Women in STE(A)M: From dairy desserts to bridging food safety and economics
Prof.dr.ir. Ine van der Fels-Klerx has a long history in the Wageningen domains. Initially she was drawn to food technology but ultimately transitioned to animal sciences, now focusing on food safety, business economics and modelling. As a Professor in Food Safety Economics at Wageningen University and Wageningen Food Safety Research (WFSR), –she is involved in many national and international projects that bridge food safety monitoring and economics. On the International Women in Science Day we talked with her about her scientific career.
From food technology to animal sciences
Prof. Ine van der Fels-Klerx first started her studies in Food Technology at the Wageningen University. Born on a dairy farm, Ine initially longed for making dairy desserts different from the ones her busy mother made from the (butter)milk that was abundantly available at home. Nevertheless, during her first study year, she changed to the bachelor animal sciences to study dairy milk from the production rather than the processing side. She recalled that it was quite a change from being surrounded by mostly women students, about 60%, to a study where women students were hard to find. Coming from a farm with two younger brothers, Ine noticed but it did not bother her at all.
She did prosper as proved by her being selected after her graduation in 1994 from more than 100 applicants and she could enter research at the Applied Research Institute for Cattle, Sheep and Horses at Lelystad, now part of Wageningen Livestock Research. There, she conducted epidemiological research on dairy cattle diseases, such as mastitis and claw diseases, as well as how housing and management could help prevent them.
Ine explains her next step, stating that she did not plan her career on purpose, with the exception of making two strategic decisions. First, to obtain a solid future scientific position, she had to pursue a PhD graduation. Later on, to advance her career, she needed a fair amount of scientific articles on her name.
The first decision led her to the Business Economics Group of Wageningen. This group facilitated her PhD research in 1997 to elaborate on epidemiological and economic modelling of respiratory diseases in dairy cattle. Ine recalled that she was the first woman at the group who became pregnant during her PhD project. This resulted in postponing writing the final introduction and conclusion of her PhD thesis till after her maternity leave.
When asked, she told it did not bring her in any difficulties; instead, she was really motivated to finish her PhD thesis as fast as possible after coming back from pregnancy leave. She got her PhD degree in 2001.
RIVM period: risk and work-life balance assessment
During the same year, Ine was required to travel daily to the National Institute for Public Health and the Environment (RIVM) in De Bilt. Her research domain shifted to food safety in animal production chains, focusing on quantitative microbiological risk assessments. To balance life with a growing family, she left the house very early in the morning to leave the office again at 3 p.m., limiting her contract hours to 28 per week.
Looking back, she realizes that it would have been helpful to do part of the work from home, but that was not allowed at that time.
Another lesson was not to continuously work overtime at home beyond those part time contract hours; she was advised to take full-time hours instead.
The move back to Wageningen
In 2004, Ine returned to Wageningen, joining the predecessor of the current Wageningen Food Safety Research (WFSR). Being in Wageningen again, she received valuable advice from a prominent woman professor she likes to forward.
Ine recalls the 30-min career stage discussion on what she would do to become eligible to a professorship. It was a very effective meeting focusing on consistent planning to achieve your goals. They concluded Ine had to prioritize writing articles, which she took at heart and is still pleased with. Finding such person for a personalized coaching session has worked very well for her.
Professorship: bridging food safety and economics
On August 1st, 2019, Ine became special professor in Food Safety Economics, based at Business Economics and partly financed by Wageningen Food Safety Research (WFSR) where she kept her office. Her inaugural speech of 20 Oct. 2022, called Integrating Economics into Food Safety Monitoring, was repeatedly postponed due to Covid-19 circumstances. In her speech, she clearly demonstrates her matured views on improving food safety monitoring through the use of economics insights and modelling, thereby bridging social sciences with technical sciences.
By combining economics and food safety, she opened new paths for further developing risk-based and cost-effective sampling, and their analysis, to effectively manage food safety in feed and food production chains. Using such methodology would also make decisions more transparent, objective and scientifically grounded.
International outreach as in HOLiFOOD
Nowadays, Ine is working on several EU projects at the same time, combining such holistic research approaches while building networks with stakeholders from industries to consumers, as explained in the EFSA (European Food Safety Authority) presentation.
She is the coordinator for the Horizon Europe project HOLiFOOD, which is worth 6 million euros. The project aims to design an analytical system for early warning and emerging risk prediction using Big Data and Artificial Intelligence (AI) to improve existing and emerging food safety risks (ERI) (chemical and biological) for risk managers.
Inspiration and satisfaction
When asked about the inspiration and satisfaction, Ine gets from her work and career, she says that bridging various perspectives, domains, and peoples she finds the most exciting part of her work. Ine emphasized that she enjoys working with people bringing diverse perspectives and enjoys being a leader in achieving scientific goals through setting up new research proposals and writing articles. Her scientific curiosity leads to an interest in the ideas that people bring to her attention.
Ine also appreciates her contacts with students she teaches and supports in the Business Economics group each year. She is also board member of the Graduate School VLAG, which works with other Dutch institutes to advance the careers of young researchers and promote research collaboration in Biobased, Biomolecular, Chemical, Food, and Nutrition Sciences. Besides her work, Ine enjoys outdoor sports, which help her maintain her vitality and ensure a healthy work-life balance within a vibrant family and social life. She is an active marathon runner who also supports a girls’ hockey team to help healthy women for the next generation!