Prof. Josephine Joordens, researcher at Naturalis. Jose has accepted an endowed chair at the University of Maastricht; the Naturalis Dubois Chair in Hominin Paleoecology and Evolution.


She describes her own academic career as ‘weird’. During an open day at the university in 1981, she was turned away from the informational session for the Geology study programme with a blunt ‘this isn’t for girls’. Fortunately, she was welcomed with open arms at the neighbouring session for the Biology study programme, where she ended up earning her degree. She then spent two years in Zambia and Senegal for her husband’s work. When an opportunity to come back to the Netherlands presented itself, she seized it, and eventually became an applied researcher and consultant in marine biology.


“As a consultant, you really learn how to sell yourself and your recommendations”, she explains. “That came in handy in my later scientific career.” She eventually chose to leave the consultancy field to raise her two children, but after a burn-out, she began to think about her further career. “I quit my job to take some time off.” José spent three years reading and getting in touch with her roots. She devoured the books by Darwin and other famous biologists, and asked herself the question: ‘who am I?’. The answer quickly became clear: “I’m a biologist! But what kind of biologist?” After studying the general literature on biology, she delved into scientific publications and discovered her real passion: human evolution.


She still remembers the moment that the spark ignited. “It was a scientific article about a fossil stingray found together with hominin fossils in Turkana, Kenya”, she explains. “I wondered: how could that animal have swam there two million years ago, considering that the area is so far away from the ocean today? So she sent an e-mail to the author of the article, Craig Feibel – now one of her closest colleagues. “I basically said: hey, I liked your article!” A year later, she joined him for field work in Africa, and was immediately hooked. She then wrote a research proposal for a PhD in hominin evolution. In her own words, her proposal dealt with “something about the geology of Africa, sea level rise, climate and its influence on human evolution and geographic distribution”. Via Frank Wesselingh at Naturalis, she came into contact with John de Vos. He laughed out loud at the proposal and was merciless in his criticism, but as José says: “John is always open to something different.” In the end, she obtained a PhD research position at the VU Amsterdam’s Faculty of Earth- and Life Sciences.


She completed her PhD in five years, with the help of extra funding, and by then she had already begun working as a postdoc for Wil Roebroeks at the University of Leiden (who had just received a Spinoza Prize). José truly enjoyed her PhD research: “With a PhD, you can really get deep into the material, where in consultancy I was used to working from deadline to deadline, without a break or time to expand my knowledge.” She aims to maintain that scientific drive, as exemplified by her two PhD students and her postdoc researcher. Her PhD student Sander Hilgen and postdoc Eduard Pop are both cut of the same cloth: they both started with archaeology before moving into geology and human evolution. Her other PhD student, geologist Harold Berghuis, also has experience in consultancy. “We really enjoy conducting research together”, says José. “And we’re also more effective together.”


In the eight years between earning her PhD and supervising her own PhD students, José displayed considerable motivation. She eagerly uses her growing status and authority to look beyond the limits of her field and to colour outside the lines. “I’m 56, and I don’t have to worry about day-to-day survival anymore. Now that I have the role and responsibility of a professor, I can afford to stick my neck out once in a while”, José adds. “Science is the work of humans, so tunnel vision is always a risk. That’s why I believe now is the ideal time to be critical and innovative.”