My Research Stay: Report by Mario Alejandro Heredia Salgado

Mario Alejandro Heredia Salgado has completed his PhD in Energy Systems and Climate Change at Aveiro University, Portugal. He was awarded a Green Talent in 2018 and conducted his four months research stay at the Integrative Research Insitute on Transformations of Human-Environment Systems (IRI THESys) of the Humboldt Universität Berlin under the supervison of Dr Ina Säumel.

I completed my research stay at the Integrative Research Institute on Transformations of Human-Environment Systems (IRI THESys) of the Humboldt University of Berlin. Within the IRI THESys, I was part of the Multifunctional Landscapes (MuLa) Research Group under the guidance and supervision of Dr Ina Säumel. Until then, I had been working on the development of biomass thermochemical conversion devices in the scope of a doctoral program in Energy Systems and Climate Change at the Centre for Environmental and Marine Studies (CESAM) of the Aveiro University in Portugal.

My former laboratory fellows at the CESAM including my PhD supervisor, Dr Luís Tarelho, were somehow intrigued by my decision of doing a research stay in a research group as the MuLa which does not perform laboratory research on thermochemical conversion processes. Rather than expanding my laboratory experience, my motivation to join the IRI THESys has to do with the concerns linked with the development of rural areas and the experiences I got in the fieldwork of my PhD while coordinating the implementation of thermochemical conversion processes in the rural sector of my home country, Ecuador. In this short report, I want to share with you how I chose Berlin and the IRI THESys as my hosts, my learnings in the MuLa and the extraordinary events that turned my initially three-month research stay into an unforgettable experience of almost five months.

The motivations that led me towards the IRI THESys

During my PhD I designed and implemented a prototype reactor in Ecuador that transforms agro-residues into carbon-related products with agriculture applications and renewable thermal energy. In 2016, from this reactor concept, I founded an SME, Andes Bioenergy, which has implemented several thermochemical conversion facilities throughout the Andean, Amazon, and coastal provinces of Ecuador. Although we have succeeded implementing, operating and maintaining these facilities, I realized that the development of proper, robust, and affordable technology was not going to be enough to unfold a long-lasting sustainable transformation in the agro-industrial sector of rural areas, which since the foundation of Andes Bioenergy, was defined as our major objective.

After some months speculating about the naivety of the goal we had set for our technology, for Andes Bioenergy, and my on-going research, I unexpectedly received the contact of a German scientist. By coincidence or fortune, in the fall of 2018 Dr Ina Säumel – who will be my supervisor at the IRI THEsys in 2020 – visited Ecuador as a guest scientist of the International German Cooperation Agency, GIZ. In that visit, she saw one of the first space heating systems implemented by my SME in an Andean hotel she was staying at and kindly left her contact details with the owners in case I would like to get in touch to get to know about her research projects in the rural sector of other middle-income countries.

Following the contact of Dr Säumel, I found this discussion paper from the IRI THEsys "The position of scientists in transformations of human-environment systems" which addressed in many ways the concerns we had regarding the current and future impact of my research and the technology promoted by Andes Bioenergy in the rural sector of Ecuador. Thus, I sent a research proposal to Dr Säumel to discuss the implications of the technology I had been researching, developing, and promoting in a broader context, beyond the thermochemical conversion. After the approval of Dr Säumel, I was ready to start my research stay from January 2020.

The Multifunctional Landscapes research group

After celebrating Christmas and New Year’s Eve with my wife and her generous relatives residing in Hamburg, I traveled to Berlin to start my research in the first week of January. It was surprising to recognize that IRI THESys was located in a modern building in front of the major culture and shopping street in central Berlin, Friedrichstrasse, just a few blocks from the gorgeous Gendarmenmarkt and the beautiful Brandenburg gate and near the old Check Point Charlie. Regardless of the cold of winter, I enjoyed the countless walks through these historical and touristic hotspots while reaching or leaving the IRI THESys building. The campus of the Humboldt University, located on another major street of Berlin, Unter den Linden street, is sincerely superb. It was an honor to visit the corridors and classrooms of a university where many of the great German intellectuals and scientists of the last two centuries have passed. Just to name a few, Arthur Schopenhauer, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, Karl Marx, Albert Einstein, or Max Planck. Shortly after I was assigned a desk in a shared office, I made an introductory presentation to the whole MuLa research group where I got important feedback on the critical aspects that my research stay should focus on.

