Future Earth Coasts

FEC Dialogue: Meet the Fellows | Dr. Giovanni Ávila-Flores

“I said that life had already happened to me, and I didn’t do anything. But I’m here to tell you no: you have a lot of time”.

– Guillermo del Toro (Mexican filmmaker and Oscar winner)

Dr. Giovanni Ávila-Flores

Autonomous University of Baja California Sur | México

Giovanni Ávila-Flores (Gio) obtained his bachelor’s degree in Marine Biology at the Autonomous University of Baja California Sur (UABCS), Mexico. Later, he did his master’s studies in Environment and Resource Management at the Free University of Amsterdam, Netherlands. Later in 2019, he did a research stay in the “Mangrove Ecology” Working Group of the Leibniz Center for Tropical Marine Research in Bremen, Germany. In 2021, he obtained a Ph.D. in Marine and Coastal Sciences from UABCS by presenting a thesis about a comprehensive assessment of mangroves in Baja California Sur, Mexico. On the other hand, he is a member of various global scientific organizations such as the “Ecosystem Services Partnership” and the “Society of Wetland Scientists.” He has also held executive positions within some international networks as “Young Ecosystem Services Specialists” (YESS) in the period 2020-2021 and “Early Career Researcher Network of Networks” (ECR NoN) as Chair of the Membership Committee in the period 2022-2023. Also, he has earned national and international prizes and recognitions, highlighting a Certificate of Honor from the UNDP Equatorial Initiative for outstanding volunteer service in 2016 and a Distinction as a Member of the National System of Researchers by the National Council of Science and Technology of Mexico in 2022. Finally, last year he began to participate in Future Earth (FE) as a member of the Assembly General in the ECR Group and currently serves on the Governing Council of FE.

  1. What motivated you to become involved with Future Earth Coasts (FEC) and join the FEC Fellows Program? As an FEC Fellow, what do you hope to achieve or contribute to the broader scientific and stakeholder community?

Gio: Derived from my work in Early Career Researcher Network of Networks (a platform for ECR networks worldwide to communicate, collaborate, and foster a shared vision on sustainability research towards a sustainable future) was how I met Future Earth. Since FE is an organization composed of multiple organizations, I started to review its different components and networks, and FEC particularly caught my attention since I am a marine biologist and precisely because I have experience in coastal issues both as a researcher focused on coastal wetlands as well as a native of a seaside city. I was particularly interested in the fellow’s program since this program would allow me to meet colleagues in similar situations to mine and, from there, generate networking. Likewise, I hope to learn more and more about this great community and contribute using my experience in previous networks to the development of this network to which I now belong, as well as to obtain feedback and contacts from other colleagues to continue learning and contributing to the generation of science focused on coastal zones.

  1. Reflecting on your academic experience, you pursued Marine Biology during your undergraduate studies, and subsequently focused on the Marine and Coastal Sciences for your master’s and doctoral studies. How did you transition into your current scientific field? And what steps did you take to refine your research direction over time?

Gio: The transition from a bachelor’s degree in marine biology to a Ph.D. in marine and coastal sciences in Mexico could be considered simple and even obvious; however, my master’s degree in environment and natural resource management at the Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam in the Netherlands was indeed a significant challenge. For me, the transition from working with natural sciences to an interdisciplinary approach forced me to use social science tools, GIS and economic and political issues was undoubtedly a critical challenge. Drawing from this experience and applying it within my doctorate was undoubtedly something enriching. I forgot to mention that after my master’s degree, I spent approximately ten years working in the environmental area of the government of the state of Baja California Sur, Mexico. Without a doubt, this helped me a lot in my knowledge in the environmental area. Above all, I learned experiences that one can hardly live within the academy as the subject of decision making. This was very instructive for me, because I learned a lot about environmental legislation today. Furthermore, this also helped me to enrich the focus of my doctoral thesis which centers on mangroves, making it more practical and useful to inform decision-making.

  1. You have a unique academic journey with two gaps between completing your undergraduate studies and pursuing postgraduate studies in Environment and Resource Management at the Free University of Amsterdam, and later in Marine and Coastal Sciences. Can you share some stories behind your unique academic journey and how it has shaped your perspective on coastal and ocean sustainability?

Gio: In the case of studying in the Netherlands, one of the reasons was undoubtedly my need to study in a place where I could have contact with colleagues from other countries and where I was far from my home. The scenario of speaking different languages, both English in the master’s program and Dutch in everyday life, as well as the understanding of cultural differences of both the Dutch people and the various nationalities of my classmates, were a great challenge that helped me a lot in my personal growth. A particular case was that I took an elective course called “People and the Sea” at the “Universiteit van Amsterdam”. Within this course, a holistic approach was used, particularly on social sciences. It touched on topics such as the cultural vision of whaling in northern Europe. This clashed with my conservationist vision, as in Mexico, whales were not exploited commercially. Having access to other knowledge and other visions helped me understand the different actors in international environmental issues.

  1. Your involvement in various global scientific activities and organizations is noteworthy. Can you recall the initial opportunity that led you to participate in global scientific initiatives and join international scientific organizations such as Future Earth? What valuable insights or experiences did you gain from these participations?

Gio: This question is somewhat challenging to answer. Returning to what I indicated in my previous answer, I must say that although my experience in the Netherlands during the master’s degree was very instructive, it undoubtedly taught me that compared to my European colleagues, I still had a lot to learn and that led me to need to improve my knowledge and experience.  Mainly, what began my path in this topic of global networks was the fact that when I was working on research on the subject of mangroves. One of the essential points of this topic was the understanding, understanding, and dissemination of the ecosystem services of this coastal ecosystem. Being in a city far from the capital of my country, there were practically no experts on the subject of ecosystem services. Thanks to the Internet, I became aware of the existence of the “Young Ecosystem Service Specialist” (YESS) network.I signed up for this network and started receiving different communications through its newsletter and social networks. At first, I was only a passive member. I engaged by reading the content of these media outlets. Within one of those communications, an announcement was published to join the YESS delegation to participate in IPBES 6. It was going to be held in Medellín, Colombia in 2017.

At first, I was hesitant to participate in this experience, mainly because although the organization refers to young researchers (I was already 37 years old, so I was not young) however, I fell under the definition of ECR (since, at that time, I was in PhD Studies). Ultimately, I decided to participate in this delegation, where I met notable colleagues who worked on this topic and learned from great experts. This experience strengthened my confidence on a personal and academic level, and this motivated me to work more closely at YESS. Later, I attended the World Conference on Ecosystem Services in 2019, held in Bonn, Germany. Shortly after finishing this event, the call arose today to be part of the YESS executive team derived from these positive experiences. I applied with some fear to be part of this executive team, being elected with a colleague and great German friend, Nina Kaiser, to work within the 2020-2021 period. However, COVID-19 in 2020 greatly affected the initial activities that could have been carried out. For example, several regional conferences on ecosystem services were canceled that year, and together with Nina, we carried out various activities to encourage colleagues’ participation in networking activities. Later the following year, with other colleagues, we began to promote our colleagues’ involvement in regional conferences, all held online today. We also had some training workshops, and shortly before the end of the year 2021 (my last year at YESS as a member of the executive team), I received an invitation to be part of the ECR NoN (Early Career Researcher Network of Networks). This new opportunity allowed me to learn about Future Earth since I had never heard of this organization before.

  1. Considering your extensive international academic engagements alongside your locally rooted academic research, how do you integrate local research with international academic activities? What challenges have you encountered in this integration process? And what do you think this combination means for local research and international academic activities?

Gio: Undoubtedly, this is another complex question to answer. I believe that the first step to integrate the knowledge obtained at the international level and apply it to the local environment is through the training of students both through the teaching of knowledge to undergraduate and graduate students (for example, I currently teach the subject of ecosystem services) and through the application of novel approaches in the development of theses (for example, the DPSIR framework and Toolkit for Ecosystem Service Site-Based Assessment). A pending step is to start generating local research projects by inviting international experts. Perhaps the most critical challenge for my global academic activities is that all of them are “Ad honorem” and must be carried out in my free time. In my case, I must work in other activities outside the academic field to have a decent quality of life. The salary I receive as a professor in Mexico is minimal since I am a professor by subject. I receive a payment for each subject I teach. Indubitably, international experience allows local research to be carried out with a novel approach.

  1. As a young researcher, you have assumed leadership roles in international networks such as “Young Ecosystem Services Specialists” (YESS) and “Early Career Researcher Network of Networks” (ECR NoN). What inspired you to contribute to supporting fellow early career researchers, and were there specific opportunities that influenced this decision?

