Sophie Dorothe Lieke: PhD Student, Sustainable Food Systems

Posted: 13 April 2022

Sophie Dorothe is a Felsted alumna who graduated in 2015. Before moving to the UK for her final two years of high school education, Sophie Dorothe lived in Arusha, Tanzania. Experiencing diverse ecosystems first-hand as a child and “seeing how the natural environments mix; how we as a society can appreciate and value them, but also how we can destroy them” sparked a passion for environmental stewardship that has continued into adulthood.

Her undergraduate degree in biology and geography at the University of St Andrews in Scotland inspired her to cofound the plastics research project, “Plastic: Unwrapped”. Together with her research partner, Sophie Dorothe travelled the world to showcase how individuals and initiatives are using plastic as a resource depending on their contexts. The goal being to search for solutions to plastic pollution.

The more Sophie Dorothe learned through practical, hands-on experiences, the more she realised the need to explore international and interdisciplinary environmental conservation at a theoretical level. As Sophie Dorothe explains, she needed “to work more on my theoretical toolkit”.

After a Master of Science Degree in Environmental Management, Sophie Dorothe began her PhD studies in Sustainable Food Systems. Continuing her solution-focused approach to environmental impact and stewardship, Sophie Dorothe is exploring how to bridge the gap between science and society.

Sophie Dorothe believes in role models. As a child, she would frequently accompany her father to conservation talks. It was during these meetings that she realised that there are several approaches to tacking a problem, and through communication and collaboration you can often find a way to help based on what you do best.

“Each week different people would share what they were doing. They shared multiple perspectives of how you can tackle a single issue. From photography, training, networking, or fundraising. There are all these approaches to tackling a single issue while playing to your strengths.”

Learning from others continues to inspire Sophie Dorothe, particularly in storytelling. She believes that sharing experiences through stories is most impactful to others. Her childhood was filled with role models who shared their experiences through their stories, and this had a strong influence during her formative years.

“Experiences are so valuable, not necessarily experiences that we can show, but experiences that we can share through stories. It is through sharing stories that you hear different perspectives; it is such a privilege to have your eyes opened to other’s experiences.”

When she moved from Tanzania to the UK at the age of 16, it was through storytelling that Sophie Dorothe was able to explore her own cultural identity, connection with others, and where she placed her values.

“It was interesting for me seeing how a small community in Tanzania merges with a different type of international community at Felsted. Students have very similar experiences, but they are also from a very different context. We found that there were elements like identity that we could bond over. For example, not knowing where we call home – feeling conflicted between passport nationality and heart nationality. All these elements really challenge how you see and value different aspects of your life.”  

Sophie Dorothe also reflects on the influence attending schools with a focus on character education and environmental stewardship has had on her life.

Felsted really created an environment that supported development. I think that with the IB CAS programme and the Duke of Edinburgh Award Scheme, the school really encouraged a good work life balance. It encouraged us to think beyond what we thought we could do. To think outside of the box, to find solutions for when we were stuck.”

Sophie Dorothe strongly believes that there is more to education than what happens in the classroom. It’s a bigger story. “In the end, it is the other aspects of life that really help your academic career path.” This holistic, connected view of education extends to her current research where she is bringing together science and behaviour.

Her journey into the theoretical underpinnings of environmental stewardship has led her to examine how pro-environmental, imperfect behaviour can have an enduring impact. “Where we are now, we need to focus on imperfect sustainability and how we can use our agency to influence others in small, but mighty ways.” Sophie Dorothe believes that we should “focus on a single behaviour, one that you can keep doing, a repetitive behaviour that will turn into a habit. It will snowball. Other people will realise what you are doing, and you will be that role model.”

For Sophie Dorothe, an approach that focuses on doing small things “well”, rather than trying to do big things all the time, is also a way to counter eco-anxiety and develop agency. “I sometimes feel overwhelmed by how much negativity and destruction there is. The sense of feeling so small can lead to apathy, and then inaction. And yet, if you focus on a single behaviour that you can do, that will keep you going.”

Her work on sustainable food consumption has led her to explore the complexity of environmentalism and how it is often not easy to adopt effective pro-environmental behaviours. Sophie Dorothe believes that effective pro-environmental behaviours are challenging because there can be a disconnect between intentions and behaviours.

“We like binaries. Good, bad, local is good, global is bad, organic is good, conventional is bad. We like categorising which enables easier decision making. With sustainable food consumption, we try to reduce nature’s complexity into a YES/NO or GOOD/BAD category. But that is not possible. There are so many nuances. Sometimes what we think may be environmentally beneficial can have indirect unsustainable consequences.

For Sophie Dorothe, understanding the complexity of systems and engaging with a critical mindset also extends to her own personal development. She believes that confidence, tenacity, and self-awareness are key to future success, as is the ability to reflect on the impact you can have on both the immediate future and the distant future.

“It is about knowing that what you are doing is right and worthy, even if the impact might not be tangible and immediate. It is important to keep going and to have the passion and inquiry to persist.”

“I think that short-term versus long-term thinking is so valuable. Thinking about what you want right now, what you can do right now, but also how those desires and actions can affect  future actions. both for yourself, the people around you and the planet.”

It is clear from Sophie Dorothe’s passion for stories, culture, and identity that she believes that individuals and communities can create systemic change through their choice of behaviours. Deep change comes from making small changes that become part of who you are, and who people see you to be. Being a role model, learning from others and sharing your story is part of the solution.

Sophie Dorothe reflects on what advice she would give students who are beginning to look beyond school and think about how their future decisions can have a positive impact on others. For her it is about authenticity.

“It is important to be brave and to try our new things. Be courageous to know when to stop, or to know when you are on the wrong path. Embrace the uncertainty and do what you are passionate about. Find that thing that you care about because it will be so much easier for you to become that role model for others. It will be natural, and it will be genuine.”





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