César Marín: building a flourishing career in soil ecology amidst Colombia’s political conflict

Following Black History Month, the British Ecological Society (BES) journals continue to celebrate the work of Black ecologists from around the world and share their stories. The theme for UK Black History Month this year has been Time for Change: Action Not Words. César Marín—a professor at Universidad Santo Tomás, Valdivia, Chile—shares his story below.

How did you get into ecology?

Dr. César Marín (credit: Jorge Idárraga)

My name is César Marín and my main research interests are soil & mycorrhizal ecology, soil biota applications, and Southern temperate rainforests. Two things attracted me to study the natural world: first, for many years I was a competitive, long-distance fin-swimmer. I even participated in two world junior championships representing Colombia. Swimming in the ocean and lakes is just fascinating—especially in places like San Andrés Island in the Caribbean, or Gorgona Island in the Pacific. The immense biodiversity that you see while swimming in these places is just breath-taking. Second, the work of my parents. For many years my mother worked as a human rights lawyer in indigenous reservations located in the Páramo ecosystem—filled with fantastic flora and fauna like condors, ocelots, tapirs, and so on. I was lucky to join her many times. My dad was a coffee farmer leader, so I spent almost all of my weekends at the coffee farms of my father-side family. He gained national prominence for his advocacy for farmers and, for many years, lead a process that guaranteed land rights to thousands of families in southwest Colombia. In the context of our political war, he was assassinated by the right-wing paramilitary in 2008, two months after I started my BSc in Environmental Biology, which I completed in 2013, in Bogotá, Colombia.

Under the supervision of Dr. Jacob Weiner from the University of Copenhagen, I completed my bachelor`s thesis on the effects of increased density and spatial uniformity on maize yield and weed biomass. This was my first (2014) paper, and it is still one of my most cited papers. The maize was sown with help of my family on my farm, in a place that my father had previously sown with cassava, before his death—I couldn’t help but think that everything is connected.

After this, I completed a PhD in Ecology and Evolution at the Austral University of Chile in 2018 under the supervision of Dr. Roberto Godoy. I investigated the geological, biogeochemical, and soil fungal community drivers of biogenic weathering (of Earth`s crust) by fungal hyphae in an ecosystem age-gradient. This was done in the Andes and Coast Mountain systems of northern Chilean Patagonia. From the first moment, I was in love with mycorrhizas! When I first arrived in Valdivia, Chile (February 2014, where I did my PhD), Roberto was the only one (characteristically) working during holidays—he had just arrived from Antarctica. Therefore, Roberto was the first professor I talked to, and, after almost 9 years, we still collaborate strongly in spite of the fact that he is now retired. Everyone that knows Roberto—of course including me—admires his unpaired human qualities and how kind, respectful, and generous he is. The most important thing I have learned from him is that one can be a very productive, collaborative scientist but one must never be so busy that they forget their friends, family, and life.

Dr. Marín with his mother and his PhD advisor, Dr. Roberto Godoy, in Torres del Paine National Park, Magallanes, Chile

Following on from this, I completed a Diploma in the Philosophy of Biology and a couple of postdocs in central Chile and in the Institute of Botany of the Czech Academy of Sciences, Czech Republic (2018–2021). My study focus for this was related to soil health recovery after fires and mycorrhizal-soil-plant reciprocal transplants. Over the years I have also done six research stays in places such as the University of Hannover (Germany), the University of Tartu (Estonia), and Lund University (Sweden). I have also taught dozens of courses in several countries and I serve on the Editorial Board of the Journal of Sustainable Agriculture and Environment and on the Evolutionary and Genomic Microbiology section of the Frontiers journals.

In short, I think that it was inevitable I would be an ecologist. Life has been not easy for many years—health issues and other victimizing events have occurred, but right now I feel quite well and happy at my work. I value a lot the schedule and intellectual freedom that I have right now. As I have mentioned in a Spanish article I wrote, science, and particularly ecology, has provided a sort of therapy for me, given my difficult past.

What are you researching / working on right now?

In 2022, at 31 years old, I started a new position as a Full Professor at the Center for Research and Innovation for Climate Change, Santo Tomas University, Chile. I teach courses to our PhDs in Conservation and Biodiversity Management. I am also a Guest researcher at the Department of Ecological Sciences, Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam, The Netherlands.

