Saskia - Earth Scientist, Global Citizen, Enough

Saskia and her dog Pebble ©Saskia van Manen, 2016

What kind of work do you do?
I am not working at the moment. I was diagnosed with depression early 2016 and have been recovering with support from my family, friends, psychologist, psychiatrist and coach since then. It’s a long road. Especially when depression suffers from a semantics issue: there’s a distinct biological difference between ‘feeling down’, which we all do from time to time and is completely normal, and an actual clinical depression. Fortunately, many people can only identify with normal transient sadness, but this does mean they compare your experience to their own understanding, and subsequently, with the best intentions, tell you that you just need to “pick yourself up” or they suggest all sorts of different diets or supplements purported to be mood enhancing. Meanwhile modern society continues to vilify the use of medicine for diseases such as depression, which has a huge impact on sufferers. Although I took medicines when I was just diagnosed I always said I wanted to get better on my own, meaning without the help of pills. So after a few months I stopped taking anything, only to find myself rapidly sinking back into the dark hole I was trying to crawl out of. Eventually I realized that medicines are more thoroughly tested than many alternative remedies, and you’d never ask a diabetic to give up insulin, so why should I be ashamed? I am currently taking a combination of two different medicines, and it works well for me, my smile has returned and I can finally start interacting with the world again. It’s such a relief to rediscover myself.

Saskia and her first love ©Rob van Manen, 1988

What interests you, and how did that start?

I have a wide range of interests, but research and work often require you to focus on a single subject. As a child I was always intrigued by rocks and fossils, and at some point I decided that I wanted to study either volcanoes or dinosaurs when I grew up. I ended up with a masters degree in geophysics, and through coincidence I was given the amazing opportunity to volunteer at two volcano observatories. After that I was hooked, and I successfully pursued a PhD studying satellite images of active volcanoes to better understand how volcanoes work, and how we might make use of satellite images to forecast eruptions. Eventually my academic career led me to other volcanoes, but a personal trip volunteering in Togo made me wonder why despite learning so much about volcanoes, we never gave anything back to the communities who live on the volcanoes we’re studying. This resulted in me examining how people live with these hazards on a day-to-day basis, and facilitating workshops with communities to determine how they can be made more resilient. This even led to me pursuing an MA in Design and Innovation and to taking up a position at the Netherlands Red Cross. So these days, as someone who has crossed over from the ‘hard’ physical sciences, to the ‘soft’ social sciences, and most recently stepped into the humanitarian world, I am intrigued by the idea of working across a range of disciplines: questions such as what one discipline or department can bring to another, what I can do to support others and facilitate ideas and how I can help to turn ideas into action, are at the core of what I love to do.

What’s your favorite part about you do?
I am passionate about whatever it is that I am doing at any given point in time. It’s a strong internal driving force, and one I can’t ignore. I like to follow my curiosity, and have now learnt to also follow my heart. The other thing I really love is the fact that I have been so fortunate to travel the world, to see amazing places and meet wonderful people. This helps to provide different perspectives on challenges I want to tackle, and see the bigger picture. Everything is interconnected, and experience that I’ve gained somewhere can be applied in a different manner to another challenge. This cross-pollination of experience and ideas is so much fun, but the best part is seeing that the things you do, on a personal and professional level, provide a positive contribution, that they make a difference, no matter how small.

What is your favorite thing to do for fun?

I love exploring, and taking my border collie Pebble for walks and when I get the chance I enjoy going sea kayaking. I also relish photography, it’s a way of seeing the world differently, to explore it. With all three of those activities I like to disconnect, to turn my phone off or leave it at home. I used to be very work-driven, but these days I realize I need to take care of myself before I can be of use to the world around me. Disconnecting also allows me to connect on a more meaningful level with friends and family.

The Oosterschelde, The Netherlands ©Saskia van Manen, 2017

Where do you live now?
I live in the tiny village of Kattendijke in the Netherlands. Apart from the most amazing and adorable chocolate shop and some tiny farm stands there’s nothing here, but there is space (by Dutch standards) and the Oosterschelde, a large expanse of tidal water that forms the largest National Park in the Netherlands. With the changing weather, seasons and light, the view changes on a daily basis, and taking the time to really see it and enjoy it blows away the cobwebs in my head, making space for creativity and connection.

