Carlos M. Herrera (2009)

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

Early profile picture of Carlos Herrer kneeling before his field kit including net.
Carlos Herrer
Full NameCarlos M. Herrera
Job PositionProfessor of Research
OrganizationConsejo Superior de Investigaciones Cientificas, CSIC
DepartmentEstacion Biologica de Doñana, Sevilla
Professional AffiliationAcademic
Research DisciplinePlant-Animal Interactions
Research HabitatForest
Research OrganismPlants in general
Describe what you do and briefly describe the activities that your job encompassesFor many years now, I have been doing research on the evolutionary and ecological implications of the multifarious interactions that link plants and animals, including pollination, seed dispersal, seed predation and herbivory. In the last few years, I have expanded my approach to incorporate also the microbes that exploit some of these interactions, especifically the yeasts that inhabit the floral nectar, as well as to explore the genetic basis of variation in plant traits that are relevant to the interactions with animals. The research on the plant-pollinator-yeast tripartite interaction implies doing a lot of field work to collect data on plants and the animals that interact with them in their natural settings, but also much laboratory activity, such as microscopical examination of nectar samples or molecular analyses for identifying yeast species or looking for the genetic basis of traits of interest.
What do you love most about your job?No doubt, the continued opportunity for spending much time in the field. Even at risk of sounding somewhat cynical, I must honestly say that I gave a try to a career in ecology as a way of transforming my preferred hobby into my job so as to have fun more days a week. I was lucky enough to succeed.
For each degree you’ve obtained, list the degree, field, and institution.Licenciatura en Ciencias Biológicas, University of Sevilla, Spain.
Doctorado en Ciencias Biológicas, University of Sevilla, Spain.
Briefly describe your job path.During 1975-1977 I was a graduate student at the Estación Biológica de Doñana, CSIC, Sevilla. From 1979 to 1985 I held a position of Colaborador Científico at the same institution. And from 1986 until now, I’ve been a CSIC Profesor de Investigación (”Professor of Research”), also at the Estación Biológica de Doñana.
What challenges did you need to overcome?Early in my career, the main challenge was to overcome an extreme intellectual isolation. The “sink or swim” strategy was then absolutely widespread, and doctoral advisors generally gave little advice to grad students (which was clearly preferable in some cases, I admit). As an example, my advisor saw my doctoral work only when I showed him the final-bound set of copies and asked for his mandatory signature. Afterwards, for many years my training continued along a similarly autodidactic line. This was largely so out of necessity, although I don’t deny some personal inclination to digest ideas and information by myself, and not to rely on others’ pre-digestion. Later on, as a more-mature scientist, my main challenge was (and still is) to withstand the Spanish academic system’s absurd bureaucracy, meanness, and frequent disrespect towards scientists.
What’s one thing you hope to do in the future?I’d be more than happy if I only could keep doing science in the same relatively independent fashion as I have done so far.
How do you describe your job when you meet people at a party?I don’t usually attend parties. Now seriously, my preferred description is that I’m a biologist that does scientific research on ecological matters.
What is your family background and what did they think of your career choice?My family background is working class, not academic. They never opposed my inclination towards biology, and always helped when the need arose, even if they didn’t quite understand what use watching birds with binoculars would ever have.
Who or what inspired you to become a scientist (or other profession)?If I had to single out the few most influential persons on my career, I ought to start by mentioning my father, who frequently brought me – an urban child living in a mid-sized city of post civil war Spain – to the field and taught me the first plant and animal names when I was only 5. That was the spark that aroused my love for nature. Much later, while already a biology student at the University of Sevilla, I was deeply influenced by the interaction with Jose A. Valverde, the founder of Doñana National Park and first director of the Estación Biológica de Doñana, later to become my home institution during my whole career. Valverde quickly became the model to follow and taught me – through personal example, never by sermonising – that science is only worth its name from an attitude of permanent search and scrutiny, hard work and, above all, fierce intellectual independence. Other scientists who have influenced me strongly through their writings and ideas include Ramon Margalef and Robert MacArthur, who were my intellectual heroes during my twenties. In my early thirties, Daniel Janzen’s publications on tropical ecology sparked my early interest on plant-animal interactions and taught me the essential importance – and the immense personal pleasure, as I then discovered – of incorporating detailed, first-hand natural history observations and ‘ecological realism’ into evolutionary ecological research.
Who currently inspires you?No particular name comes to my mind.
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?Many years ago, in response to my complains about the difficulties associated with doing research in Spain, Daniel Janzen wrote back, “so you can easily guess what the difficulties can be in Bangladesh” (or something like this). That vivid expression made clear to me that, even though I live in a country whose society has never had science as a priority or a valuable asset and where doing science often becomes a heroic task, I am still a privileged person. My advice to young people thus is, don’t waste time complaining on the difficulties for doing your work, just do it the best you can and keep on it.
What would you like people to remember about your life as a scientist (or other profession)?To be honest, I really don’t care much about that, but I’d be happy if some people would still enjoy reading something that I wrote and pursue some of my cherished ideas.
How do you feel your work has contributed to society?I guess that my scientific work may have contributed to a more precise understanding of how nature works, which surely is a contribution to society.
Award NameESA Honorary Membership Award
Year originally profiled.2002