From Cameroon to Karlsruhe: forging ahead

The Georg Forster Fellow and taxonomist, Jeanne Agrippine Yetchom Fondjo, is conducting research on grasshoppers and biodiversity at the State Museum of Natural History Karlsruhe. She hopes her work will be a source of inspiration and attract more women to science.

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Three questions for: Jeanne Fondjo

A photo of Humboldtian Jeanne Agrippine Yetchom Fondjo. Text: THREE QUESTIONS FOR Jeanne Agrippine Yetchom Fondjo. Beneath that the Foundation's logo.
Question: What do you see as the role of women in science?   Answer (quote): „In African countries women are still seriously underrepresented in research. It’s crucial to bring more women into science. They bring new perspectives and can help to find innovative solutions in all disciplines.“
Question: What would you say to women researchers in your country who are still hesitant to embark on research in Germany?  Answer (quote): „Believe in yourselves and follow your dream!   The two- to four-month language course at the beginning of the fellowship makes the start in Germany much easier. Depending where you are, you can get by with English, too, and the people I’ve met so far have all been very helpful.“
Question: Why did you choose the Humboldt Foundation?   Answer (quote): „The Foundation has a good reputation. At the University of Douala in 2013, a Humboldt alumni, Alain Betrand Dongmo, gave a talk about the opportunities a fellowship opens up. When I heard that, I decided to apply a few years later after my doctoral thesis.“

The Cameroonian entomologist, Jeanne Agrippine Yetchom Fondjo, is often one of the first – both in the habitat of the grasshoppers she discovers in the humid cloud forests of Cameroon and in her research field of taxonomy. “In Cameroon, there are only very few taxonomy specialists; I’m the only woman,” explains the Georg Forster Fellow and researcher at the University of Douala. In the last seven years, Jeanne Fondjo has discovered and classified more than 1,000 specimens of grasshopper in Cameroon, of which nine species have been new to science. She brought her collection with her in 2022 when she joined the research group of her host, Martin Husemann, initially at the Hamburg-based Leibniz Institute for the Analysis of Biodiversity Change and, from March 2024, at the State Museum of Natural History Karlsruhe. In the Entomology Department there, she uses an integrative taxonomic approach to study species delimitation of Cameroonian short-horned grasshoppers, using standard barcoding and multigene technology for her work alongside intensive field sampling, museum studies, classic morphological work and genetic analyses. Her long-term goal: “I would like to set up a DNA barcode reference library for the grasshopper fauna of Cameroon and tropical Africa that will be useful for effective identification and that is accessible worldwide. Based on this, I want to database DNA barcodes of all African rainforest Orthoptera species and construct their phylogenetic tree depicting the evolutionary relationships between the species.”

Exploring new things

It was not a foregone conclusion that Fondjo would make her way in science and in this research field in particular. “In Cameroon, grasshoppers are largely seen as pests and are ignored by science and conservation efforts. “Yet they are an elementary part of the food chain and keep the ecosystem in balance," says Fondjo. During her doctorate on the subject of "Ecology and taxonomy of grasshoppers from the littoral evergreen forest zones of Cameroon", a scientific supervisor tried to persuade her to concentrate solely on the ecological aspect. "That was out of the question. I wanted to research something completely new," says Fondjo, who became the first candidate and the first female to successfully defense a PhD doctorate in zoology at the University of Douala in 2020.

At Cameroon’s universities there is no shortage of female undergraduates, she notes. But the higher the degree, the fewer the number of women. Most finish university after doing a Master’s; there are only very few female doctoral candidates. “There is a lot of pressure from society to become a wife and mother. I think nearly every African women is confronted with this. Moreover, in some parts of the country people think science is not for women.” Fondjo herself always had the support of her mother, although the people around her repeatedly put pressure on her to get her daughter to marry and have children. Fondjo has also observed certain tendencies amongst her female Master’s students: “Most of them lack self-confidence and are scared of failing. Some even believe they can’t perform as well as men in science.” Fondjo wants to show them that it is possible to make your way in science. “It’s important not to lose heart and to keep trying despite all the challenges.”

More information about the Georg Forster Research Fellowship 

When she applied for a Georg Forster Fellowship, people around her originally discouraged her. The barriers were too high, the competition too great. “But I wanted to try anyway, since I was confident in myself and I was successful,” says Fondjo. Her time in Hamburg and Karlsruhe is already having a positive impact on her career. “Thanks to the good equipment in the workrooms and the lab I can concentrate fully on my research. I have already written two papers that are currently under review and a third is in the pipeline. Along the way, I have expanded my network to include valuable collaborative contacts to German and international researchers.” And she has the prospect of a two year position as a researcher at the State Museum of Natural History Karlsruhe. Fondjo wants other women researchers from Cameroon to have a similar experience. It is important to her to close the gender gap in her research field. “We need more women. Every day, I do my best to prove to them that we can be successful in research. It’s a challenge, but we can do it.”

Author: Esther Sambale

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