Many of the young men and women in this special issue can trace the passion they feel for their work to a few key experiences. The same is true for most scientists. My own love of science came from a love of nature. As a Boy Scout, I camped and hiked in Colombian rain forests, returning home eager to organize my collections of plants and animals.
At 15, I joined ornithologist Jorge Orejuela on a World Wildlife Fund (WWF) summer expedition to the remote rain forests in the Choco region of Colombia. This was my first experience in hands-on fieldwork, and as I saw scientific data, field observation, conservation biology and environmental policy all coming together, I was hooked. The aim of the WWF project was to use scientific data to discover critical areas for conservation. We used distribution maps for the endemic birds of Colombia whose small ranges made them particularly vulnerable. Our task: find the highest concentration of these birds, confirm their presence and identify three to four locations where they existed in large numbers. We reported our findings back to the WWF. Within a couple of years, the WWF provided funding to the Foundation for Higher Education in Colombia to establish La Planada Nature Reserve, where I conducted my dissertation research and have done fieldwork for over 20 years.
I studied biology at the Universidad de Los Andes in Bogotá. During my junior year, as an exchange student at Harvard, one of my courses required an experimental project, so my professor worked with me to research ancient species of air-breathing fish. We used high-speed X-ray machines to photograph their air bladders as the fish came up to breathe. The first study of its kind, it was published in Science magazine in 1989. For a 24-year-old, being credited as co-author was a heady introduction to the life of an academic scientist.
After completing my PhD in biology, at Harvard, I became director of the environment division of the Foundation for Higher Education in Colombia, helping to establish a network of private nature reserves throughout the country and to design an environmental education program for more than 10,000 Colombian schools. It was an exciting time, collaborating to set up Colombia's Ministry of the Environment, developing the country's National Biodiversity Policy and promoting research on biological inventories, conservation biology and the sustainable use of natural resources. This work and my subsequent international involvement have reinforced my belief that the best environmental policies are based on solid science.
Cristián Samper is Acting Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution