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.

A Journey to understanding, saving and conserving the Nigerian Biodiversity

This blog post is provided by Gideon Deme Gywa and is a special feature for Black History Month, in which the British Ecological Society (BES) journals are celebrating the work of Black ecologists from around the world and sharing their stories.


I am Gideon Deme Gywa from Ganawuri (a small hub) in Plateau State, Nigeria. Growing up with my paternal grandparents was fun, and it really shaped my interest in being an ecologist. As a doctoral researcher in ecology in Professor Wei-Guo’s research group at the Institute of Zoology, Chinese Academy of Sciences I am broadly interested in morphological and physiological macroevolution, and how the evolution of some specific traits contributes to adaptive plasticity in reptiles. I approach my questions from the molecular to whole-organism ecosystem interactions. At the moment, I use turtles as my model animal in answering some questions relating to eggshell evolution. During my undergraduate degree in Dr. Yoila David Malann’s group at the University of Abuja, Nigeria, my research focused on the efficacy of plant extracts against Plasmodium species in mice. But I had a swift change during my master research; I was starting to get interested in how environmental factors shape the life histories of organisms. I now worked on the physiochemical parameters affecting mosquito species composition in Jos, Nigeria, and I found out that Culex species are more associated with alkaline water. This opened up ways for me to assist Dr. Lotanna Micah Nneji (then PhD student at the Kunming Institute of Zoology, Chinese Academy of Sciences) as a field assistant. The project focused on the biodiversity and conservation of butterflies, amphibians and reptiles in the Cross River National Park, Nigeria. With the experience from the one-year field assistant job, I became very interested in studying the important role the environment plays in shaping adaptation of wildlife, and how wildlife can be conserved.

Gideon Deme Gywa doing field work. Photo credit: Prakash Bhattarai
Do you have any experiences you’d like to share about being a black ecologist/researcher, at any career stage?

As a black ecologist, the journey has been mixed with feelings of how interesting the field is and the reality of the difficulty of growing in the field. I remember applying for several PhD fellowships around the world, but have in some instances been told that the funding was not meant to cover my type of candidature. Some of the Principal Investigators (PIs) judged my future output based on my race, and believed that I will not make a “good” candidate, having studied in my own country all through my bachelor and masters.

Do you have any experiences you’d like to share about being a black ecologist in your country?

Like I mentioned earlier,I am from Nigeria, and most, if not all, Nigerians are black. The field of ecology in my country is viewed as being very “boring” by other scientists and students. This means that, as an ecologist, it is almost impossible to get funding for your ideas. Facilities to work on novel ecological parameters (vegetation cover assessment equipment, ecological physiology, behavioral physiology and more) are lacking. Some of these factors make it very difficult, if not impossible to succeed. A good example was when I applied for a small grant in 2018 to study how temperature determines sex in reptiles in Nigeria. The proposal was rejected because there was no incubator to incubate the eggs, and no controlled room temperature facility.

What would you like to see change in academia / the field of ecology for the better?

The field of academia is daily becoming almost impossible to grow in, especially the field of ecology. However, we can do better by improving diversity inclusion across all fields in academia, and still maintaining the academic standard. The black race is seen by some as grossly incompetent at answering interesting scientific questions. A recent example was the experience of my friend whose paper was rejected by the editor of a journal. The reason given for the rejection is quoted thus “I think to write papers that are competitive you should probably partner with more experienced authors in the western world. I understand that that might be difficult or impossible in SA, sorry”

Have you noticed any shifts in attitude from the scientific community towards members of the black community during your career? If so, in what ways?

I can say that the scientific community has stepped up to changing the narrative towards the black community. I must at this point acknowledge the British Ecological Society (BES) for leading the way for diversity inclusion in science. To mention just a few instances; the Ecologists in Africa research grant by the BES is a good example. The Black History Month blog post series is another great effort to be commended. Worthy to note also are the press statement releases by various scientific communities, and societies on “Black Lives Matter” but more actions can be encouraged to further improve the system.

If you could go back in time, what advice would you give yourself as a student/early career black ecologist?

I wished someone had told me that the field of ecology is very interesting but hard to survive in. Despite the challenges in the field, the gains outweigh the losses, so, do not get tired of helping improve the ecosystem.

Shout out to a fellow black colleague/friend in ecology

Shout out to Bashir Bolaji TIAMIYU (Twitter: @timmybash001) who is a PhD researcher in Plant Systematics and Biodiversity at the Wuhan Botanical Garden, Chinese Academy of Sciences. Thanks to Nicholas Wu (Twitter: @NicholasWuNZ, https://wunicholas.wixsite.com/) for the useful discussions on ecology that has improved my skills since we met on twitter. Finally, I will like to thank Professor Malann for mentoring me through my bachelor and master degrees, and my dad Deme G. Dang for always encouraging me when the journey gets tough.

Entre invasões biológicas e o racismo estrutural nas cidades

This blog post is provided by Piatã Santana Marques and is the Portuguese version of their #StoryBehindThePaper for their article “Urbanization can increase the invasive potential of alien species“, which was recently published in Journal of Animal Ecology. This blog post is also a special feature for Black History Month, in which the British Ecological Society (BES) journals are celebrating the work of Black ecologists from around the world and sharing their stories. You can find the English version here.

Sempre fui fascinado pelas histórias que envolvem as atividades de pesquisa, mas que acabam ficando fora dos artigos científicos publicados em revistas especializadas, as chamadas “histórias por trás do artigo”. Essas histórias são bons exemplos de como a ciência costuma estar repleta de reviravoltas e como os pesquisadores têm de superar inúmeros problemas antes de produzir conhecimento científico, especialmente quando a pesquisa envolve longos e exaustivos trabalhos de campo. Por isso, quando a Sociedade Britânica de Ecologia (British Ecological Society-BES) solicitou contribuições de cientistas negros para celebrar o mês da História Negra na Inglaterra, eu fiquei empolgado com a possibilidade de contar algumas histórias sobre o meu mais recente trabalho científico. Porém, enquanto me lembrava de histórias interessantes para incluir no meu relato pessoal, notei que as experiências vivenciadas por um cientista negro podem nos dar uma ideia de como o racismo estrutural pode impactar diretamente a pesquisa científica. Então, aqui vai a minha história.

Minha área de pesquisa é a ecologia urbana e eu busco entender como as cidades afetam as relações entre os organismos que vivem em riachos e sua adaptação à urbanização. Isso é necessário porque as cidades em todo o mundo estão crescendo continuamente e estamos apenas começando a entender as interações recíprocas entre as pessoas e os animais e plantas nas cidades. Em um artigo publicado recentemente na revista científica Journal of Animal Ecology (disponível em inglês aqui), eu e meus colegas estudamos como a urbanização pode afetar o potencial de invasão de espécies não-nativas (geralmente chamadas de pragas). Para isso, nós usamos o peixe guppy, Poecilia reticulata, como modelo de estudo. Para fazer essa pesquisa, eu e minha equipe tivemos que dirigir dentro de um dos maiores aglomerados urbanos do mundo, a cidade do Rio de Janeiro – Brasil, buscando pequenos riachos dentro da vasta matriz urbana. Como se pode imaginar, os riachos urbanos são sistemas muito modificados, contaminados com vários produtos químicos de origem humana. Em muitos casos, os riachos urbanos recebem despejo de esgoto. Isso significa que durante o trabalho nos riachos urbanos nós precisamos prestar atenção nos canos que saem das casas e no barulho de descarga vindo dos vizinhos para evitar um banho surpresa. Por essas razões, nós usamos equipamentos de proteção e roupas impermeáveis que são bem quentes e desconfortáveis de se usar no calor do Rio de Janeiro. Apesar dessas condições, eu e minha equipe aceitamos o desafio de fazer a pesquisa e entender melhor os sistemas de riachos urbanos. 

Equipe pronta para o trabalho nos riachos urbanos. Nota: esta foto foi tirada em 2016, antes da pandemia de COVID-19.

Em nossa pesquisa, descobrimos que a urbanização aumenta a quantidade de alimento para os guppies, em especial pequenas larvas de mosquitos não hematófagos. Os guppies urbanos então se aproveitam da grande quantidade de alimento e comem mais desse mosquito do que os guppies não-urbanos. Essas larvas são muito nutritivas e seu consumo em grande quantidade, faz com que os guppies urbanos fiquem maiores, guardem mais nutrientes no fígado e tenham mais filhotes do que os guppies não-urbanos. Essas características aumentam o potencial de invasão dos guppies urbanos e fazem com que o tamanho de suas populações seja até 26 vezes maior do que as populações de guppies não-urbanos.

O fato de espécies invasoras como os guppies atingirem grandes densidades em ambientes urbanos já é conhecido, mas nosso estudo é o primeiro a mostrar que a alimentação pode ser um importante mecanismo para isso. Mosquitos não-hematófagos são encontrados em grande quantidade nos rios urbanos. Logo, é possível que, não apenas os guppies, mas também outros animais aquáticos e terrestres se aproveitem da alta disponibilidade deste recurso alimentar. Agora, estamos fazendo experimentos em laboratório para saber se conseguimos reproduzir o efeito que a urbanização causa nos guppies urbanos. Essa informação será importante para nos ajudar a entender o sucesso das espécies invasoras nas cidades.

Essa pesquisa foi liderada por um pesquisador negro, então existem mais algumas histórias por trás desse artigo. A comunidade científica está cada vez mais consciente sobre os efeitos do racismo estrutural no meio acadêmico e tem proposto iniciativas para combatê-lo. Por exemplo, a Sociedade Americana de Limnologia (Society for Freshwater Science) recentemente criou uma força-tarefa focada em promover a justiça, equidade, diversidade e inclusão entre seus cientistas. Contudo, a comunidade científica tende a ignorar que cientistas negros também são vítimas de racismo fora do meio acadêmico. Essa é a forma mais brutal e ameaçadora que o racismo toma, mas os cientistas negros não falam sobre isso por considerarem que não faz parte do mundo acadêmico e porque, muitas vezes, envolve situações humilhantes. A seguir, apresento a parte não contada da minha história por trás do artigo.

Até que os riachos urbanos ficam bonitos nas fotos.

Durante o trabalho de campo para a pesquisa descrita acima, eu fui frequentemente parado pela polícia militar do Estado do Rio de Janeiro (precisamente cinco vezes em três meses). Em todas as abordagens, apesar de dirigir um carro oficialmente identificado com o símbolo da universidade nas duas portas, o policial me perguntava de quem era o carro e por vezes, revistava o porta malas. Os policiais que me abordavam nunca acreditavam que eu era um cientista fazendo trabalho de campo e eu sempre tinha que dar uma palestra sobre ecologia urbana para convencê-los de que eu não estava mentindo. Ser abordado por policiais é sempre aterrorizante para pessoas negras porque qualquer fala ou movimento “errado” pode ter consequências desastrosas. Homens e mulheres negros têm respectivamente 2,5 e 1,4 vezes mais chances de serem assassinados pela polícia ao longo da vida do que homens e mulheres brancos nos Estados Unidos (Edwards, Lee, & Esposito, 2019). No Brasil, entre 2007 e 2017, 75% das pessoas assassinadas pela polícia militar eram negras (Bueno et al 2019). Especificamente no Rio de Janeiro, a polícia militar já assassinou pessoas negras por confundir um guarda-chuva e uma furadeira com fuzis (notícia aqui). Portanto, a verdadeira história por trás do meu artigo é cheia de tensão e medo de virar mais uma vítima da violência policial. E eu nem preciso dizer que esta situação reduziu minha produtividade na pesquisa. Durante todo o tempo, eu tive que dividir minha atenção entre fazer ciência e planejar o que dizer e como me comportar na próxima abordagem da polícia militar. Por questões de segurança eu parei de carregar comigo qualquer objeto que pudesse levantar suspeitas da polícia. Se guarda-chuva e furadeiras podem parecer fuzis, meus equipamentos de pesquisa também podem parecer armas e nós já sabemos o que acontece quando a polícia militar se confunde.

Eu espero que esse texto possa te dar uma pequena ideia de como os cientistas negros têm que enfrentar a árdua tarefa de fazer ciência e ao mesmo tempo enfrentar o racismo enraizado nas estruturas de algumas sociedades. Eu também espero que esse texto deixe claro que lutar contra o racismo dentro do meio acadêmico é nobre e imperativo, mas não é o suficiente. Nós, cientistas negros e a comunidade negra em geral, não merecemos estar sob o risco constante de sermos mortos pela polícia militar em cada esquina. Para isso, é importante que a comunidade científica se engaje e utilize ferramentas de divulgação e extensão para lutar contra o racismo dentro e fora do meio acadêmico. Historicamente, a ciência tem se provado um veículo de mudanças profundas em nossa sociedade e eu acredito que quando a comunidade científica realmente se comprometer com o combate ao racismo estrutural, nós poderemos começar a ver mudanças reais.     


Piatã Marques é um ecólogo que consegue ver belezas naturais através do concreto de nossas cidades. Ele fez graduação e Mestrado no Brasil, na Universidade do Estado do Rio de Janeiro- UERJ, a primeira universidade pública do país a adotar regime de cotas para promover a diversidade e inclusão de negros e indígenas no ensino superior. Após terminar seu doutorado na University of Victoria no Canadá, ele está de volta a UERJ como pesquisador de Pós-doutorado pelo programa CAPES-PrInt e espera encorajar alunos negros a se tornarem cientistas. Você pode segui-lo no Twitter e Instagram no @urban_streams .


Edwards, F., Lee, H., & Esposito, M. (2019). Risk of being killed by police use of force in the United States by age, race–ethnicity, and sex. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 116(34), 16793–16798. doi: 10.1073/pnas.1821204116

Bueno, Samira, David Marques, Dennis Pacheco, and Talita Nascimento (2019), Análise da letalidade policial no Brasil, in: Fórum Brasileiro de Segurança Pública, FBSP, Anuário Brasileiro de Segurança Pública, 2019, 58-65, http://www.forumseguranca.org.br/ wp-content/uploads/2019/10/Anuario-2019-FINAL_21.10.19.pdf (Oct 5th, 2020).

Navigating biological invasion and structural racism in urban systems

This blog post is provided by Piatã Santana Marques and tells their #StoryBehindThePaper for their article “Urbanization can increase the invasive potential of alien species“, which was recently published in Journal of Animal Ecology. This blog post is also a special feature for Black History Month, in which the British Ecological Society (BES) journals are celebrating the work of Black ecologists from around the world and sharing their stories. You can find a Portuguese version of the post here.

I have always been fascinated by the narratives of the #StoryBehindThePaper. I believe they are good examples of how science is often full of overturns and how researchers overcome problems. This is especially the case for research projects with long field seasons and intense fieldwork. Thus, when BES journals invited contributions from black scientists for Black History Month, I was excited to also tell my #StoryBehindThePaper. In the process of collecting stories for my post, some memories of my last field season made me realized that the story behind the paper of a black scientist can give us an idea of how structural racism out of academia can directly impact research. Here is my #StoryBehindThePaper.

I am an urban ecologist, interested in how cities affect the ecology and evolution of urban stream biota. Cities worldwide are continuously growing, and we are only starting to understand the reciprocal interactions between people, ecology and evolution in cities, especially in aquatic systems such as streams. In a paper recently published in the Journal of Animal Ecology (available here), my colleagues and I studied how urbanization can affect the invasive potential of alien species by using the guppy fish, Poecilia reticulata as a model. For this, me and my field team had to drive around one of the largest urban agglomerations in the world, the city of Rio de Janeiro – Brazil, looking for small streams within the vast urban matrix. As one can imagine, urban streams are very modified systems, contaminated with multiple human derived chemicals. In many cases, urban streams receive sewage discharges. This means that sampling urban streams requires paying attention to incoming pipes and to the flushing noise coming from the neighbours. For obvious reasons, sampling has to be performed wearing protective equipment that makes you completely waterproof, which can be very uncomfortable in the hot weather of the Tropics. Despite that, we took the challenge.

The crew is ready for sampling urban streams. Note: picture taken in 2016, before the COVID-19 pandemics.

In our research, we found that urbanization increases the quantity of food for guppies, especially midge larvae. Urban guppies take advantage of that to feed more on midges than non-urban guppies. The consumption of large amounts of this nutritious food allows guppies to grow larger, store more nutrients as liver tissue and increase the number of offspring compared to non-urban guppies. These traits increase the invasive potential of urban guppies and boost their population numbers by 26 times compared to non-urban guppy populations.

The fact that invasive species such as guppies reach high densities in urban systems is well known, but our study is the first to show that a food-related mechanism can explain why. Midges are found in large quantities in urban systems thus, it is possible that not only guppies, but also other aquatic and terrestrial urban dwellers take advantage of this food resource. We are performing experiments to test whether we can replicate such food related effects, creating a lab-made urban guppy phenotype. Such information can be important to help us better understand the success of invasive species in cities.

Now, the above paper was led by a black scientist so there is more to the #StoryBehindThePaper. The scientific community is increasingly aware of the damages of structural racism within academia and many righteous initiatives have taken place. For example, the Society for Freshwater Science have recently created a task force focused on promoting Justice, Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion. However, the scientific community tends to overlook that black scientists are also subjected to racism outside of academia. This is the most brutal and life-threatening part of structural racism which black scientists do not talk about because it is not academic and often involves humiliating situations. Here is the untold part of my #StoryBehindThePaper.

Urban streams can look quite nice in the picture.

During the fieldwork for the paper described above, I was frequently stopped by the Rio de Janeiro state police when driving to my field sites (precisely five times in a three-month field season). Although I was driving the university vehicle, with large university logos on the doors, I was always asked whose car I was driving and often had the trunk searched. The officers could never believe I was a scientist and I always had to give them a little lecture on urban ecology to prove I was not lying. Being approached by the police is always nerve-racking for a black person because any “wrong say” or movement can be a disaster. Black men and women are respectively 2.5 and 1.4 times more likely to be killed by the police during their lifetime than white men and women in the United States (Edwards, Lee, & Esposito, 2019). In Brazil, between 2007 and 2017, 75% of people killed by the police were black (Bueno et al 2019). Specifically in Rio de Janeiro, the state police have allegedly killed black people for carrying unharmful objects such as an umbrella and a drill, because those were confounded with rifles (news here). Thus, the full story behind my paper involves a lot of tension and fear of being one more victim of police violence. Needless to say, that reduced my productivity in the field. I had to share my attention between doing science and planning how to behave and what to say on my next encounter with the police. For safety reasons I also avoided carrying any field gear that could be deemed suspicious by the police. You never know if the long flow meter case can be mistakenly identified as a rifle.

I hope this post can give you a glimpse of how black scientists are facing the hard task of doing good science at the same time as navigating structural racism. I hope this also exposes that fighting racism within academia is honorable and imperative, but it is not enough. We black scientists, and the black community in general, deserve not being under the risk of being killed by the police at every corner. For that, it is important that the scientific community makes use of outreach tools to engage in fighting racism both within and outside of academia. Historically, science has been a hub for profound changes in our society and I believe that once the scientific community is really committed to fighting racism, we may begin to see changes.


Piatã Marques is an ecologist who sees wonders beyond the concrete of our cities. He did his undergrad and Masters in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil at the Universidade do Estado do Rio de Janeiro -UERJ, the first university in the country to promote diversity and inclusion by adopting racial quotas for black and indigenous students. After completing his PhD at the University of Victoria, Canada, he is back at UERJ as a Postdoctoral fellow striving to encourage black students to become scientists. You can follow him on Twitter and Instagram @urban_streams .

Cited references

Edwards, F., Lee, H., & Esposito, M. (2019). Risk of being killed by police use of force in the United States by age, race–ethnicity, and sex. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 116(34), 16793–16798. doi: 10.1073/pnas.1821204116

Bueno, Samira, David Marques, Dennis Pacheco, and Talita Nascimento (2019), Análise da letalidade policial no Brasil, in: Fórum Brasileiro de Segurança Pública, FBSP, Anuário Brasileiro de Segurança Pública, 2019, 58-65, http://www.forumseguranca.org.br/ wp-content/uploads/2019/10/Anuario-2019-FINAL_21.10.19.pdf (Oct 5th, 2020).