Dr. Marín with his mother, Sara, at his favourite sampling place in Chile, Nahuelbuta National Park (credit: Roberto Godoy)

In addition to analyzing data and writing papers from past projects on topics such as: fungal biogenic weathering; soil fire ecology; mycorrhizal reciprocal transplants; or the effects of plant mycorrhizal gradients on soil chemistry and biodiversity; I am also currently working on three main projects. The first is related to the effects of precipitation and altitudinal gradients on soil chemistry, biodiversity, and ecosystem multifunctionality of forests and peat bogs in Tierra del Fuego. The second project is related to the application of arbuscular mycorrhizal biofertilizers in Chilean vineyards, which every year are being sown at more southern latitudes. The third project is related to the Society for the Protection of Underground Networks—SPUN—where I am a Science Associate. In this project, we are analyzing, among several additional things, the mycorrhizas of possibly the oldest tree in the world. This last project/sampling campaign, given the importance of SPUN, was recently highlighted by The New York Times.

Finally, I am also applying to several other projects related to a myriad of topics, related but not limited to agroecology, fire prediction, multilevel selection, avocado production, etc. I truly love interdisciplinary work and interdisciplinary teams!

What do you enjoy most about your work?

Undoubtedly scientific networking! I founded and coordinate the South American Mycorrhizal Research Network which has more than 300 members from 45 countries. We created this Network in 2017, and have organized two international symposiums—one in Valdivia, Chile, 2017, and another in Bariloche, Argentina, 2019).  We have also written two Springer books (Eds: Marcela Pagano & Monica Lugo—1 & 2), published several articles, organized workshops and events during established conferences, and connected dozens of students, professors, scientists, citizen scientists, and people from the industry. Right now, four colleagues are leading an effort to build a database on South American mycorrhizas. We even have a YouTube channel with interviews about recent mycorrhizal papers, and we are currently organizing our III Symposium in the Colombian Amazon for August 2023. We do not have any annual fee or official funding, but, in my opinion, we have achieved a great deal in our 5 years of existence. The friendship, openness of ideas, horizontality, labor division (literally dozens and dozens of people have taken different tasks), and non-formality of this and other networks fill me with energy and joy!

(credit: Heiko Sievers)

In addition to our South American Network—and to the above-mentioned SPUN—my lab constitutes one of the network laboratories of the Soil Biodiversity Observation Network (SoilBON), being the only Latin American lab. This initiative was created in 2018 by Carlos A. Guerra (Germany) and soil ecology legend, Diana H. Wall (USA). This aims to monitor soil biodiversity and ecosystem functions through time in 1000 plots across the world. This is being done because, with regards to soil biodiversity, we do not know how the extent of what exists, and, worryingly, how fast we are losing it. Finally, I am also on the Board of Directors and Editor-in-Chief of the Newsletter of the International Mycorrhiza Society.

I am also very interested in promoting diversity, inclusion and equity in ecology and beyond. In a recent short essay, I emphasized the need for cooperation and global scientific networking, of a warmer and more inclusive treatment, openness in terms of schedules and ideas, and in building a healthier work-life balance. In addition to my essay, I also highly recommend this article by Fernando Maestre.

I am lucky to say I have been recognized with several awards: Afro-Colombian of the Year, category Academy, by El Espectador newspaper (2019); Dr. Humberto Maturana Youth Symposium award, by the Chilean Biology Society (2021); and “We are Mycelium” award, by FungiFest Mushroom Festival, Valdivia, Chile (2022).

Dr. Marín receiving his award as Afro-Colombian of the Year, category Academy (2019) by El Espectador newspaper and Color de Colombia Foundation (credit: Jorge Idárraga)

Looking for?

Besides networking and collaborations in my main areas of research (soil and mycorrhizal ecology, biogeochemistry, understanding plant holobionts, applications of soil biota, etc.), I am looking for two things: 1) scientific work related to peacebuilding in my home country, Colombia, and in countries at war in general; and 2) working to combat racial discrimination in science, especially in and towards the Global South.