Gio: There were different reasons for both YESS and ECR NoN. Starting with YESS (2020), after carrying out some activities where I had the organization’s support, the next step was to be part of the YESS executive team. In turn, it is a way to thank this organization by dedicating our free time to its growth and development and doing this voluntarily. A few months before finishing my time at YESS (2021), I received an invitation for YESS to indicate its representatives in ECR NoN, and that is how I joined ECR NoN; a few months later, the elections were held to be part of the executive committee, and I was elected to be chair of the membership area during the period 2022-2023. In the end, being in these leadership positions has allowed me to help various colleagues and improve organizations, so in addition to being an honor, it is also a service and giving back a little of the much we have received.

  1. In your involvement with early career researcher organizations, what strengths or valuable qualities do you believe early career researchers possess? Additionally, at this stage, what kind of support do you think early career researchers need the most?

Gio: As we say in Mexico, “Each head is a world.” That means each ECR presents unique characteristics, strengths, and weaknesses, especially if we consider the differences between ECRs from developed countries and those from the global south. However, I have seen many colleagues’ enthusiasm for the activities carried out with other international colleagues and that these are for the world’s benefit. I believe an ECR is an interesting mix of youth and technical knowledge that should be used internationally and locally.

Regarding support needs, there are two themes: training and funds. The need to understand more about ecosystem services was the main reason for my approach to international networks. Another need is undoubtedly access to funds, particularly for people from the global south. On this last topic, I must say that Future Earth’s “Inclusivity and Diversity Participation Funding” initiative has helped several colleagues from the rest of the world. Still, more support is required to be given to ECR internationally, nationally, and locally.

  1. What are some of the challenges you’ve faced as an early to mid-career researcher, and how have you overcome them?

Gio: My case is atypical since my main job in the mornings is in a government area in charge of environmental management in my state in Mexico. Conversely, I work at the Autonomous University of Baja California Sur in the afternoons, teaching, researching, and supervising my thesis students. Considering this, the main challenge is having a full-time position to work 100% on research, teaching, and thesis supervision. But this problem is not only in my region or Mexico but the entire world. I know a capable ECR from Canada who has had to look for opportunities in European countries. This issue of having a permanent position is not something easy in general terms. But without a doubt, working with international colleagues gives me a lot of satisfaction and makes me want to continue working.

  1. Your unwavering commitment to Marine and Coastal Sciences, coupled with your active involvement in international activities, is commendable. What motivates you to persist in your chosen path and translate that commitment into action? What advice do you have for students who are confused about the future and hesitant to take action?

Gio: This question touched my heart, and I will allow myself to speak challenging moments. It is effortless to discuss our triumphs and complicated to talk about our defeats. During my 20s, I had many academic and personal losses, and I never felt older and more finished than I did at 33 years old. I was in a job I didn’t like, and at 37 years old, I started my doctoral studies at a local university. After having studied in Europe, I felt like a setback. However, during my first year of the doctorate, I was fortunate to meet wonderful people who were nationally and internationally recognized researchers in the field of mangroves, which helped my confidence, and that was where I discovered the importance of the ecosystem services of mangroves. Due to my desire to work on the subject, I found YESS, and from there, something began that changed my life and led me to meet great colleagues from all over the world. For example, I can share my story with you. Fortunately, now in my 40s, I have done well and have used this acquired knowledge and experience for the benefit of my colleagues. I want to finish this answer by quoting the Mexican filmmaker Guillermo del Toro (Oscar winner), who said, “I said that life had already happened to me, and I didn’t do anything. But I’m here to tell you no: you have a lot of time”. That is, don’t compare your path with anyone else’s; try to get the best teachers and collaborate with the best in your field, and with some persistence, you will be successful, even if it takes a while. 

  1. Could you please share your vision for your future endeavors? How do you envision FEC contributing to the realization of your goals and aspirations?

Gio: Without a doubt, one of my future projects is to learn more about FEC and start working with more and more colleagues, and I see that in a few years, FEC will be one of the groups with which I would work as a senior researcher working on projects with other members. Becoming an FEC fellow here is something that honors me, and I hope to continue collaborating in the growth of this organization, where I already feel like someone of the team.

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Future Earth Coasts (FEC) is a global sustainability, research and innovation network that promotes knowledge sharing and action...