by: Dr. Robyn Javier

ale-alencar-tower-forest-profileAne Alencar is the science director at the Brazilian Instituto de Pesquisa Ambiental da Amazônia (Institute for Amazonian Environmental Research – IPAM) and a leading expert on Amazonian fire science. She and her colleagues are the recipients of several Moore Foundation grants supporting studies of environmental science and policy in the Amazon. These include research on the impact of fires, road development, and policies to reduce deforestation, as well as the creation of web-based tools to guide government actions in Brazil’s Amazonian Protected Areas.   

In this installment of Beyond the Lab, Ane discusses her sources of inspiration, and the complex, critical relationship between humans and nature.

How would you describe your workplace or lab?

Most of the work I do is on the computer, so you might say my lab is my home office. I also have the opportunity to visit the field once in a while to do research field validation, visit some partner institutions, and check on the work our researchers and students do on the ground. Our studies take us to many different areas of the Amazon, from lush remote forests to burnt lands and development areas. It’s a fascinating region and home to a variety of cultures including many Indigenous peoples and local communities.

What made you want to become a scientist/researcher?

I was always very curious about nature. I wanted to understand the landscapes around me, like the rocks, rivers, and beaches, and why they change from year to year. At the same time, I was also interested in humanities and studied a lot of history, literature, and psychology in high school. In my last year before graduation, I finally discovered the intersection of my passions: geography! I was fascinated by maps and geography itself, which studies how humans interact with nature. And it opened up a whole new world of possibilities for me.

What problems are you most interested in solving?

I am most interested in problems of social interest that cause environmental harm. Even though my work focuses on environmental issues, I’m always thinking about how this relates to people. How can we better conserve nature, and how can nature in turn make people better? Many researchers are drawn to this field because they like a particular species or topic like biodiversity. I like that too, but my true passion is the harmony between humans and nature.

What gets you going every day, and how do you stay motivated?

Well my love for the human-nature relationship is part of my morning routine, in the form of tea! Plants are a powerful way to start the day. More broadly, I’m motivated by curiosity. There are lots of research questions in my mind all the time and many things I still want to learn.

My research group is another big source of motivation. I won’t be here forever, so it’s important to help develop the next generation of scientists. I’ve had so many wonderful opportunities throughout my career, and now I want to pay it forward.


What limitations or challenges do you face as a scientist/researcher in your field?

Funding is a major limitation. In Brazil, it’s nearly impossible to do research if you’re not in academia. Most funders are just interested in applications. That’s why the Moore Foundation’s support of basic science is so important. 

There are also challenges for young people trying to start out in scientific research. I was very fortunate to find a research group that supported my growth, and to have the flexibility to participate in internships. Not everyone in Brazil is so lucky. There should be more opportunities and incentives for young people to engage in science.

Do you have other advice for young researchers?

It’s so important to actually visit the area you’re studying. Really spend some time there, observing the environment and interacting with local people directly. As researchers, we sometimes feel we know the best solutions based purely on our understanding of the science. But we can never have the complete picture unless we bring local and Indigenous communities into the conversation. Their voices are critical to our efforts. By listening to them, we gain a deeper understanding of the problems and may even find unexpected solutions. It’s much easier to resolve conflicts when you work directly with different people, from international NGOs to local and Indigenous communities, and build a plan together.


What do you think the public should understand about scientific research?

Scientific research is important not just for understanding and improving the environment, but for society as a whole. Science touches nearly everything in our lives. When science is not appreciated, that leads to bad decisions and misguided policies.

Where do you see yourself in five years?

I’m very happy with my current position as a science director. In five years, I hope that my work with young scientists will have helped them develop as researchers and progress in their careers. However, I miss fresh-air science as well. I would love to take a short sabbatical as a post-doc or visiting researcher, perhaps studying solutions to reduce forest fires in the Amazon. I am always eager for new experiences and opportunities to learn.



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