Griffith Science's 2020 Outstanding International Alumnus

Doctor of Philosophy

Professor Norbert Lenz is the Director of the State Museum of Natural History Karlsruhe.

He initially graduated with a Master of Science (Biology) from Germany's Kiel University in 1988. Since then, his professional and scientific standing have been informed by more than 30 years of exemplary work inextricably linked to the understanding, appreciation and protection of the natural environment.

After experience as a field biologist, conservationist, environmental campaigner and even environmental tour guide, Professor Lenz moved into museum curation and direction. While continuing to expand his own scientific knowledge, he has enhanced broader community and societal understanding of the wonders, and vulnerability, of the natural environment.

Between 1990 to 1994, he completed his Doctor of Philosophy at Griffith University as an international student.

"I have lots of fond memories such as the readiness to help this foreign overseas student that I found typical for many staff members at Griffith, and the confidence that I will be able to produce good results. Darryl Jones, my PhD supervisor, had accepted me as his doctoral candidate after just a couple of meetings," said Professor Lenz.

In 1994 to 1995, he was Managing Director of the Wollmatinger Ried nature reserve on the shores of Lake Constance in Germany. This a wetland site of "International Importance" protected under the auspices of the Committee of Ministers of the Council of Europe.

From 1996 to 2002, Professor Lenz was a freelance environmentalist and curator at the Lake Constance Natural History Museum, before becoming Deputy Director at Lobbecke Natural History Museum and Aquazoo in Dusseldorf, followed by a year as Director of the Natural History Museum in Mainz and as Head of the State Collection of Natural History of the German State of Rhineland-Palatinate.

In 2008 he assumed his current role as Director of the State Museum of Natural History in Karlsruhe.

Professor Lenz is the recipient of several awards and scholarships in his homeland of Germany and also internationally, including the Australian European Awards Program (1989-90) and the Griffith University Postgraduate Research Scholarship. Furthermore, as well as accepting honorary posts with several conservation groups in Germany, he is an influential member of more than twenty non-profit organisations. These include the Australian Museum Foundation, BirdLife Australia - formerly the Royal Australasian Ornithologists Union, the German Nature Conservation Society NABU, German Ornithological Society, Societas Internationalis Odonatologica and the Palaeontological Society.

At a time when the preservation of the natural world has never been more urgent, Professor Norbert Lenz continues to make vital contributions.

Along with new research and knowledge shared through his work at the State Museum of Natural History in Karlsruhe, and via national and international affiliations, Professor Lenz has completed research field trips to most parts of Europe from Scandinavia to the Mediterranean as well as to Argentina, Bhutan, Brazil, Canada, India, Kenya, Madagascar, Malaysia, Mexico, Namibia, New Zealand, Papua New Guinea, Singapore, Tanzania, Turkey, USA, Vietnam and, of course, Australia. He retains fond memories of his time at Griffith University (1989-93), saying Australia’s rich biodiversity offered him an abundance of species to study.

“I always felt you were not a biologist unless you had seen the tropics. We don’t have rainforests or a Barrier Reef in Europe. In contrast to the crowded European continent, Australia still offers biologists many species not yet studied in detail,” said Professor Lenz.

One of those was the Regent Bowerbird, in particular why males of different Bowerbird species have evolved to display different mating strategies – some with a beautiful plumage and a complex display dance; others through the construction of elaborate bowers. The findings from Professor Lenz's project were documented in Evolutionary Ecology of the Regent Bowerbird, still the most comprehensive publication on this fascinating and important species, often-cited in publications on sexual selection and the evolution of different mating systems.

Similar plaudits were bestowed upon On Butterflies and Thunder Dragons: Natural and Cultural History of Bhutan, a research project published as a book in 2012 and as a successful touring exhibition exploring Bhutan's status as a Himalayan hotspot for biodiversity.

Professor Norbert Lenz applies his research background to devising different programs, lectures and activities for visitors to the State Museum of Natural History in Karlsruhe.

"In a natural history museum, you are presented with different topics all the time. I still learn things every day! It’s the best place if you like learning new things,” he said.

Again, Professor Lenz pays tribute to his time at Griffith University, saying the experience opened his mind to new and different possibilities.

“Australia was very advanced at studying species in a natural environment at the time. Doing field work with an interdisciplinary approach was an experience I took with me to Germany.

"Griffith was the right place to be for me. Other universities had separate botany or zoology departments, but Griffith had environmental sciences, which brought together different but related topics."

Professor Lenz still applies this interdisciplinary approach to this day because he is convinced that this changes the way politicians and the general public look at natural history museums. 

In July 2020, Professor Lenz was thrilled to receive the news that he has been recognised for all of his achievements and named Griffith Science's 2020 Outstanding International Alumnus.

"Even though I live and work many miles away from Australia now, back in Germany, I think of my years as a PhD student at Griffith very often and consider that time as one of the best of my life.

"To receive this award tells me that not only do I appreciate how important Griffith University has been for my career, it also tells me that Griffith appreciates I had been there!" exclaimed Professor Lenz.

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