Nick Askew and Fernando Mateos González

Podcast: Fernando Mateos González | Bioblogia.net

Don’t let anyone talk you away from your dreams says conservation biologist and today’s guest Dr. Fernando Mateos González.

In his free time Fernando (‘Nando’) runs Bioblogia.net where he helps students and early career professionals find their dream environmental role. Whether it’s sharing job offers internships, volunteer opportunities and more Nando loves helping up and coming biologists.

In his day job he works as a conservation biologist in the Czech Republic and supports expeditions as a nomadic mercenary scientist. Last year he joined the BBC in the Peruvian Amazon to shoot scenes for the new Attenborough series, Seven Worlds, One Planet. And he’s just back from an expedition sailing to Iceland as chief scientist for British Exploring Society.

Nando is a super busy, super fun and super passionate biologist. So if you’re interested in careers in conservation biology or passionate about expeditions you’ll love today’s guest. Enjoy. 

Listen

Subscribe

You can listen and subscribe to the Conservation Careers Podcast on iTunes, Spotify or Stitcher using the following links, or search for ‘conservation careers’ and you’ll find us!

Discuss Bioblogia.net Podcast

If you enjoy listening please leave us a rating and review on wherever you get your podcasts, it really helps us to get in front of more people! If you can share with your friends that would also be great. If you’ve got any questions or suggestions for the podcast please tweet them to @ConservCareers. We’d love to hear from you!

Audio Transcript

Fernando   

Hello, I’m Fernando. I am a Spanish biologist, and I really like wildlife and I’m lucky enough to work around it and we did it in the Czech Republic at the moment, but also traveling a lot. 

Nick   

And one of the, kind of main things that people know you for nowadays is the fantastic blog and website that you run Bioblogia, if I can get that right? 

Fernando   

Bioblogia. Yeah, I don’t know how to pronounce it in English. It was an, probably I was foreseeing when I decided on the name.  

Nick   

It’s probably just me.  

Fernando   

In Spanish, it makes more sense I think. A lot of people also confuse it. Maybe I’m not the best at marketing. But the idea is that in Spanish biología – biology is biología. And that comes from, I think, a mix in Latin and Greek and logia means the study of bio life. So it’s the study of life. But if you put a B in the middle, it becomes like a blog about biology. So it made a lot of sense in Spanish Bioblogia. But now I have to just accept it.  

Nick   

Explain it to people like me, who are English speakers. And the site’s been running now for what 15 years, like, why did you set it up in the early days, like, you know, where did the interest come from?  

Fernando   

The story is, I was finishing my degree, I think I had a year left of my degree in biology, and I started to look for jobs thinking, oh, now I need to find a job. I was surprised I found a lot of jobs online. I didn’t expect it to be so easy to find them. So then I started sending these jobs to friends and sending around and then I created an email list of sorts, like a long email every week and then I said, it will be just easier if I just posted it on a website. And then that’s how it started. It was 2004 I think when I started the blog, and then I kept posting job offers and at some point people wrote with questions and then the questions started repeating themselves like how do I apply to this? Or do you have any tips? And so I had to read so many job applications and sent so many myself that I started giving advice and when this advice started repeating oh, so then I decided it was easier to put it on the blog. And that was a problem because then that was when lots of more people started asking questions. And now this mess. 

Nick   

So tell us about your current mess. How is it like? Who you are talking to? What advice and information that you are sharing if people can’t see your site? 

Fernando   

As you know, probably, when you get older, you learn things, mostly by repetition with the same problems over and over. So we end up learning things even without noticing. And it feels that now I know many more things than when I was that age, when I finished my degree. So it feels easy to give this advice. I don’t know if I’m entitled enough, but it feels easy to share it with people and yeah, mostly I get lots of questions from people starting to study biology or related careers, environmental scientists and similar people that have finished their degrees and are now looking for a job or looking for what to study next, or how to navigate the PhD and post doc and academia career. So yeah, I get lots of those emails. I really enjoy it. These are nice, extra job. 

Nick   

We’ll talk about your current role in a minute. I’m interested you must have helped a lot of people in over the last, what, 15 years through your site and you’re helping more and more people all the time. Is that something you enjoy doing? 

Fernando   

Yeah, it’s growing and I enjoy it a lot. Now we are very excited. A friend of mine Nacho who runs a similar blog, elbichologo.com. We are organising a meeting in southern Spain in Baja for this Christmas. Usually we do it, he and I by ourselves just to have some drinks and tapas and remember like catch up on life. And then we said okay, we could invite all our readers and maybe that way we meet them life and how we are very excited but a bit scared of what they come out of this. 

