You can find this interview in Letter N°15 sent to the members of the Friends of the Tour du Valat.
I am Céline Hanzen. I am curious, passionate, and I have great dreams and hopes. I am Belgian, but South Africa has adopted me since 2016, after a stay in the Camargue. I am an ecologist by training but also a hiker, an amateur photographer and a musician. My research theme is African freshwater eels, which are long-distance migratory fish. I am passionate about these secret creatures, which are an indicator species: their status depends on how we manage our water resources. I am also fascinated by topics relating to ecological connectivity.
When did you first come to Tour du Valat and what was your first impression?
I came to Tour du Valat in July 2014 to do a European Voluntary Service (EVS) with Brigitte Poulin’s team. It was already a while ago, but I remember that the first thing that struck me was the heat! Otherwise, I immediately liked the somewhat wild and isolated side of the farmhouse and I quickly felt at home there.
What was your background before you went to Tour du Valat ? (What field, career prospects …)
When I arrived at Tour du Valat, I already had two master’s degrees, one in aquatic ecology and the other in environmental management in developing countries. I had already been able to travel a little, to Senegal for my second master’s degree and to Scotland for an internship. I wanted to discover new things and go on adventures, but most of all, I wanted to be out in the field. So the idea of doing an EVS came naturally to me, and Tour du Valat was my first choice.
What did your time at Tour du Valat change for you? Would you do it all over again?
I learnt a lot over there, in terms of science and conservation, but also about myself. Would I do it all over again? Yes, of course I’ll go back! My experience really opened my mind and showed me what opportunities were available. In particular, I was working on alternatives to BTI (biological product used for mosquito control) with experiments on mosquito traps. I really found the project very rewarding and to see that, in fact, we can maybe positively change things with small means but big ideas.
A memory/anecdote of your days at Tour du Valat?
There’s so many! There is one that I share a lot: when I had to help measure the nuisance by mosquitoes, on the farmhouse or at the Sambuc, by serving as a guinea pig. How did I do that? Quite simply with a mouth vacuum cleaner, while waiting wisely for mosquitoes to bite me… I also have a great memory of the first harvest at Petit St Jean, what a day! I was also privileged to spend some time in the flamingo observatory and to participate in the ringing of flamingos and spoonbills.
What was your favourite encounter at Tour du Valat?
I made friends for life at Tour du Valat, even if I’m a bit far away to see them at the moment.
Brigitte, Gaëtan and Sam, they were the A-team with whom I mainly worked. I think I owe them a lot, both professionally and personally.
What have you been doing since and what are you doing today?
Towards the end of my EVS, I got a PhD offer. I only moved to South Africa one year after leaving Tour du Valat. In the meantime, I was able to go to the ringing station in Bretolet, Switzerland, for a few weeks, and I hope to return there this year! I moved to South Africa in June 2016. I completed my PhD at the University of KwaZulu-Natal in Pietermaritzburg in 2020. At the moment, I am a post doc researcher on an international project (South Africa, Kenya, Mozambique) which aims to clarify the migration dynamics of African freshwater eels.
Very recently, I was selected to be part of Homeward Bound. This is a wonderful initiative for women in STEMM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics and medicine). The program targets women working in these fields, including those committed to the Planet, just like me.
It is a 12-month program that includes distance learning and workshops. The goal is simple: to provide us with all the necessary tools to help us
– Improve our leadership capabilities ;
– Improve our communication skills to increase the visibility of female scientists and promote our image in the media;
– Implement concrete actions for the future of our Planet.
All this concludes with a breathtaking trip to Antarctica – an opportunity to put into practice all the things we learned online. And to help me cover the costs, I started a fundraising campaign.
Do you have any advice or messages to pass on to future generations who will come to Tour du Valat?
I think it’s important to take full advantage of all the opportunities there are to learn or to gain experience in many different subjects and fields. There’s a lot happening at Tour du Valat, and it’s a bit up to the volunteers, interns, students, etc. to get off the beaten track and discover what’s being done outside their team or project.