Susana Alvarado: Personal Story

Nov 28, 2015 By Susana Alvarado
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I am from Guatemala, a small Central American country. Because of its location in the tropics and its rugged terrain, it harbors many ecosystems with distinct microclimates and unique species in a very small area.

In Guatemala, you may drive from the capital city, which is at 1500 meters above sea level, to the beach and find that the view out the window changes drastically in a matter of a few hours: it starts with pine forests which are gradually replaced by oaks, then by dry shrub lands, and as you get closer to the coast, you can see it all change again into a wet tropical forest!

Growing up, it was a lot of fun to take these kinds of drives around my country. I remember daydreaming about exploring mountains, volcanoes and jungles. But it never crossed my mind to become a scientist to do this; perhaps because I didn’t know of any women who explored nature for a living.

So by high school, when personal computers were a novelty, I got more and more interested in technology. I learned computer programming and was set for a career in science and technology, although I wasn’t sure in what specific field.

My early fascination with nature and need to explore the world around me won over my many other interests when choosing a career. I graduated with a forest engineering degree after five years of classes and awesome study trips in my country. I had walked around many fascinating places, seen a lot of amazing plants, pondered upon the challenges that we face to manage our natural resources, and wanted to keep on learning about the intriguing life of plants.

So I pursued all the opportunities I could find to keep doing this. I worked in a Biosphere Reserve in Guatemala engaging local communities in the protection of the cloud forest to preserve their water resources. After two great years in those mountains I had the chance to move to The Netherlands and later to the USA for graduate school.

Since then, I have dedicated my time to study in detail a particular aspect of the life of plants: how they take up water from the soil and return it to the atmosphere while using it to grow. Unexpectedly, the computer programming skills I learned early on have come very handy to investigate a plants’ daily life.

I also have traveled quite a bit to do my job because plants are very diverse, and as they grow in many different climates, they interact with the soil and water in many particular and fascinating ways. For example, I did a few exciting months of field work in an out-of-this-world-looking dwarf forest ecosystem of the Amazon. The soil here is made of white sand which does not hold water for very long, and still, dwarf trees manage to live there.

How they manage to do this and many other interesting questions related to the soil-plant-atmosphere continuum are out there waiting to be answered by me and other eco-hydrologists.