Things your favourite writer won’t tell you

I like to think on my research and my scientific publications as a series of  more or less interconnected events that share hidden links that I only know. This happens both between and within articles and topics and confers all I do  with a special aura that I can only see. I find it fascinating to think on the vast amount of fantastic stories that there might be out there when I go to a library  (exactly like the one I am at now) and see all those mountains of books, journals, newspapers and magazines piled up. Do all those people that wrote that fantastic amount of pages have hidden stories like I do? Do they like to share them, or do they keep them only for themselves instead? I remember that in the prologue of one of his novels, Pio Baroja, the famous Spanish writer, explains how he used to get inspiration from all kind of things that happened to him or that he saw in his daily life, which he then would transform, mix, distill and divide at his pleasure in order to create his characters and stories. Well, he sure had lots of hidden stories to tell and I  have no doubts that his novels were much more than just that. At least to him and those who shared a given space and time with the famous writer. I guess I am telling you this because I like to think about myself as a contemporary Pio Baroja, at least in that regard. Sure it’s not the same because in my job I am supposed to write about the objective reality of science, but I still do get inspiration from the world and people around me and can find spooky connections in my writings (and even smile to myself when I notice them) that no-one else can.

There is one of my articles that I particularly cherish in that regard. It’s published in a mid-tier journal and its title does not reveal all the poetry that it contains to me. Who would have imagined that a scientific paper entitled ” Biogeochemical indicators of elevated nitrogen deposition in semiarid ecosystems” would contain more than just the mere facts that led it to be accepted in a serious scientific journal?  Well, me, of course but, who else? Not even my co-authors, I bet. So, what makes it so special, you might be thinking right now? I took that particular study as an opportunity to have a personal adventure and discover myself in a few-day trip that I decided to undertake exclusively by myself. It was during my PhD, it was my idea, and I wanted to demonstrate that I could lead a scientific project all the way from the beginning to the very end. Not that I had not done it before, but in this case it was going to be special. I wanted to learn something (I still did not know exactly what) about my country but, more importantly, something about myself. So I packed my suitcase at home, went to work earlier than usual that morning, got in the car, and left the car park of the Natural History Museum in Madrid with a smile on my face thinking about all the things that might be awaiting for me out there. What an exciting idea that of knowing that things that you don’t know yet are awaiting for you, patiently, in a portion of time that does not even exist, to become a  permanent part of your life for as long as you live. For that particular study, I had a general idea of where I was going  but I had planned my survey so that I had enough freedom to stop at every location I wanted. I started heading east and stopped for the first time in a region called “La Alcarria”. I love “La Alcarria” for different reasons and so this beautiful part of Spain, with its austere shrublands, majestic woodlands and endless yellow wheat fields, had to be part of my trip. These locations include Zorita de los Canes, near the visigothic city of Recopolis, and Jabalera, located at the foothills of the Sierra de Altomira, with its fantastically well-preserved Quercus faginea woodland. Then I kept driving and stopped at various places until I got to Albacete,  where I found a  decent hotel to stay that night. The next day took me all the way from Albacete to Almeria, stopping at different locations and driving on secondary roads, only to discover that in my excitement I had forgotten my suitcase at the hotel.  That of course affected the route I was going to take, as I needed to come back for it. However, the route I drove to come back to the hotel allowed me to discover new places that I was not originally planning to visit. I was particularly happy to be able to visit Bienservida, where the infamous bandit Francisco Rios “El Pernales” was shot dead, together with “El Niño de El Araal”, by the Guardia Civil. He was the last of an endless saga of Spanish bandits that operated in the dangerous mountains of Sierra Morena and his story deserved a timeless “romance”, a special type of popular poetic composition that was mainly used to tell stories, communicate fantastic news or indoctrinate about a particular matter.

In my case, it makes me very happy to be able to share all these stories and personal situations with all kinds of people, because that allows me to keep them alive. They were also important learning experiences for me and provided me with a different type of knowledge that I wouldn’t have now otherwise. In the end, we probably are not much more than the whole lot of our personal experiences and what we’ve learnt during our lifetime (which is not a minor thing) and so, why should we as scientists disregard all the “other” important things that we learnt doing our own research? We sure are professionals of doing Science but, more importantly, we are professionals of discovering and looking at things that no-one else has been able to see before, at least in the exact same way. That’s to me what makes a real scientist, and so I think that it’d be very positive for our society to listen more to the little stories that we have to tell instead of only considering us as mere generators of objective and infallible knowledge. Fortunately, I think we are much more than just that and that’s what makes us so valuable. Of course, none of these things are ever going to become part of my resume, nor am I going to be asked about them when they interview me for my next job or I put forward an application in order to obtain competitive funds for my research. However, I sincerely hope that the next time that I find myself in one of these unwanted situations, they don’t only judge me for my publication record or the impact factor of the journals I publish in. Instead, I hope to be judged in my entirety as a multidimensional person that can be trusted in many different aspects, from the academic to the emotional, and that is willing to serve to our ever changing society in a way that matters. And when this happens, I hope to be able to grab my Spanish guitar, which I would have kept hidden in a corner, and celebrate it singing El Romance de El Pernales, which in some way represents the pure and raw essence of humankind, with all our lights and shades. Singing can truly be considered as a unique human way to celebrate and honor important situations and events and so I like to imagine that I’d be able to openly show that that’s exactly what I am. What we all are. After all, aren’t we all just simple humans trying to contribute to our species the best we know and possibly can? I personally see myself that way both as a professional scientist and as an individual and I honestly can’t possibly distinguish between the two of us. Can you?

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