Meet PhD Candidate Silja Zimmermann

Silja Zimmermann started as a PhD Candidate at the Centre for Complex Systems Studies (CCSS) in February this year. She works under supervision of Ine Dorresteijn, Bert Theunissen, Brian Dermody and Martin Wassen on leveraging a sustainable transition of the food system for indigenous communities in the Bering Sea. She briefly introduces herself below.

From Geography to Arctic socio-ecological systems

I am originally from Germany, where I did my Bachelor's in Geography and my Master's in Conservation and Landscape Ecology in Bonn. After that I decided to move to Berlin for a second, more research-oriented Master's degree in Global Change Geography. I spent a semester abroad in Iceland during my second year at university, where I fell desperately in love with the Arctic. So I went on to do two more exchange semesters in Finland and Svalbard in the further course of my studies. My Master's thesis contributed to a World Wildlife Fund project, using a multidisciplinary approach to study changes in habitat use in Arctic marine mammals due to climate change.

After finishing my studies, I first worked on Arctic marine conservation for the Institute for Advanced Sustainability Studies in Potsdam and then for Greenpeace International as a volunteer deckhand on board the MY Arctic Sunrise, before applying for a PhD position and being lucky enough to be accepted at Utrecht University.

Complexity in Arctic systems

Over the years, I have studied various components of Arctic socio-ecological systems: vegetation dynamics in Iceland, reindeer husbandry and their effects on lichen cover in Norway and habitat selection of Arctic marine mammals in the circumpolar Arctic. But what has always fascinated me the most is how all these components play together and create complex dynamic systems. Arctic socio-ecological systems are complex, highly interlinked and spread across large temporal and spatial scales. They can seem so distant to our lives in central Europe, yet what happens in the Arctic significantly affects us here as well – and vice versa. That's why I think complex system studies offer valuable tools for understanding these systems and working towards a holistic system understanding.

Arctic indigenous food system

The overall goal of my PhD project is to show how complexity science methods can be used within transdisciplinary research, that is, when actively involving other stakeholders outside the academic community. I adopt a complex systems perspective to identify leverage points in the marine-based Arctic indigenous food system on the Pribilof Islands in the Bering Sea.

To gain a systemic understanding of the food system's current structure, I then use network analysis to analyse interdependencies between key actors and prevailing sustainability issues. I then want to combine natural and social sciences and explore how the food system is influenced by changes in people's values and paradigms from the past to the present.

Collaboration with the local community

I take a highly participatory approach by establishing a Transformation Lab that involves and empowers community members to identify transformation pathways towards a more desirable future. In close collaboration with the local community, I aim to develop positive scenarios for the future food system and pathways towards a more just and sustainable system state. These pathways will then be tested using agent-based modelling to capture the system's dynamics and inform the community's actual interventions. By using diverse methodologies and bringing various disciplines together, I wish to gain a holistic understanding of the local food system to find key leverage points for a sustainability transformation.

I am super excited about this project and am looking forward to work on such an interdisciplinary and applied project!