Dr. Marín sampling in Tarn Mount, Magallanes, Chile (credit: Roberto Godoy)

To this day, sadly, I do not feel completely safe when returning to either my farm or Colombia in general. Just a few days ago, one of the remaining guerrillas threatened to burn all buses that go to the region where my farm is located. It is still very unsafe and working conditions in general for Colombian farmers—even coffee farmers—are beyond hard. Despite this, I would like to contact and connect with other scientists from countries at war for three reasons: 1) to those who are victims of conflict, I want to understand how science has helped them to cope with grief; 2) I want to use science to solve the problems manifested by war (ie. deforestation, pollution, etc.); and 3) to show children in war zones that science has the potential to change lives and that being surrounded by kind and generous people is something worth pursuing.

Now, I’d like to turn my attention to systematic racism in academia. Sadly, racial discrimination, inside and outside Academia, is something that happens to me almost every week. I would like pursue methods to combat this dreadfully common and widespread experience, specifically in the Global South. One thing that upsets me is that because of my dreadlocks, skin color, and/or nationality, many people do not believe I am a scientist—I wrote a short correspondence about this in Nature. In addition to this, many others believe that my career success is attributed to a ‘special scholarship’ or positive discrimination… In reality, it is quite the opposite. Here, immigrants, especially from developing countries, usually need to publish more articles and have more projects to get academic jobs. This is something that needs urgent change and action. Especially, as research has shown that underrepresented groups innovate at higher rates in science, but such novel contributions are discounted and less likely to earn academic jobs. In a country like Chile—and many others in the region (including more diverse countries)—racism, colorism, and xenophobia is so widespread, yet racial discrimination in Academia is not even on the radar of institutions. To provide an all-too-familiar instance of structural racial prejudice, I once attended a seminar on the topic of racism in Academia here in Chile, where none of the guest speakers were people of color or indigenous academics.

I think black and indigenous scientists from the Global South, especially Latin America, should begin to organize and network in order to bring to light these issues in our universities, governments, and funding agencies.

Who are your role models – within ecology and beyond?

My dad, who had my same name, is of course a huge inspiration in my life. Sadly, the crime against him and us remains unsolved. My mother and I created a rural library in his honor. Many non-famous afro leaders from Colombia inspire me a lot. Some became famous, like Francia Márquez, the first black woman Vice-President of Colombia. Her story is impressive. She is from the same region as me, Cauca, and talks with the same cadence as some of my aunts. I am sure that there are some personal political differences with her or things that she does which I believe to be wrong; however, that someone like her—an environmental and social leader living under very poor conditions and fighting against illegal mining—is now Vice-President of Colombia is truly amazing and inspiring.

Another inspiration of mine is Manuel Zapata Olivella. He was a black Colombian writer who was a pioneer in understanding what it means to be black in Colombia. I devoured his book “Changó, el gran putas” while in high school. Furthermore, the stoic readings and spirit of Nelson Mandela will be always an inspiration, especially for a Colombian.

Now I would like to turn my attention to shout outs, and of these there are many! A massive shoutout to the inspiring Dr. Bala Chaudhary (Darmouth University) and her work related to fungal dispersion, defining mycorrhizal traits, and her activism against racism in academia. I am always excited to see what Bala does next! Also, in my subject area, the work of Dr. Tesfaye Wubet (Helmholtz Centre for Environmental Research) is remarkable. The work of Distinguished Professor Dr. Brajesh Singh (Western Sydney University) is crucial to understand the global-scale relationships between soil biodiversity and ecosystem functioning. He has gone further and applied these concepts to crop systems, presiding over the Global Initiative of Crop Microbiome and Sustainable Agriculture. And of course, one cannot talk about global sustainable soil management without mentioning the fundamental, world-changing work of  Distinguished University Professor Dr. Rattan Lal (Nobel Peace Prize Certificat 2007 as part of the IPCC and World Food Prize 2020).

As for Afro-Colombian ecologists, I want to shout out the work of Dr. Ricardo Torres-Palma (Universidad de Antioquia) on water treatment is recognized worldwide. A former colleague from my PhD (also from Colombia), Dr. Suany Quesada-Calderón—now a postdoc at the Austral University of Chile—does remarkable population genomics and bioinformatics work.

Enjoyed the blogpost? Check out César’s website.

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