Interview with a post doctoral researcher in ethnoecology and biocultural diversity

Interview conducted by Alice Sinicato.

I had the opportunity to interview Álvaro Fernández-Llamazares Onrubia, a post-doctoral researcher at the Metapopulation Research Centre which is part of the Department of Biosciences at University of Helsinki. His areas of interest are mainly ethnoecology and biocultural diversity, focusing on the study of Local Environmental Knowledge of indigenous peoples.

The interview  took place at Think Corner on the 26th of March at 9 AM.

I started my interview by asking him about  the major components of his job and his working daily routine in order to get a clear idea of his responsibilities and tasks.  Researchers like Álvaro spend a lot of time working in front of the computer, writing papers, but also teaching and giving presentations. A couple of months every year, he has the chance of working in the field with indigenous communities. The areas where he has mostly operated are Bolivia and Kenya. He has been also in the university research station in Madagascar, mainly as teacher.

I continued the interview by asking about his career path. I was particularly interested in knowing what his dream job was when he was a student and what he did to achieve this goal. His ideas were clear already when he was a student: he wanted to be a researcher. He was sure of what he wanted to become, even though the path to reach his current position has partly been driven by coincidence. In fact, he was writing his Master’s thesis in Botany in Barcelona, when he happened to have the opportunity of be active part of an indigenous knowledge project headed by a teacher of the faculty. Even though he was already involved in other projects, he decided to accept because that was that type of work that he had always dreamed about in a location that he had been interested in. After few weeks of training, he was leaving for the Amazon, starting then his PhD that has brought him at University of Helsinki first as visiting student, and now as Postdoctoral researcher. He always says to students that once they are part of Academia, everything seems to be more accessible concerning PhD and funding. For this reason, when he was a studying, he took part to that project even though it was not his main interest area. Somehow it helped him to start his PhD and his academic career.

I then thought to ask him more about his favorite part of the job and if he finds it satisfying. He seems to love his job. He extremely enjoys the writing part of his work tasks. He mentions jokingly that the administrative part is not that interesting for him, but it is part of job tasks. What it has also emerged is that field work is an amazing experience for Álvaro.  He says that “it enriches the soul and make you feel privileged to see life from different perspectives, especially when you realize that through your knowledge and your efforts, you have been able to make a change, even if it seems nothing compared to the World’s need. It is probably the most rewarding part”. It was nice also to hear that from his point of view research can have some limitations as well. He described how can be frustrating to keep working on a project that gives no remarkable results. We amply discussed on the fact that sometimes research focuses specifically on producing knowledge, having limited worthiness on real context.

For this reason, he attempts “to work on projects where there is a consistent academic part, but also a process of application of it in the field.  Therefore, as an academic and as aresearcher I can produce some knowledge and through that, make an impact.”

After having talked about his personal experience, I wanted to deepen some general aspects regarding researchers’ skills. I could not agree with his idea that “is useful to learn the specific jargon of different disciplines. Knowing and incorporating terminologiesthat are the basis of other dimensions would make you able tounderstand and especially communicate with people with other backgrounds”.

Further, he added that a researcher should not be only interdisciplinary, but also intercultural, contextualizing themselves according to the context and their surroundings. Pragmatism is another useful skill that he mentioned, explaining how knowledge should be understandable to everybody and how as researcher, you should attempt to translate your expertise and make the message reach people.

When I asked Álvaro for one last comment about his job, he brought up another interesting aspect: the importance to remain grounded. He argued that reaching a certain point of the academic career, the researcher may not go working in the field as often as before. Therefore, these researchers might perpetuate visions or ideas regarding a particular context, not considering the passing of time and then the current reality.  He concluded saying that “keeping a connection with the field helps to contextualize the abstraction that may be present in Academia with the real situation”.