Nick   

Is the first time you’ve… Have you actually put it out to your audience already that you’ve had a response from people or are you just starting to kind of put the feelers out there and you’re anxious as to how many might turn up? 

Fernando   

We did it yesterday, we just I made up kind of a poster while I was having coffee and we busted out there and I will have a look, I don’t know how it will go. But hopefully we get a nice party going. It will be nice. 

Nick   

That sounds great. So tell us about your current role and then because I mean, we’ve been in touch now for I don’t know the last six months, twelve months, something like that and I’ve only just started to get a feel of the breadth of things that you’re involved with. You seem to travel a lot. You do expeditions you do science and research, you are doing some field biology, you’re running workshops. Tell us about the things that you’re doing right now Nando. 

Fernando   

Yeah. I joke saying that I’m a mercenary scientist only for the most rewarding things. Not always like that. But I really enjoy saying yes to things. Maybe I should slow down a bit now. In my day job my base camp is I’m a researcher, I guess that will be the closest thing. I’m a researcher of field biologists for Czech NGO in the Czech Republic and we work in research, but mostly conservation of endangered species. So we have several projects collaborating with other NGOs and governmental entities other countries. We have, for example, a project with links Russian links, in collaboration with Austria, with Slovakia, with the Czech Republic. We have another project on the ground squirrels also known as saslics and they are really rare animals. They used to be very common, but now they are, at least in the Czech Republic, they are critically endangered. They are a fantastic species to work with very, very interesting. And for that we have several projects and funding sources. And the last one, which I’m really, really excited about this, Microsoft, gave us an AI for Earth grant to use artificial intelligence in our researches. So I don’t know this field is now like science fiction, and I’m very excited about it. I am not sure I understand it completely. I’m trying to catch up as fast as I can. But my feeling is that no one really knows how this works. So it’s a great moment to be working with this 

Nick   

Sounds great. That’s kind of on the cutting edge of some of the latest research and technologies that are available. So that’s sort of projects you’re involved with. You have the saslics, you have the links projects as well in other things. What is the kind of typical day or week look like for you? Like what are the sorts of things you are involved with? 

Fernando   

It depends a lot on the system and what the deadlines are which deadlines are coming. So for example, this week, I’ve been mostly working at home with a computer like I’m fighting with some niche modeling analysis for this saslics, trying to find the variables that most affect the distribution of the species. Other days, I’m in the field. These species are hibernating in winter or well for half a year. So when they are out, we are out there too trying to get as much data as possible, so that will involve a whole day outside. And now we started the fire today. The winter is coming. So when this comes and hopefully snow will come one of my favorite activities of the year start which is going out there and track links on the snow, trying to find samples, DNA samples and trying to identify individuals. So those days are great, like you put your snow suits on and then you go hiking up some mountain trying to find tracks. I love that. We do the same also with otters. Sometimes we go all the way up to the beginning of a stream, the start of a stream that then becomes a river. And then we walk down on the snow looking for tracks and sprains of the otters’ markings that they do to get a feeling of what the families are, how many individuals and then get the genetic sample. So, those I think are some of my favorite days, when you will spend the whole day, twelve hours walking in the forest or along a river. 

Nick   

It’s really nice to kind of hear the seasonality of it too like in the spring out catching the ground squirrels in the winter when the snow comes different opportunity, go look for the tracks you know go and get some trekking done as well and collect the data live there. It sounds like you actually love being outside you know, that kind of field element of it although you are doing analysis right now. What are some of the biggest challenges in your job as the kind of conservation biologist or what are the things you like the least you know what the people need to know about? 

Fernando   

Well they always say with challenges its, life can be or job can be like a video game. And it’s, you know, in video games, there is a sweet point between very hard and very easy. If it’s very easy, you get bored of it? If it’s very hard, you cannot continue. So it’s good that in life and in your job, there are difficult hard moments and challenges so you do go over them. In this variety of things that I do in this job its perfect for that. There are a lot of new challenges like this new AI problems that trying to learn this. And probably the hardest thing now that I think about is bureaucracy. That’s what I hate, bureaucracy. I think is one of the biggest hurdles for conservationists or researchers in general, that in order to do things, we need to sometimes fight a lot with institutions or laws or how people usually don’t know what we are doing and what we need, and it is really hard to work with that. So probably that’s difficult in our day job. 

Nick   

Yeah, so the bureaucracy, the red tape, from my perspective from the outside I used to do something similar but it’s quite a while ago now I found what’s called the endless fundraising if you like, quite challenging too as one project closes, you always need to be fundraising for the next and that uncertainty and that kind of further reporting aspects you can enjoy it, but it can also be a constant pressure.   

