An interview with Bioblogia’s Fernando Mateos González
Don’t let anyone talk you away from your dreams, says Conservation Biologist Dr Fernando Mateos González, who will be helping deliver our next Kick-starter online training for Early Career Conservationists – open until this Friday.
In his free time, Fernando runs Bioblogia.net, where he helps students and early career professionals find their dream environmental job.
Whether sharing job offers, internships, volunteer opportunities, conferences, courses, science or careers advice, Fernando loves helping up-and-coming biologists.
And that’s just in his free time.
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”.
But first, here’s his story about finding challenge, freedom and happiness in a conservation career.
Why do you work in conservation?
So many possible answers! Of course, one of them would be that conservation is a job with meaning. You are doing good, you are helping, and not all jobs can give you that level of fulfillment.
Ultimately I work in conservation for egotistical reasons 😀 It’s just what makes me the happiest!
In it I have found the perfect balance between many things I love: working outside with fauna, writing, researching, playing with technology, travelling… Overall, it allows me to learn everyday, facing a wide array of challenges for which I have been training all my life.
You know, I always say that we have to try and make life as interesting as a video game. And which video games are the most addictive ones? Those which are not too easy, but also not too hard 😛
Conservation does have some nearly impossible “final monsters”, but there are levels for everyone… and man do I enjoy when I tackle some hard ones and defeat them!
What’s the best part of the job?
The best part of any job in conservation, in my opinion, is that fulfillment I mentioned before. Working to improve valuable and beautiful things is the most rewarding thing on the planet!
Probably, the part of my job that I value the most is freedom. It took some years, but these days I get to do what I want and choose how I do it (I don’t mean just things like choosing my schedule, when I go on holidays, or not needing to set an alarm most mornings… although yes, I get those too).
With age, as I’ve known my skills better, I have learnt to identify the projects that would benefit the most from my work. At the same time, having more demonstrable experience, I’ve earned the right to choose those projects.
Sometimes you get to this bittersweet situation when you have to say no to cool projects because you are doing something even cooler, but, as a good friend of mine says, the most important thing is that we can choose. And I love that.
What’s the worst part of the job?
The worst part is that it never ends. There is always some new environmental disaster looming, always some eternal problem. I guess that means that we’ll be never out of work, but sometimes it’s overwhelming and sad!
Something that often shocks me is how basic behaviours that should already feel outrageous to society keep on happening. I mean, for example, how can there still be people throwing their garbage out the windows of their cars? It’s unbelievable!
It’s clear that we need more people to help. More people to educate society. You! Yes, you reading. Come join us! We need more conservationists! (And, particularly, more women!)
What are your career highlights / what are you most proud of so far?
A recent career highlight happened last November, when one of my dreams as a conservation biologist became true: working for the legendary BBC Natural History Unit, as a field assistant for a film crew in the Peruvian Amazon. A month long expedition in the jungle, capturing scenes for the new Sir David Attenborough’s landmark series: One Planet: Seven Worlds. Coming this autumn to your screens!
Something I feel particularly proud is that most of my work is routinely done in a second language. I remember the initial fears when traveling abroad, wondering if other professionals would take me seriously if I didn’t speak the language correctly.
Soon I discovered that, as long as you are able to understand and transmit the main ideas, your work will be valued and respected.
The world is ours, folks! Go out and take it!
And remember that practice will make you better, faster than you think! 😉
What key steps in your conservation career you have taken?
I took a very important step during my first year of university. We were a lot of students there, a lot of potential biologists. I realised that most of us were going to get the same piece of paper in the end, so the best strategy for me – not a brilliant student, let’s face it – was to start differentiating early.
I talked to a Zoology professor and started collaborating with his research, and every summer I volunteered in conservation projects in National Parks in Spain. By the time I earned my degree, that demonstrable experience served me well in my first interviews.
Another early step was learning to focus on my objectives. For example, as many other students, I worked temporary jobs to earn some money. One of those jobs consisted of selling alarms door by door and, surprisingly, I became good at it! They ended up giving me a promotion, but accepting it would mean not attending my first ornithology conference: the very reason I started selling alarms on the first place! I declined the promotion and went back to being a poor student, but the people I met in the conference were key later on in my career.
Interestingly, that job, selling alarms, gave me one of the most useful skills I own: the ability to talk to anyone 🙂 Which brings me to another key step… At the beginning of my career I tried to attain three things, and none of them were money: The most important fuel for your starting career is made of skills, experiences, and relationships.
I have taken many steps as a biologist, big and small and every one of those experiences has favoured my odds when trying a new path. But, at least in my case, the key factor has always been the people I know. Keep in touch with your friends and learn to make new ones! Take every chance to meet new people; you never know when the drops will become a river.
A recent, difficult but important step was deciding to leave Academia to become a rogue scientist. After 10 years working in the Ivory Tower, too many of my friends and contacts also belonged to the sect. When you finally say “This is not working, I need to do it another way”, you don’t get much support. Someone I know put it perfectly: Still these days, when you change jobs in Science, you are not actually changing, you are giving up.
Switching sectors was a very scary key step. If I could talk to myself back then, I’d say: “Don’t worry! You’ll continue doing all the things you like from Science, but with a lot more freedom!”
What advice would you give someone wishing to follow in your footsteps?
I did so many things wrong! You could learn a lot from my errors 😛
But I’m going to share something I did right:
I studied Biology in Badajoz, in Southern Spain, a very agricultural region. At the start of my second year in University, for the first time, we were allowed to choose some subjects. A LOT of people from my class chose “Food Technology” and I was highly encouraged to do the same:
“Nando, it’s where all the jobs are!”
I imagined how I’d feel if, after studying hard for 5 years, I’d end up in some factory, creating competition tomatoes. Probably fun for some people. Not for me. Nah! I chose Entomology 😛
And, after that, I chose all the subjects that interested and motivated me, even if there were no related jobs in my region (not a lot of room for tropical zoology in Southern Spain hehe).
Guess what: I ended up working all around the world!
If you want to do something in life, and your local circle of friends, family, and colleagues are unfamiliar with it, they will find it hard to help you, and they might even try to discourage you.
Don’t let them.
Instead, look for someone with experience in the area you are interested in and ask for honest advice. “What is it like? Is it possible? How do I do it?”