The following weeks I spent my time sailing in an ocean of new information provided by my MuLa colleagues and visiting the main Berlin museums. The science of the landscape, the concept of multifunctionality, the co-creation methodologies, the strategies of ecosystem-based or community-based adaptation to climate changes, the citizen science, the regenerative agriculture, and the nature-based solutions gave me a new and global perspective regarding the potential associated with the technologies for the valorization of agro-residues in the rural sector. Although IRI THEsys occupies just one floor of the building, the origin of the researchers is surprisingly diverse. Thus, I had the opportunity to held meaningful discussions on these topics with researchers from Africa, Asia, Europe, and North America. Likewise, there was the opportunity to debate the concerns regarding the rural development and the introduction of technology in the rural sector within the reading group of decolonial studies. I also want to highlight the meaningful discussions held within the IRI THESys weekly colloquiums. In general, all these experiences gave me a new perspective of the technology I research on, of the complexity associated with the rural sector of many countries, of the management of fragile eco-systems and the threats of extractivism (the process of extracting natural resources that are considered valuable for exportation, making the economy dependent on ecosystems exploitation) or intensive agriculture operations in them.

The end of the research stay and the sprout of the COVID-19 pandemic

I had an extensive schedule of activities planned for the last weeks of my research stay which included the final presentation of my work to the MuLa group and two presentations for two major stakeholders of the coffee sector in Berlin and Hamburg that were interested in the carbon sequestration services that could be provided from farmers cooperatives in Ecuador. Right after the end of the research stay, I had planned to travel back to Portugal since Aveiro University had scheduled the presentation of my PhD dissertation for April 2.

However, the unexpected happened. Two weeks before the end of my research stay, the flights between Portugal and Germany were canceled due to the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic. As the pandemic spread through Europe, the Green Talents team contacted me offering to return to Ecuador earlier. However, the Ecuadorian government had already closed the borders and canceled the flights coming from abroad. The feeling of being stranded just approached me. Nevertheless, the immediate support of my supervisor, Dr Ina Säumel, my colleagues from the MuLa, the IRI THESys staff, and the Green Talents people kept me from feeling exposed. They took care of the situation day after day and provided me all the support required to meet my needs and stay safe until the situation improved. From there, all academic commitments acquired would be made electronically. The MuLa colleagues organized a pre-dissertation defense by videoconference, so I could get prepared for this unusual defense format.

Finally, on the afternoon of April 2, I presented my PhD dissertation to a board of renowned Portuguese scientists. My doctorate had started in Portugal and most of it had been dedicated to conducting field research in the rural sector of Ecuador. Nonetheless, none of my estimations could have anticipated that I will receive my doctoral degree while living in the charming city of Berlin.

At this point, I have to acknowledge the constant support received from Vinicio Flores Lozano and his family who taught me to enjoy and love the city and who I miss vividly. My return to Ecuador took a little longer. The Green Talents team and the Ecuadorian embassy were in permanent contact with me until a safe return flight to Quito was provided on May 6. I have no words to express my gratitude to the BMBF and the Green Talents program for the continuous support provided and for taking care of the situation every single minute no matter how delicate or unusual it was.

Back in Ecuador, I was invited by Dr Ina Säumel to continue attending the weekly meetings of the MuLa research group as a guest scientist, and my academic profile has been included in the IRI THESys website. Currently, I am writing a research article under the supervision of Dr Säumel which discusses the main findings made in the scope of my research stay. We also made a joint submission for the Volkswagen Stiftung with a project in the scope of the corona crisis. Living in Berlin and being part of the research team of Dr Säumel has given me a whole new perspective on how to continue my research work now that my doctoral program has ended, and several alternatives to increase the impact of my research within my community. The Green Talents program has changed my life perspectives and I will never forget all the support and strength they have given me during these exceptional times. I have no doubt that my research work will be highly influenced in the future by the MuLa group and IRI THEsys.

Read more about Mario Alejandro Heredia Salgado.