Jordi Bascompte

From a “Focus on Ecologists” maintained by the ESA Education Office about 2009-2011.

Full Name Jordi Bascompte
Degree PhD
Job Position Professor of Research
Organization Doñana Biological Station, Spanish Research Council (CSIC)
Department Integrative Ecology
Professional Affiliation Academic
Research Discipline Community Ecology
Research Habitat Not applicable
Describe what you do and briefly describe the activities that your job encompasses At Doñana Biological Station, I combine the analysis of large data sets with mathematical and numerical models to describe the structure of ecological networks and to assess how this structure affects community dynamics. This ultimate goal involves several distinct approaches, so my job is eminently collaborative.
What do you love most about your job? It is quite a creative enterprise. It is also a synthetic work, like adding the pieces of a giant puzzle. I also have fun by collaborating with others and learning from so many bright people.
For each degree you’ve obtained, list the degree, field, and institution. BS: University of Barcelona, Spain. Biology. 1991.
PhD: University of Barcelona, Spain. Ecology. 1994.
Briefly describe your job path. I became interested in natural history, particularly birds, quite young. The first entries in my field notebook date from when I was 14 years old. At that time I was not aware of the word “biology” but somehow wanted to become a naturalist. A few years after, I became an undergraduate student at the University of Barcelona. I clearly remember the day I started college. Going to the university meant to me so much that I invited my old-time friend Sixto Arjona to come with me as if we were visiting some Greek temple. That very same day I bumped into the ecologists Ramon Margalef, someone I had already read so much, but had never met. At the University of Barcelona I got my masters degree and afterwards started my Ph.D. After this I went to the USA, first to the University of California, Irvine, where I spent two years doing a postdoc. Then I got an independent postdoctoral fellowship at the National Center for Ecological Analysis and Synthesis (NCEAS) in Santa Barbara, CA. My stay at NCEAS was extremely useful since I had the chance to interact with so many brilliant ecologists, which introduced an international dimension to my work. While at NCEAS I applied to several jobs both in the USA and Europe and was lucky enough to become an Associate Professor of Research at the Doñana Biological Station, a center of the Spanish Research Council.
What challenges did you need to overcome? During my PhD I did not have any type of fellowship so had to find alternative sources of income such as translating books or teaching. I guess that at the end that was a positive experience because provided me training on other skills.
What’s one thing you hope to do in the future? Essentially I would like to remain so fascinated by nature and so engaged by my job as time goes by. To some extent, this is to keep looking at nature through the eyes of a child.
How do you describe your job when you meet people at a party? I generally think about the component of biodiversity that is not present in a museum, i.e., the interactions between species. I use the analogy of an Alexander Calder’s piece of work to illustrate the interrelationships among entities. This is the type of question we address: the style of nature’s big mobile, the architecture of biodiversity.
What is your family background and what did they think of your career choice? None of my parents had the chance to go to college. When they grew up, Spain was a country quite different to what it is now. Franco was in power after a bloody civil war, and this sentenced Spain to more than 40 years of obscurity. It was a step backwards and a negation of reason, culture and science. I become the first member in our family to have a higher degree (with the exception of one grandfather). Although happy about the prospects of having a soon in college, my dad was somehow reluctant about me picking up biology. A more conventional career path such as becoming an architect or a medical doctor would have been more of his taste. But I had no opposition whatsoever and could pursue what I really liked. They were ultimately very supportive and happy of having a soon doing what he wanted to do (and on top of that “getting paid for that!”).
Who or what inspired you to become a scientist (or other profession)? Several people had a pivotal influence at different stages. The first major influence was an influential Spanish naturalist by name Félix Rodríguez de la Fuente. He had an extraordinary TV program on nature and become the first famous naturalist in Spain connecting with a wide audience. Many in my generation learn to love nature because of that TV program. My next big influence was by the great ecologist Ramon Margalef. He was responsible for me to become an ecologist and starting thinking theoretically. I evolved from just bird watching to thinking on more abstract representations of ecosystems. At this stage, the Nobel laureate Ilya Prigogine, the father of the thermodynamics of irreversible processes helped into that transformation. He convinced me that biological systems are not isolated from other physical systems and therefore that I could look at them as other examples of self-organizing systems. There was nothing magic about life and order. I met Prigogine at a summer school while I was in college and become very interested in deterministic chaos and thermodynamics. At that stage, I was already searching a scientific career, but needed a last input. Meeting my former PhD supervisor, Ricard V. Solé provided this latter, influential push, because it was with him that I started doing science and having the most of fun. With Ricard I learn to do science as if I was playing, enjoying the process. I shared my office with the other members of our young group: two physicists (Bartolo Luque and Susanna Manrubia) and a theoretical computer scientist (Jordi Delgado), and that was a graceful source of multidisciplinary training.
Who currently inspires you? Some of the great scientists I have the fortune to interact with.
What is the most valuable advice a mentor gave you or that you would offer to someone who’d like to do the same job as you? It is hard to tell, I had great mentors and all provided great advice at the right time. I would perhaps pick up a conversation with Pere Alberch, a developmental biologist that was professor at the University of Harvard for a few years before moving back to Spain. Alberch was in my PhD committee, and after I got my PhD we had a meeting in Madrid. During a nice lunch he essentially convinced me that I had to go abroad for a postdoc (he was thinking about Seattle, a city he liked very much, to work with Jim Murray). I was fascinated by his energy and enthusiasm, and when I mentioned that, he just told me that life is too short. This ended up being a tragic sentence (he died only 3 years after that lunch at the age of 44). I guess the point he was making is to play an active role, to run after opportunities instead of waiting for them. Perhaps the second most valuable advice was provided by my Postdoctoral mentor Steve Frank. This was to pick up the right questions and to articulate them clearly.
What would you like people to remember about your life as a scientist (or other profession)? That I advocated a multidisciplinary approach in science, and enjoyed every bit of it.
Award Name Mercer Award
Year originally profiled. 2007