Fernando   

I spent, I guess we will talk about that too but I spent like 10 years in academia, working through the PhD and post doc and stuff. And that was like thinking of the next stage all the time that was so unnerving, so difficult, and very stressing. Now also, of course, we need to ask for funding and look for opportunities, but somehow it feels easier or there is less competition. I don’t know where the feeling comes from, or if it’s real or not, but I feel much more relaxed now here. It’s a stress but it’s a nice one. I think partly it’s because now I really, really choose my projects with more freedom and also because I see the application right away. It’s probably it’s because it’s more applied, and then I’m going to see results right away and the results are tangible. It’s not just scientific paper. For example, like before you can see the results, you can see like, I don’t know, less otters are dying on the roads, for example, things like that. I think that makes it easier that particular challenge.  

Nick   

Now you’re working for a charity and used to be in academia. And we’ll talk about your career path in a second. But do you consciously move then from academia into a more charity environment to kind of see more application for the results of your science? Did you want to be more connected to the outcome if you like, rather than just the purity of answering questions within science?   

Fernando   

Partly it was that I was looking for something more applied more results. I think, for some time when I was looking for a new thing to do after academia. In my cover letter, I was always starting with an anecdote. This happened in Lake Tanganyika in Zambia. We were working with a tiny species of fish that lives in the not so deep parts of the lake. This fish, they make their houses using little shells, seashells, in the bottom. We were studying how they behave, how their group behavior and how they interact with other members of the species and predators and stuff. So we were recording, setting cameras there, we were making grids and lines not to get lost when you were diving down there and spending hours underwater, preparing the fieldwork, preparing these recordings. And then recurring problem was that the local fishermen were dragging nets over everything. They were trying to fish and in the process they were destroying all our project. So one day we went to talk to one of these villagers that was in charge of the fishing to explain our problem. In response, they show us their nets and their catch, and they have such tiny fish. I mean, they are trying to find their food to live from it and they are catching smaller and smaller fish. And they have, what I felt at that moment is that they have much bigger problems than me trying to understand the behavior of this fish. And then I felt that that’s one of the problems. But the main problem is that if we don’t work with them first, we cannot work with knowledge. Now, we are trying to find answers to questions. And perhaps first we need to solve more urgent problems, or maybe at the same time, I don’t know, but it’s very difficult.  

Nick   

It’s fascinating actually, you were studying your species, but there are much more important questions to be answering particularly for the local people as well as species. You can find that when they allowed the species to thrive and to grow then local people would also benefit. 

Fernando   

What I feel is that finding knowledge is important, it’s very important that we need to do it to push the knowledge barrier. But at the same time, we have to be working with people and with urgent problems that will allow us to work with more freedom and in the wild like it’s difficult, it’s difficult. We need to work in both terms. 

Nick   

And science often forms conservation. So it’s about asking the right questions, I guess in the first place to then allow conservation to be better and more effective and more focused. What have been your career steps so far there? What have you done? What’s your potted history?  

Fernando   

I studied degree in biology in southern Spain, in Badajoz. And from there during my degree I didn’t really know what I was going to do. I just wanted to work with animals. So the first thing I did was to ask in the Department of Zoology to what could I do to start working already, I didn’t want to just go to the class. I wanted to work already. So they sent me down to some enclosures to feed the birds and to put water in for the birds they were working with. Right away I became a researcher and I think that led a bit, that first step. So after finishing my degree, I kept on collaborating with the department and I got a small grant to work, doing research in animal behavior with birds. I was working with barn swallows, and then at some point while looking for more opportunities, I got another grant to work for a regional government in northern Spain. And then that was conservation related. So it was like a traineeship on conservation where I was helping this regional government in all the things that they had to do. Like some days we were working with bats, some days we were working with raptors or looking for invasive species. So I did that for a couple of years. And then I applied for a PhD grant. That’s funny. I got offer at the same time, this PhD grant and a fantastic job as a nature guide in my favorite National Park in Spain, Monfragüe. It was a really, really hard question, like decision, it was so hard because up to then it was my dream job to go there and walk around showing people the animals I love. But then at the same time I thought, oh well, if I get a PhD maybe for sure I would be able to get that job later because if they liked me now they will like me later with a PhD, I guess. So that made my decision. Then I said, okay, I will do the PhD first and then try that again. And then I spent 10 years in academia. 

Yeah. And of course I don’t regret it. It led to many, many different paths. And somehow I ended up going back to conservation after that.  

