Birthplace: Santiago, Chile
Current City: Montpellier, France
What did you want to be when you were growing up?
Nothing and everything. I was very curious about the world and how things work, what people do, and how they live in different parts of the world, what plants, trees, animals I didn't know about, etc. So one day I wanted to be an anthropologist, the next a physician, the next a historian. I guess what I really wanted to be was someone who could know something about everything and change professions every day!
How did you get started in your field of work?
I lived in a big polluted city and needed to get away from time to time. Hiking around the mountains that surround Santiago, you can easily spot eagles and condors, so I started birding. I was lucky to have a good friend who could teach me the basics and helped me recognize different bird species. At the time I was studying biology, but was planning on getting a degree in cell biology. But then I found out that you could study birds and more interesting things directly in the field, and so I decided to switch to ecology. I found out that ecology was actually a good way to combine field and lab work, theoretic and applied studies, integrating different fields within biology and different biological scales, and this was what really attracted me to stay in the field of ecology.
What inspires you to dedicate your life to ecology?
I think first and foremost is the fact that what I study exists. Not that cells do not, but rather that I can actually go out and see birds, and bats, and forests. I like to know that what I do, even though sometimes it can be fairly theoretical, can ultimately be applied to the real world. There is also the aspect of the lifestyle that comes with this profession: traveling all over the place when the opportunity comes, combining very intellectual or theoretical work in the lab with very pleasant fieldwork, among others. Finally, I have very fond memories of myself playing in the South American temperate forests, with big trees and all sorts of unknown little creatures. When I think about that I hope my daughter has a chance to enjoy such beautiful places many times in her life!
What's a normal day like for you?
My daughter is very active and wakes up early, so I have to follow her rhythm in the mornings! I spend most of my days in front of the computer lately. My current work involves trying to understand biodiversity patterns at large scales, with the kind of data you cannot gather by yourself but that are available in large worldwide or continental databases. Unfortunately this requires little fieldwork. Whenever I can, though, I try to make a project, such as the bat biodiversity study that was funded by National Geographic, to try to do smaller scale diversity analysis allowing me to go out to the field and still apply ecological theory.
Do you have a hero?
I do not have a single hero, at least not one that comes to my mind spontaneously. I generally admire people who go after their dreams, people who have had difficult lifetimes and still persist in their quest for happiness. I also admire people who have become very knowledgeable in some field of study and despite their career success they keep their feet on the ground, are able to communicate with simple words, and listen to all sorts of people without despising them.
What has been your favorite experience in the field? The most challenging?
My favorite experience in the field was my first big field trip during my thesis. I was going to do bird surveys in about ten different national parks and reserves in Chile, my native country. This was the first time I was working on my own project, with money I had collected with my own funding applications, and I was going with three field assistants as inexperienced as myself. And it was great! We did some risky river crossing on horses, and managed to get to some pretty isolated places. We enjoyed nature for two or three months in a row. I learned a lot, both about nature and about how to cope with disparate personalities when you are out in the field. And I enjoyed a lot hearing the legendary stories of the locals about the lions (which are actually pumas) and the dead animals hidden under the bush.
What are your other passions?
Right now my daughter takes up most of my time and energy outside of work. But whenever I have a little time I enjoy reading and traveling. I could also spend a lot of time biking whenever and wherever; it just hasn't happened lately!
What do you do in your free time?
Hiking, reading, biking are among my favorites. Looking at the moon whenever it is up in the sky and spending some nice and quiet time after a busy day is also good.
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