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Students need to find their niche in a complex environmental system

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“We as scientists need to make a concerted effort to ensure that science does in fact help prevent and solve environmental and socio-ecological problems … across as broad a spectrum as possible.” -- Dr Manuel Maass, ILTER Chair Elect  (Picture: Mitzi du Plessis)
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Young environmental scientists should be encouraged to start thinking early on in their careers on which area they would like to focus.
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Working mostly in the tropical dry forest of the Chamela Region in Western Mexico, Dr Maass has concentrated his academic activities for the last 25 years coordinating a long-term ecosystem research project. The research is aimed at understanding the structure and functioning of tropical dry forests on the Pacific Coast of Mexico. Dr Maass has published more than 80 scientific papers and book chapters on the subject.

At the recent International Long Term Ecological Research (ILTER) Network’s annual meeting in Japan, Dr Manuel Maass of the Mexican LTER Network was elected as incoming ILTER Chair. He will take over the reins from current Chair, Dr Terry Parr in October 2012.

As a Senior Scientist at the Centre for Ecosystem Research of the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM, Morelia campus), Dr Maass participates in Masters and PhD programmes in Ecology on a regular basis, both teaching and tutoring graduate students.

In this interview with SAEON eNews Dr Maass highlights some of the issues associated with training students in environmental science and shares his vision for capacity building in long-term research.

“In view of the vast environmental problems we face today, the first issue is -- what exactly do we teach our students?” he asks. “We need to consider very carefully how the students will be organising their careers.”

The Centre employs over 30 researchers representing a wide range of disciplines and actively promotes collaboration between environmental and social scientists. As a firm believer in a multi-disciplinary approach to environmental research, Dr Maass regards it as an ‘ongoing challenge’ and ‘a complicated exercise’ to teach environmental science.

“We need people from different fields and institutions collaborating; we need to study collateral; we need to involve people like engineers and social scientists working along with ecologists,” he argues.

With LTER it has become important to channel the students, with their different interests, into a similar mindset so that they can start working together and getting used to the idea of sharing data and explaining concepts to other researchers.

Complex system oriented studies

Mexican LTER researchers are encouraged to work holistically, moving to focusing their study on a whole region instead of just within the limits of the field stations or a protected area. This large-scale and systems approach is reflected in their student training.

Dr Maass regards it as vital to convince his students of the importance of complex system oriented studies, and to confront them with the reality that there is no way they can, individually, learn everything that is needed for dealing with complex systems. Students come into the tertiary education system for a short period only, and scientists and lecturers need to make sure that the students fill a specific niche within the long-term research project.

An interdisciplinary team does not mean a group of generalists working together, but rather a group of specialist on different and complementary fields with skills and tools to do team work within a common problem. So Dr Maass urges young scientists to start thinking early on in their careers on which area they would like to focus.

“They need to be very sure of this -- at the end of their studies they need to leave with two bags, one filled with technical tools on specific fields and the other with basic conceptual frameworks to enable them to communicate with other scientists as well as to put all those pieces of information they have collected into perspective,” he explains.

Data sharing

With LTER it has become important to channel the students, with their different interests, into a similar mindset so that they can start working together and getting used to the idea of sharing data and explaining concepts to other researchers.

Each semester the lecturers of the Centre for Ecosystem Research plan certain activities to get the students to interact. These activities teach the young scientists to deal with complexity and knowledge integration. The team members are evaluated beyond "traditional” aspects, for instance on their communication or teamwork skills. They are also taught that the challenge for scientists is to be as objective as possible, and to cultivate a questioning mind.

“In a collaboration such as this you have a number of properties emerging which add to your understanding of the system, and it is a lot of fun,” Dr Maass says with a grin. “You find yourself swimming in rough seas at times, you face uncertainties, you dive into complexity, but you are not alone. This approach depends on collaboration.”

Although these activities require more time and resources, the students thoroughly enjoy them. “They interact quite naturally,” says Dr Maass, “and we as lecturers learn a great deal in the process.”

Future perspective

In conclusion Dr Maass emphasises that the Mexican LTER Network subscribes to ILTER’s vision of a world in which science helps prevent and solve environmental and socio-ecological problems.

“We as scientists need to make a concerted effort to ensure that science does in fact help prevent and solve these problems … across as broad a spectrum as possible,” he says.

Related content:

Dr Manuel Maass shares his views on the Mexican approach to LTER 

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