Nick   

Looking back in your career so far, you’re still young, mid career, loads of time left. But you know, looking back on what you’ve achieved so far, what have you been your career highlights? What are you really proud of? What memories stand out? 

Fernando   

There are many for each stage. The first time you are paid to do something you love, that’s a fantastic highlight. I remember when I got that first grant, and I was getting paid to read the color rings of my barn swallows, I mean, I was ecstatic. It was fantastic. And then I remember working in northern Spain in this conservation post traineeship with the local government. I remember going with a colleague of mine, and we were describing some habitat for Red Natura 2000 and things like that. And the job was driving our four by four cars and writing down which birds we were seeing and describing, taking photos and geo locating stuff. And we were looking at each other and saying, wow, we are getting paid to do that. This is incredible. That was a highlight. Then of course, finishing a PhD is really, really hard, but so rewarding. Like that was a fantastic one and during my PhD time and post doc, there have been lots, lots of nice moments like this diving and working underwater or many, many of them exploring the island of Trinidad and going through the jungle looking for little fish in small streams. 

Nick   

Too many to choose from. And actually exploring is another theme isn’t it, that runs through your career so far and expeditions? So you’re involved in the British exploring society, you’re like a volunteer leader on some expeditions, you are chief scientist too. You’ve just been to Iceland, you were in Peru a year or two back? How did you get involved in the British Exploring Society? And what sort of things are you doing through that? 

Fernando   

That’s a neat story too, because some point in 2016 or so, I was finishing a post doc and of course trying to look for the next stage and I had been a bit stressed at the time and lots of life problems looming too. And I was thinking, oh, this is the matter, I need to do something different. I’m spending most of my time in front of the computer. This is too much. I need to go back to the field, which is what I like. And then I remember I was writing my next post doc application to ask for funding for the next post doc. And I didn’t like at all my project. I was off, but I have to write this. I mean, this is the natural step. But I was imagining myself in the lab and then doing more computer analysis. And so then I start procrastinating, you know, like, I will just read online for a bit. And I didn’t know without thinking I started searching for jobs in the jungle for a biologist. Like I just wrote it in Google. Funny because I have a website in a nice, plain people how to look for jobs in a smart way. But I just wrote it in Google. The first thing that came out was British Exploring Society. We are looking for a biologist, is volunteering to lead an expedition to the Peruvian Amazon. You know what, I want to do that. And then I wrote, I don’t know if three pages of the application in 15 minutes and this is after having been the whole morning working on a paragraph for the other application. 

Nick   

It tells you where your energy was at the time doesn’t it just….. 

Fernando   

It was a clear sign and I say often that volunteering for British Exploring Society was the trigger in the change in going from academia to back to conservation and in more field biology. With them I applied, it was a very nice, funny selection process, very, very interesting, very fun. And I went with them to the Peruvian Amazon as a science leader and it was a fantastic experience and I right away I said oh please sign me up for everything that you do after this. And I’ve been to the Peruvian Amazon to Canada to the Yukon paddling down the Yukon River. I’ve been doing expeditions in Scotland. I’ve been in the last, this last one has been great. Yeah. Sailing aboard a tall ship, a proper pirate ship with sales that you pull up and down. It’s crazy all the way from Scotland to Iceland, and then two weeks hiking around in Iceland. 

Nick   

And this is something that people can get involved with themselves as a volunteer or you know what sort of opportunities are there for people to get into some of these expeditions? Maybe not leading but just been a participant? 

Fernando   

Yeah, I guess those are the two options you can go as a participant. They probably are now, looking forward to next cohort of explorers, young explorers, and I think you can go up to when you are 23 or 25 years old. And then after that you have the option to apply as a leader to go as a leader. For that, you need a bit more of experience. But this is totally doable. And I totally recommend it. This is a fantastic group of people and a very, very good experience.  

Nick   

Let’s talk careers advice for a bit too because we both offer careers advice to people who are looking to get into conservation or biology, ecology, those sorts of subjects. And you shared a lot of advice in your website for last 15 years or more, and I hope you continue to do so as well. What advice would you give to someone? You described one of your favorite moments was the first time you got paid when you were putting the color rings on barn swallows. If there’s someone out there who’s looking for their first paying job too and they want that feeling as well, what advice would you give to someone coming out of uni looking to kind of secure their first paying role?  

