Published 2017-10-31

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Marine scientist with a feel for popular education and community

Back in the 1970s, she used to collect shells on the coast of Northern Bohuslän. Kerstin Johannesson has kept her interest in the sea for nearly 40 years. As Vice Chair of Mistra’s Board, she spreads knowledge of all things maritime in ways that make her Board colleagues, school classes and commercial fishermen sit up and listen.

‘Once I was a researcher with a narrow focus, who studied nothing but speciation in periwinkles and seaweed. But when I jumped in at the deep end, in the early 2000s, as director of the Tjärnö Marine Biological Laboratory (as it used to be called), the broad questions came in from the public. Why are there no cod? Why are there so many jellyfish? What is the state of the marine environment? I had no answers, but I took on the task of disseminating knowledge of the sea in society.’

Ever since she was a teenager, when her parents bought a holiday home on the island of Tjärnö, 10 km or so from Strömstad, Kerstin Johannesson has known what she wants to do. In the summer, she used to walk along the beach collecting shells, which she then sorted. Eventually she studied marine biology at the University of Gothenburg, and ever since her degree project was completed in 1979 she has studied periwinkles to understand how new animal species are formed.

Today, Kerstin Johannesson is Professor of Marine Ecology at the Sven Lovén Centre for Marine Sciences on Tjärnö. She is often engaged as an expert on questions relating to the marine environment, including genetic variation and biodiversity. She is also a lecturer and writer on popular science, and often meets school classes that visit the laboratory.

Frequent lecturer who wants to reach out

Early on in her PhD studentship, Johannesson perceived the importance of communicating science so that people other than her researcher colleagues would understand. After she had lectured to pensioners about periwinkles, one man sitting at the front looked her in the eyes and asked: ‘What’s the point of this?’

‘I hadn’t even reflected on the answer,’ she says. ‘But I’m deeply grateful that he asked the question. Today, I’d be able to explain so that he understood.’

These days, to Johannesson, it is self-evident that all scientists should be able to communicate in popular terms and spread their knowledge out into the community.

‘I feel a responsibility, since I was trained at public expense. That’s why I think it’s important to say yes when I’m asked to talk to school classes, teachers and politicians.’

Her expertise and communication skills have also resulted in her being elected to Mistra’s Board in 2014. There, since the autumn, she has been Vice Chair. The Board meets five or six times a year, so some train journeys from Northern Bohuslän to Stockholm are required. She has no objection to this — on the contrary.

‘I’ve sat on many different committees and research councils. But I’ve never been at such enjoyable and exciting meetings as those of Mistra’s Board. I learn lots of new things every time we get together.’

Collected in the Board are many different areas of expertise, representing academia, public agencies and the business sector. The Chair, Johan Söderström, is Head of ABB AB Sweden; Eva Samakovlis is Head of Analysis at the Swedish Tax Agency; and Sara Ilstedt is Professor of Product and Service Design at KTH, to mention just a few Board members.

Businesses need to be engaged more

One important challenge for Mistra and the Board is to reach out to leaders in industry by developing proposals for research projects closely connected with industry. Large companies have an extremely important role in driving change and small ones follow suit, Johannesson thinks. She also emphasises the importance of Mistra’s role as an asset manager.

‘Mistra has shown that investing in sustainable long-term investments is profitable. It’s interesting because Mistra can work for sustainability in another way, not just as a research funder.’

Having spent her whole life living on the West Coast of Sweden, Johannesson also does practical work involving environmental management. Ahead of the formation of Sweden’s first marine national park in Kosterhavet 2009, she served as an expert in marine biology to ensure long-term protection for the marine environment. Jointly with others, she held a constructive dialogue with commercial fishermen. Instead of fishing being subject to a complete ban in the national park, it is permitted throughout the area today, but with certain restrictions to minimise environmental impact.

She continues to be engaged in local management of coastal fisheries in Northern Bohuslän, where a dialogue among local fishermen, researchers and politicians is in progress.

‘We’re trying to tackle, by agreement, the problems that arise in environmental management. I can see great scope for concerting our efforts and jointly finding concrete, sustainable solutions.’


Kerstin Johannesson, Vice Chair of Mistra’s Board

Age: 61

Family: married, with two adult children, two cats and a dog.

Hobby: ‘Looking after and sailing my nearly 80-year-old Swedish Dragon boat.’