Marine biologist and Human geographer María José Barragán Paladines

“Get out of your disciplinary comfort zone!”

María José Barragán Paladines learned the importance of interdisciplinary research while studying at TUM. She is now the Science Director of the Charles Darwin Foundation for the Galapagos Islands where she works on finding ways of reconciling human interest with nature conservation.

Dr. María José Barragán Paladines knew that she wanted to become a scientist from when she was a child and, inspired by her sister and father, chose to study biology. After gaining her Bachelor’s degree in her native Ecuador, she worked for local NGOs on research projects concerning the conservation of endangered marine life.

After almost ten years of intensive research, María José Barragán Paladines concluded that she was not able to solve complex issues and the threats to the biological diversity conservation with her knowledge of biology alone. Her aim was to get a better understanding of current problems, from a comprehensive standpoint, looking at the sustainability first and at the ocean governance, later on. So she looked for an appropriate course of study and came across TUM’s Master’s Degree in Sustainable Resource Management. She explained why she chose TUM by saying, “it’s a well-known international program at one of Europe’s most renowned universities,” adding, “luckily, they accepted me.”

Studying at TUM allowed me to see the big picture.

María José Barragán Paladines started her degree in Munich in 2006. Studying at TUM turned out to be an unforgettable experience that would decisively shape the passionate researcher’s career. “The course taught me that seemingly unrelated issues concerning nature conservation and sustainability are actually closely related,” she says. “Only after understanding that, was I able to see the big picture and realize how incomplete and inaccurate my previous approaches had been.”

The course offered a wide range of disciplines and themes, but it wasn’t just the curriculum that was diverse – María José Barragán Paladines was also impressed by how international the Master’s program was. “There were 20 different nationalities in one course,” she remembers. “This meant that TUM offered a really rich and interesting learning environment where cultures, languages and interests could meet and be shared.”

Interdisciplinary research

María José’s time at TUM was seminal to her academic and professional career following her graduation from the Master’s program in 2008. She notes that, “the journey that started at TUM became a trend in my life from then on,” and insists on how important interdisciplinary and intercultural teams are, in her current role, too – María José Barragán Paladines has been the Science Director of the Charles Darwin Foundation for the Galapagos Islands since 2018 and is the first Ecuadorian and first woman to hold this position. The Galapagos Islands, situated in the far reaches of the Pacific Ocean, are home to unique flora and fauna. Almost the entire archipelago is a national park, and is under strict nature conservation measures. It is the first UNESCO’s world heritage site.

Marine iguanas.

The marine iguana is a type of iguana that only exists in the Galapagos Islands. María José Barragán Paladines works to contribute to the survival of this special animal (Photo: Juan Manuel García/CDF).

Four main issues are of particular concern to María José Barragán Paladines at her current position: the conservation of ecosystems, their restoration, the simultaneous impact on human wellbeing, and the sustainable development of the human systems, both in the context of the Galapagos Islands and beyond. “I am working on making the planning, management, execution and observation of the scientific agenda as cross-disciplinary as possible in the next decade” says the TUM Alumna. “My aim is to motivate scientists and researchers to get out of their respective disciplinary comfort zones.”

Face of a Galapagos Giant Tortoise.

Die Galapagos-Riesenschildkröte kann weit über 150 Jahre alt werden. Sie schenkte dem Archipel im 19. Jahrhundert seinen Namen. Bis dahin nannte man die Inselgruppe „Verzauberte Inseln” (Foto: María José Barragán Paladines/FCD).

Determination as a recipe for success

In the long term, María José Barragán Paladines would like to go into teaching so she can share her knowledge with the next generation of researchers. Speaking from her own experience, she advises young researchers to look further than the ends of their noses and be open to findings outside their areas of study. First and foremost, however, María José Barragán Paladines wants to impart her maxim on the next generation: determination. “Determination strengthens important values such as discipline and engagement which are necessary for achieving personal and professional goals.” This recipe for success has contributed to the fact that María José Barragán Paladines now lives her lifelong dream.