Fabio Andrés Ávila Defends Nature in Tropical Forests

September 8, 2022

The Fulbright scholar says he wants to affect political change through his research.

Fabio Avila Castillo, 2022 Incoming Student, Biology
Fabio Andrés Ávila, a former forest engineer in Colombia, is now a student in the Biology Ph.D. Plant Sciences subprogram. (Photo credit: Alex Irklievski)

As a forest engineer in the Andean and Caribbean regions of Colombia, Fabio Andrés Ávila watched tropical forest landscapes transform before his eyes. “These are now considered endangered areas,” he recently told the Graduate Center. 

Ávila, a Fulbright scholar, joins the Biology Ph.D. Plant Sciences subprogram with a vision to use his research to work with non-governmental organizations to protect endangered, tropical forests.  

The Graduate Center: Much of your work covers an area of science called phylogenetics. What is phylogenetics? 

Ávila: It’s a method to understand evolutionary relationships between species. In my case, I study plants. But you can use it to understand evolution within a species of a certain group of organisms. 

For example, you might want to know how plants are related to fungi. At some point you start to look for characteristics that might be of importance – maybe morphological features in the roots and stems, how the leaves are positioned on a branch, or their shape, color, and size – and see how they compare.

Besides knowing whether they are closely related, you want to understand how their evolution has worked. Were their features newly acquired in the last million years, or were these adaptations that resulted from changes on the planet? 

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GC: I understand you were a forest engineer in Colombia. Tell us about your forestry work there. 

Ávila: Most recently, I was based at the Botanic Garden of Bogotá and working as a taxonomist to understand the diversity of vascular plants in the Asteraceae family. 

In general, I’ve been focused on conservation.

In Colombia, there are five natural regions. I’ve been in all of them, but mostly in the Andean region, and also the Caribbean region and the Caribbean coast. 

Around the world, it’s been recognized that tropical dry forests have been struggling with a reduction of forest cover. They have very rich soils but people are transforming them for agriculture. We don’t have all the original forest that was once there. These are now considered endangered areas. 

GC: Did you specialize in any one field of study? 

Ávila: I specialized in taxonomy, a branch of biology that classifies plants. But taxonomy applies to all life-forms in the world. I’ve been working with some tropical families – the main one is Asteraceae, the daisy family of flowers. Colombia has one of the most diverse families of Asteraceae in the world. There are 1,300 species of Asteraceae in the country. 

Sunflower, calendula, and chamomile, they’re all Asteraceae.

GC: What’s special about these flowers? 

Ávila: You have this star-shaped organization of the flowers, but there are a lot of variations within the group. This family is very common in the world and it’s also found in the Andes. These mountains are a very recent formation, on a geological time scale.

The Andean Region formation of Colombia has influenced the rate of speciation in these plants. A mountain is a barrier, and the plants have had to face this limitation to survive. They’re forming new species at a rapid pace.

All life-forms have to adapt to new conditions. These plants are developing new features to adapt — the flowers might change colors to avoid UV, for example. That’s one way we can track how climate change is influencing evolution in plants.

I’d like to move the academic agenda to try to change political views. I’d like to connect to more areas in conservation, not just based on papers and academics. I want to connect with more institutions and NGOs to protect forests.  - Fabio Andrés Ávila

GC: Where will you focus your research for your Ph.D.? 

Ávila: I would like to focus my research to understand how climate change might be reflecting some evolutionary changes within the family of Asteraceae. Sometimes you can see changes in the leaves and pollination patterns, for example. 

Some of this work has been done by ecologists. What I’ll try to do is understand if some of these features change in a phylogenetic context. This is the method we’re using to try to understand and compare to see if these characteristics occur in an evolutionary context.

We’re always thinking in terms of millions of years, but these changes have been very fast and very dramatic. I expect they’ll be reflected in a new tree of life for this family of plants.

GC: You’re returning to graduate school after a successful career in forestry. Why now? 

Ávila: For me, it was easier to connect to people, to try to ask questions and elevate solutions to a political agenda and try to defend nature in a tropical country. It’s a big step. But it’s just one step. 

I did have an amazing job and connected with people doing interesting research, but I’d like to move the academic agenda to try to change political views. I’d like to connect to more areas in conservation, not just based on papers and academics. I want to connect with more institutions and NGOs to protect forests.  

GC: You could have chosen to study almost anywhere. Why did you choose the Plant Sciences subprogram at the Graduate Center? 

Ávila: I’m a Fulbright scholar. I was asked to choose a minimum of five universities. One was CUNY. 

It was one of the best options to get a real understanding of tropical plants in the world. They have a special interest in tropical forests. They have a worldwide vision. Also, some of the most important NGOs are based in New York. I would like to connect with them to understand how my research might help to improve political views on conservation. 

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