Alejandro Maeda-Obregon is a biologist from Mexico, who studied his postgraduate degree in the UK in order to learn about different cultures. He is now conducting his PHD back in his home country of Mexico. The research is focusing on the genetics, evolution and environment of endangered fish and amphibian species in lake Xochimilco. The study uses novel genetic sequencing technologies to learn about the ecological frameworks in the area. This exciting work will allow scientists to better understand the weird world of the Axolotl salamander.
Alejandro has answered some questions for us, giving us an insight into what inspires him to follow a career in biological research.
What made you work in conservation? What was your inspiration?
Since childhood, I have always been interested in the sciences and the natural world. I have been a fan of Nat Geo and BBC Earth documentaries and photo books. I have been following the examples of my grandfather (a Naturalist) and my parents (Biologists). My country is full of biological and landscape diversity, from the Chihuahuan and Sonoran Deserts in the north, the pine forests in the centre and the tropical jungles in the south to our seas and oceans. When I go to natural areas, I feel amazing feelings, feelings that I would like people to have the opportunity to experience. I want my work to be of use, to help preserve our natural resources so our future generations can experience, use and learn from them.
What steps led you to where you are today?
Since I was a kid, I have always loved to learn more, to be better than I was the previous day. When I manage to solve a problem thanks to learning, I feel an unrivalled satisfaction. And when I started my bachelor's degree in Biology, my professors and family always pushed me to apply these feelings to reach new heights and force myself to new preparation and performance levels. I owe them a lot as they encouraged me to pursue my academic education to a PhD. Between my degrees, I have found time to participate in different projects as a volunteer or as a paid position as a lab/field technician and teaching assistant.
After finishing my master's degree in Biodiversity, Evolution and Conservation at University College London, I decided to use the new knowledge and experience I obtained to pursue my PhD project. I chose to work with endangered species and restricted ecosystems, so I spent some months crafting my project's initial draft. It was very exciting as I was trying to develop novel ideas and decide which ecosystem would I focus on. Thanks to my supervisors' support from both UK and Mexico, I obtained a Mexican Doctoral Scholarship and a position at the UCL Department of Genetics, Evolution and Environment.
What is your favourite aspect of your PHD?
I love that I am experiencing different aspects of doing research. I can work at a computer doing some Bioinformatic stuff, doing some Molecular Biology protocols at the lab, and doing some fieldwork at exciting locations! It is fantastic to meet and learn from my supervisors, classmates, and people working in different projects, so the learning never stops. I feel a lot of gratitude and excitement as I am having the opportunity to work with one of Mexico's most important ecosystems: the wetlands of Lake Xochimilco. It is a place full of natural and human history while being in the middle of one of the world's biggest cities. To contribute to the conservation of the Axolotl salamander, one of the icons of Mexico's culture, gives me a sense of fulfilment both as a Mexican and as a Biologist. I feel that I have found what I want to be doing for the rest of my professional career.
What was your proudest moment as a conservationist so far?
I feel proud every time I overcome a challenge: it could be from managing to get a protocol or a line of code to work to obtaining the Doctoral Scholarship or a project grant. It is those moments that get me up every morning. The feeling that I will improve every day, that I can conquer a challenge. My current environmental DNA project at Lake Xochimilco with endangered fish and amphibian species is the most exciting career step at the moment. But since a while ago, I decided to have the following mindset: my proudest moment and my greatest achievement are still out there, always in the future!
What gives you hope for the future of conservation?
Sometimes it is hard to watch the news or learn about the situation of the world. Lately, it seems that there are more problems than solutions. But then that's the point, to have work to do, to solve the challenges surrounding us. More and more people around the world are deciding to do something about the conservation of nature, from being more eco-friendly, to support NGO's to choose to pursue a career in conservation. It is great to see people of all ages and backgrounds join forces to follow better sustainable development practices worldwide.
What advice would you give to young conservationists trying to build a career?
My first advice would be to find something that you are passionate about, something that keeps you motivated and fulfilled even in the difficult times. Even if you fail, even if you do not deliver the "perfect work", through effort, you will keep improving and obtaining the experience necessary to solve problems, to offer solutions. Just like life itself, a career in conservation is about solving problems through knowledge and experience. Do not focus on being the best or winning prices; focus on becoming a better version of yourself than yesterdays. With that mindset, there are always going to be opportunities open to you. Have an open mind, try to meet people with the same interest as you, go to conferences and workshops. Even if you are taking a gap year or a break, do not hesitate to keep learning stuff through reading or using the online learning platforms like Coursera. Do not be afraid to volunteer or apply for an internship or job position. It is about trying!
What are your future career goals?
My short-term goals are to finish my PhD and establish further collaboration networks between the United Kingdom and Mexico. Afterwards, I want to keep working with restricted ecosystems and endangered species applying novel genetic and genomic techniques for their research and conservation. I enjoy teaching a lot! So, it is my goal to become a lecturer or Professor in the future. Maybe some science communication articles from time to time to spice things up. And I want to keep improving my photograph skills so I can use that kind of visual media to improve my work!
Why do you think people should care about conservation and the environment?
Maybe it sounds like a cliché, but we only have one planet, one home. Even living in different continents with different cultures, languages and customs, we need the same natural resources and spaces to have a healthy life. We can only improve our living conditions by pursuing a sustainable development that allows the use of the resource without compromising it for future generations. It is in everyone's hands to not repeat our past experiences of habitat loss and species extinction. Yes, science and conservation are an essential part of this process, but only with the general public's support and participation is when real success is obtained.