Conquering the world with curiosity

Madhav Thakur, a terrestrial ecology professor, wants to know how climate change affects ecosystems. To track down winner and loser species, he is currently launching a field experiment that is unique worldwide.

© Universität Bern/ Bild: Vera Knöpfel

“I had a bad reputation among my classmates because I always asked so many questions,” jokes Madhav Thakur. Twenty years later, the curious Maddy – as he calls himself in everyday life – has had an impressive career. Most recently, in 2020, at the age of 36, he became an assistant professor and head of the Terrestrial Ecology Division at the University of Bern; in 2021, his biology students voted him Teacher of the Year, and in 2022, the European Research Council awarded him a prestigious ERC Grant. His research group now has a dozen members.

Good-humoured and charming, Maddy Thakur sits in his office at the Muesmatt campus and explains the path that led him from the foot of the Himalayas to the foot of the Alps. The shortest version of this story: A bright young man, while studying for his master’s degree in environmental management at Pokhara University, meets a professor who sparks his enthusiasm for research and encourages him to venture abroad. In a poor country like Nepal, the student also knows there’s a lack of infrastructure for serious research. So Maddy Thakur applies for a master’s in Wageningen, the Netherlands, where he eventually focuses on soil ecology. “From then on, my life changed,” he says. “I realized I loved research and wanted to dive deeper and deeper into things. I wanted to contribute something to my field.” A PhD in Leipzig at the German Centre for Integrative Biodiversity Research and various postdoctoral positions at German and Dutch research institutes followed. And finally, the call to the University of Bern. Steps on the career ladder that the modest Maddy prefers not to make a big fuss about.

© Universität Bern/ Bild: Vera Knöpfel

Simulating the consequences of climate change

He has remained true to his field of research. “I get my hands dirty in the soil,” he says with a grin before sharing more details. With his interest in community ecology, Thakur studies the interactions between different species, looking at the consequences of global changes. How do factors like global warming and drought affect these inter-species interactions? What effects do these changing interactions have on the structure of biotic communities and ecosystem functions? To find answers to these questions, the soil ecologist studies microorganisms, invertebrates and plant communities. In experiments, he simulates climate change for all life in the soil – from bacteria to beetles. “I want to understand what very simple things can teach us about much more complex things,” he explains, “That’s what keeps me up at night.”

But this is only half-true. Maddy Thakur’s nights are also disturbed by his baby boy. After the birth, Thakur was hardly seen in the lab for almost two months; he took paternity leave and holiday all at once. But his international team managed during his absence. For example, a large field experiment took shape and is now ready for visitors. We drove to the Hasli Ethological Station, a secluded former farm on a slope overlooking the Aare River opposite Hinterkappelen where the research division of behavioural ecology is located. Here, the youthful-looking professor presents us with his “mini-ecosystems”, which were only recently built.

© Universität Bern/ Bild: Vera Knöpfel

Pioneering research with a worldwide impact

These take the form of 40 one-metre by one-metre boxes full of meadow plants from the surrounding area – from native clover to woolly honey grass and winter cress to alien species such as Canadian goldenrod. At present, all the vegetation is growing uniformly. But that will change. Starting next spring, the plants will be artificially stressed to simulate future climatic conditions. In some of the boxes, for example, the temperature will periodically be ten degrees higher than in the surrounding area; in others, there won’t be a drop of rain for months, and a combination of the two factors will also be implemented. In other words, the researchers are simulating heat waves and droughts, that are becoming more frequent in Switzerland and elsewhere in the world.

“This is one of the first experiments in the world to try to understand the combined effects of extreme events on ecosystems,” Maddy Thakur points out. In the containers equipped with automatic sliding roofs and heaters, very different parameters are being recorded: for example, how organisms at different stages of the food chain react, or how nutrients flow in terrestrial food webs. This happens in so-called green networks above and brown networks below the soil surface, with mass and energy flowing in between – mainly via the plants.

© Universität Bern/ Bild: Vera Knöpfel

Contributing to scientific progress

This long-term field experiment is part of Maddy Thakur’s ERC project as well as his work as a member of the Oeschger Centre for Climate Change Research at the University of Bern. Climate change and biodiversity research, Thakur says, are increasingly confronted with questions about winners and losers in a changing world: When does a species become a loser and when a winner? Can the negative impacts of climate change on potential loser species be mitigated? What can we learn about biodiversity conservation from winning species? And: In a changing climate, do alien species always perform better than native ones?

The mini-ecosystems in Hasligut just outside Bern are meant to help answer these questions, which are highly relevant for food production and biodiversity conservation. In ecosystem research, Maddy Thakur explains, you either need large areas or longer time periods (combination is ideal, but often logistically very challenging). His experiment is initially scheduled for four years, so he’s betting on the time factor. But if he has his way, that’s only the beginning. “My plan is to continue this experiment until I retire.” One takes the word of the Nepali researcher who has gone out into the world to contribute to scientific progress.

But wouldn’t Maddy Thakur like to return to his homeland? His family still lives in Kathmandu, but at the moment he sees himself in Switzerland continuing on his research path. Maddy the expat pauses, thinks about it and says: “What I could imagine is teaching at a summer school in Nepal now and then.” He wants to inspire students and urge them to be curious – and sufficiently ambitious. Because then a career is possible anywhere in the world.