Fernando   

The first thing after uni, luckily during uni you have been already doing things on the side. I think the best thing I did you know, I wasn’t very smart student. I don’t know if smart is the word. But I wasn’t, I wasn’t a top notch one and I knew I wouldn’t get the maximum grades. So I thought the best strategy will be for me to differentiate myself will be to do more things apart from the degree. So I think one of the best things you can do during your studies is to get a minimum score that allows you to pass and to get your certificate and your degree. But also do as many things on the side as possible. This is good for two reasons. One, you will start exploring what you like and what you don’t like, which is really important. And the other thing is that you will have something to show after that, because all your colleagues and friends in university they will have the same degree as you by the end. So you need something to differentiate. And yeah, that was very, very important for me. Being volunteering every summer and doing lots of things on the side that helped me a lot.  

Nick   

That’s really good advice. Yeah. Something that I did also actually just to kind of share so when I was at university doing my undergrad I went to my lectures I did my best. I got a middling degree or two one, which was okay, but it wasn’t the best I wasn’t top notch either. But I spent all my free time out volunteering on local nature reserves, doing bird surveys, digging the pond, doing the practical stuff, running the conservation volunteer group. And it’s that stuff that helped me too it ignited my passion for conservation. Yeah firm, this is what I wanted to do. And also just gave me loads of experiences to talk about because the degree gave me great knowledge and it gave me a great qualification. But it’s the other stuff that I could show to employers and say, like I can do this, I can do that, I can do that. These are things that I’ve achieved. So I totally share that is a good science be getting out there and just exploring and getting involved in stuff and having fun. You know, if it’s something that you want to do and you find you enjoy, it should be something you want to do more and more of. 

Fernando   

Also it allows you another thing is, to meet other people and meeting people, creating these contacts, networking is such an ugly word, but what you do is you make friends like making friends and meeting people is the best you can do for your career because that’s where the most exciting and the best things are going to come from. So another good thing you can do is to collaborate with an association or even to create one yourself with a bunch of friends that will show very good things in your CV. If you can say that you have been collaborating and moving forward with an association, that’s a good line to have. 

Nick   

Yeah, it shows you’re being proactive and you can kind of create things yourself. 

Fernando   

What guidance would you give to someone who’s looking to work specifically within biology and biological research? So maybe they’re looking to secure a PhD or something like that? Are there particular traits or things people should consider when kind of following what is more of an academic route? I think for academic roots, it’s important to go niche to specify a lot. What I will advise is to start reading scientific papers as soon as possible, getting very good at it because that’s the currency in science academic papers. So you should be getting better at and very good at writing, writing well and fast academic paper. And that’s a good first step. If you start reading about the subject and get really into it, you will start recognising the leading laps working on that problem. And then you can write to them eventually with a specific, very specific questions and maybe suggesting that you can do like apply with them for a grant or a funding source and offering an idea right away. If you are able to design a project yourself to say, oh, I will really like to respond to reply to this question, to find out this question, and I will suggest that we could do it this way. Of course, I’m open for any other opportunities you might have or any other ideas you might have in your lab, but I’m offering this one and I think we will apply to this specific funding source that I think I’m good position for and if you are interested, we will have a chat. I think that should be the line of approach to go for an academic route.  

Nick   

Thank you so much, Nanda. That’s great advice. As always, thank you for sharing your time, your commitment, your passion for nature conservation. It’s always really fun to talk to you. If people want to find out a little bit more about your work, your blog, where should we point them?   

Fernando   

First, thank you Nick for the chance. It’s been a pleasure as always and I will be always happy to continue doing things with you. Where? I’m on TwitterFacebook, there is also my website Bioblogia.net that you can see in the show notes, I guess. So yeah, anywhere say hi and I will try to reply as fast as I can. 

Nick   

That’s great. Yeah, we’ll put links in the show notes, absolutely. Great. Well, thanks again Fernando. I’m sure we’ll speak again soon.  

Fernando   

Thank you. Bye, Nick.  

Nick   

Well, I hope you enjoyed that as much as I did. Now, have you seen the latest David Attenborough series Seven Worlds One Planet? Fernando is part of BBC filming team in the Peruvian Amazon, shooting some of the amazing scenes in the South American episode. And the Peruvian Amazon is one of Nando’s favourite places in the world. And he’s actually planning to go back this October 2020, guiding a group of lucky friends. So if you’d like to join them, simply shoot him a message through social media, or email or through his website, fernandomateos.com. And if you enjoyed this episode of the podcast, please do leave us a rating and review wherever you get your podcasts from. It really helps us to get in front of more people and we do read and appreciate them all. Okay till next time, this is Nick signing off. 

Careers Advice, Environmental Education Conservation Jobs, Podcast, Senior Level

Leave a Reply