Episode 12: Stefan Kröpelin

Interesting stories and insights on life come tumbling out of Stefan Kröpelin — one of the foremost scientists working in the eastern Sahara — like snowflakes in a blizzard. Science is at the forefront of our conversation, but his worldview is literary: “It was never my intention to make, out of 100 books, the 101st.” Always, Stefan looks for the empty space and fresh opportunity, on the map and in science.

Stefan at Lake Bokou — part of the Lakes of Ounianga UNESCO World Heritage Site, northern Chad. Credit: Stefan Kröpelin.

Stefan was born in 1952 in Munich. His father was a political journalist at the Bavarian Broadcasting Corporation, his mother was one of the first successful female lawyers in town, and his grandparents were in the resistance against Hitler. By age five or six, he was talking politics at the dinner table and had decided to become an archaeologist. He grew up in Schwabing, at the time a hotbed of bohemianism. Stefan was expelled from high school for excessive political demonstration, and made use of the time by traveling in a $50 VW van to India, where he met the Dalai Lama. By 18, he was crossing some of the world’s major deserts. Not your average childhood.

Stefan finished his high school degree in communist-era West Berlin, where, as a Bavarian, he found a special sense of isolation. Soon he became one of the first computer science students in Germany and narrowly missed moving to silicon valley.

Instead, Stefan found the Sahara, or maybe the Sahara found Stefan. He’s been going  back for 45 years, almost every year, for months at a time. We talk about the desert: the absolute freedom of nothingness; harrowing entanglement with local politics; waking up in your sleeping bag covered with a small dune, or ice; the collapsing window of opportunity due to the rise of political instability in region; bathing with half a gallon (“…there’s some techniques…”).

Over the decades, Stefan has managed something that would be miraculous in a short-term funding environment: four major grants have kept him going, with relatively few, yet high-impact papers — not suprising, given that it can take ten years from taking a core to publication. He’s also clear on the separation of professional disagreements from personal friendships, a skill that sometimes seems lost in modern science.

I left our interview with an intense feeling of nostalgia for something I never experienced, or am likely to ever experience. Stefan’s brand of Saharan research was always sparsely populated, and it’s unclear if anyone else will step into the void.

All of which makes me regret even more the audio quality of the interview. Unfortunately I had some issues with my portable recorder and the entire discussion has a bad echo. It’s still completely comprehensible, and I hope you’re able to overlook the sound quality!

Note: my colleague at Nature Quirin Schiermeier has a great profile of Stefan and a description of a recent expedition.

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