How can we initiate successful projects that involve different disciplines? It goes without saying that a biologist has a completely different perspective than I do as a physicist, and we have different ways of approaching the same question. That might sound trivial at first, but significant investment goes into establishing a mutual understanding and making sure everyone is on the same page. That's the only way we can identify a solution that works for everyone.
And what about your skills as a team leader?
Listening! We, too, have a highly interdisciplinary, technically minded team. You have to ask yourself: Where do our differences lie? How can we merge different approaches and maybe find a solution that can be implemented in different areas?
What is the focus of your work and research?
Within the research project Biogenic Value Creation and Smart Farming, I focus mainly on supervising the project for Fraunhofer IIS. That means I consider which questions we should address and which partners we need for the project, how to get them involved. I also identify the places in which our work intersects with that of other institutions and pinpoint key stakeholders in industry, science, and politics. Project management and controlling are the most time-consuming aspects. Additionally, I contribute my knowledge and ideas when it comes to plant phenotyping: I think about which sensor solutions we can employ to solve specific stakeholder questions and what kind of development we need to achieve in order to make progress.
So, would you say that your role has changed dramatically over the years?
At the beginning of my career – back when I was a research associate – I was much more heavily involved in research and project work. As a group manager, I focused more on coordinating the projects. And now, as head of department, I coordinate multiple groups, and on top of that, I manage the Biogenic Value Creation and Smart Farming project. I've continued to move further away from research over the years, but now I have the opportunity to shape our projects and assess which direction is best for our development going forward. And to top it off, I'm lucky to have the continued support of an amazing team along the way.
Dr. Stefan Gerth, thank you for your time.
Article by Lucas Westermann, Editor Fraunhofer IIS Magazine