Where else have you lived?
I have lived in the US, New Zealand and the UK. In the US I lived in Massachusetts, but also spent months in California, Alaska and Hawaii. In the UK I have lived in the center of London, but also the remote hills of Wales. We moved around a lot as a family while I was growing up, so even in the Netherlands I’ve lived in a variety of towns. I continue this trend of uprooting and changing my scenery every few years as an adult. It feels natural. I’d love to explore living in a non-Western country for a few years, I think that would be a wonderful adventure.

What’s your favorite place that you’ve lived?
It’s hard to pick a favorite place, all of them have their advantages and drawbacks. Most certainly they all suited me during a specific phase of my life. I loved living in the heart of London as a student, but more recently I also relished traveling back and forth between work in NYC and my former home in the Welsh countryside.

Where do you consider yourself from”?
I consider myself a global citizen. Of course everyone has a ‘tribe’, mine is composed of like-minded people, and in that respect the labels traditionally used to define people such as nationality, race, sexuality or religion are not of importance.

What was your biggest culture shock moment?
Perhaps surprisingly it was in moving back to the Netherlands as an adult. My family and I left for the US when I was 12, and at the age of 30 I moved back. Of course I’d visited in the meantime, but as a visitor you don’t have to deal with taxes, health insurance or the political system. As I speak the language fluently the fact that I was new to the country wasn’t obvious, and therefore my questions appeared idiotic to people who didn’t realize that I was simply not familiar with it. It taught me an interesting lesson on the assumptions we make about others.

You’ve lived in several different countries – how has that shaped your view of immigration, and of the US?
There are a variety of reasons for immigration, whether in a western context or otherwise, but all immigrants are people are in search of a better life, for personal, professional or financial reasons, or in the case of refugees it’s the search for a life without violence and conflict. Overall, migrants and refugees add cultural diversity, which I think is a valuable asset. Unfortunately this is rarely leveraged in a way that creates positive, meaningful and lasting progress. Instead if often creates friction, as both the host community and the migrant fail to acknowledge and respect the rights and responsibilities inherent to this new dynamic.

US flag displayed in Salem, MA, USA ©Saskia van Manen, 2016

My view of the US is predominantly shaped by my experience of living in it, and the individuals who were part of that journey, many of whom are immigrants themselves. It is interesting to compare this personal perspective to how the US is portrayed by the media, Hollywood and celebrities, which is what shapes the view of most people who haven’t been to the US, or have only vacationed there. I think it shows that on a personal level people, anywhere, can be very open, welcoming and friendly. On a collective level however things might look different, and that discrepancy makes a very strong statement about the destructive power of generalization.

What is your biggest worry right now?
The rapidly changing global context that we live in. There is so much going on, and our hyper-connectivity means that we are flooded by this information, without having the mechanisms to cope, process or understand it all. For many people this results in fear, and a subsequent rise in right-wing populist politics. Fear of the unknown is natural, but there is so much unknown to us these days, different cultures that enter our living rooms through the TV, and our societies through immigration, that it seems to cause a surge in intolerance and disrespect. My biggest worry is that the current state we’re in, where we fail to respect even basic human rights, will become ‘the new normal’.

What are you happiest/most excited about right now?
I am most happy and excited about rediscovering myself following years of depression. That I can be goofy again, be curious, and playful. With that also comes the ability and willingness to learn new things, to pursue new experiences and explore the world, all the while making a positive contribution.

An inspirational gift from an amazing friend. ©Saskia van Manen, 2016

What do you wish you could tell people, that you wish people knew?
A dear friend of mine told me a few months ago “you’re enough”. It’s such a simple phrase, but it’s powerful. Of course the transformation has to come from yourself, you have to believe it, but sometimes words can catalyze your thinking. It helped me to start seeing myself in a different light: maybe I am indeed enough, perhaps I am OK just as I am. I see so many people around me struggle with insecurity, and I wish I could tell them “you’re enough”, they are already interesting, fun and beautiful. I wish I could show them how others and I see them.

Anything else you want to talk about?
I am always happy for people to get in touch with me. I’m happy to talk about a range of subjects, including experiences of mental health. I can be reached via my website, on Twitter via @saskiaworldwide or connect with me on Instagram via @saskiaworldwide.


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