The Wageningen University & Research Executive Board has appointed Marielos Peña Claros as personal professor in ecology and management of tropical forests. She was recently awarded the IUFRO Scientific Achievements Award for her work on forest management. “It’s a great recognition to my work,” she says.
Marielos Peña Claros (1969) completed her secondary education in Santa Cruz, Bolivia, before heading to Brazil to study Biology at the University of São Paulo. This turned out to be a good choice. “I loved all the courses,” she says. “But when I took the course plant ecology, I knew that that was it!”
Upon her return to Bolivia, she worked for a local conservation NGO. “There I had the opportunity to go on couple of expeditions with a group of top US researchers to identify forest areas that should be protected for their biodiversity value. I worked with two leading plant ecologists, who really inspired me. I found their work amazing! My love for forest ecology and tropical forests was born during those expeditions.” Marielos began looking for a suitable MSc programme, which turned out to be Ecology program at the University of Florida in the US. For her thesis, she studied palm heart, a delicacy often used in salads. “Specifically, I looked at the effect of palm heart extraction: what does it do with the palm tree population and with the species?” Her research included field work in Bolivia.
She obtained her PhD in forest ecology at Utrecht University before heading back to Bolivia for almost five years. There her research focussed on the effects of timber production on forest dynamics, forest recovery and biodiversity. “It was great being there, I worked on a topic that inspires me and I was close to my family,” she says. Marielos led the research team at the Bolivian Forest Management Project (BOLFOR). Later, she was also appointed as the director of the Bolivian Forest Research Institute in Santa Cruz. Her research focus was on forest management and its impact on ecosystems. “It’s an issue of immense social relevance,” she says.
Move to Wageningen
In 2006 she returned to the Netherlands. After a few short-term positions, including at Van Hall Larenstein University of Applied Sciences, she joined Wageningen University in 2010 as a researcher. In 2015 she was appointed as associate professor, and on June 1st 2019 she was appointed personal professor in the Forest Ecology and Forest Management Group. “Wageningen is a great place to work, as it provides lots of opportunities for interdisciplinary research,” says Marielos. “It’s a good mix of research and teaching.” She has also found that working at Wageningen allows her to help build capacity in tropical countries. “This is very important to me, because there are often very few PhD candidate positions in these countries, in spite of the demand for highly trained people.”
Marielos still carries out a lot of research in Bolivia and Brazil. She has an enduring passion for the management and protection of tropical forests, and witnessing the fires in the Amazon region was particularly difficult for her. “There’s been irreparable damage to the region, which is very sad.” Her own research focuses on forest recovery following disturbances caused by humans, such as through agriculture or timber production. This includes researching what can be done to accelerate that recovery.
Marielos was recently awarded the IUFRO Scientific Achievements Award for her work on forest management. The prize is awarded every five years to 10 researchers for their contribution to the research field. “I’m delighted to have received it,” says Marielos. “It’s great to have my work recognised in this way.” Meanwhile, she has lots of plans for the future. “We need more research on sustainable forest management. We know more today than we did 20 years ago, but not enough is being done to restore forests and ecosystems. I feel it is my responsibility to ensure that this topic stays on the agenda. Our planet needs it.”