Daniel García Martínez (28) is a biologist and researcher with the Paleoanthropology Group at the National Natural Science Museum (MNCN). Last Friday, he became a Doctor in biology with a focus in physical anthropology and geometric morphometrics. By the time we talked with him, he was about to defend his thesis. We thank him for granting us this interview about his research and his opinions on anthropology.
- How long have you been working at the MNCN? How did the opportunity to join this team arise?
I have been working at the National Natural Science Museum since September 2011, when I joined in order to complete my final project for my degree in biology. Since I knew for certain that I wanted to earn a PhD researching human evolution, and since I was very happy with my study director and with my final project, I decided to continue with a master’s degree and finally a PhD. So then…It has been a 6 year journey!
In relation to how the opportunity to join this team came about, I was in the fourth year of my biology degree and had felt very attracted to physical anthropology in general, and human evolution in particular. It was then that I discussed this with my professor at the time, Dr. Armando González Martín, and he recommended that I get in touch with Dr. Markus Bastir, who is now my PhD tutor. Both Markus and the rest of the Paleoanthropology team welcomed me with open arms and it was so gratifying that they would give me the opportunity to become accomplished in this world and in the study of human evolution.
- You have just completed your doctoral thesis and you are about to defend it, could you tell us a bit about it?
My thesis is titled “Contributions to the study of the morphological, functional and evolutionary variability of the human thoracic skeleton”…Even though its not a very attractive name at first glance I think it is a very interesting topic. Basically, when I began the thesis, the thoracic cavity had not been studied much in comparison to other parts of the human skeleton, such as the skull or the superior and inferior extremities. This was due to the fact that, up until now it had not been possible to efficiently measure the shape of the ribs and vertebra since they have a three dimensional curved shaped. Because that shape is so complex, the traditional methods of measurement via diameters and arcs could not accurately represent them, so we had to turn to a technique called 3D geometric morphometry. What we do with this technique is, instead of making measurements with a caliper, we note a series of points, which describe the anatomy of the object in all of the elements to be measured. We then study the position of those points and how the shape of the object varies. This tool has allowed us to make progress in the study of the thoracic cavity in different fields of physical anthropology, such as ontogeny or development, sexual dimorphism, functional anatomy, comparative anatomy of Hominoidea primates, or the evolution of the thoracic cavity.
- You are a great example that it is possible to earn a PhD even without a prestigious scholarship. Was it a hard journey? What do you recommend to the students who may follow in your footsteps?
It obviously hasn’t been an easy journey, although I have to say that it has been full of excitement and a desire to learn. Completing a PhD is not an easy task. A doctoral thesis is not an easy task since it requires a lot of effort, motivation and work in order for the thesis to be successful. In my case, I began my doctoral thesis without financial support until a part time technician position opened up at my tutor’s project, which allowed me to have funding for those last two years of doctoral studies. As you say, I didn’t have a prestigious scholarship like the FPU or FPI, which would have allowed me to be a bit more relaxed, instead I had to go looking for funding wherever I could find it. It may sound strange, but not having national funding opened borders and allowed me to find short-term scholarships overseas. Since I realized that my job as technician did not allow me to have funding for data collection on fossils, which is so necessary for this thesis, I decided to find someone to fund my projects and ideas…so I began to look for travel grants elsewhere and apply for as much as possible. These grants were never like the 3 months FPI or FPU’s, but they hosted me for 1 or 2 weeks which allowed me to gather data. Thanks to that, I have visited collections in the world that I would have never imagined I would have used for fossil data: not only European countries like Berlin, London, Paris, Brussels, or Copenhagen, but also places like New York, Israel, or South Africa, where I participated in the study and description of the species Homo naledi.
I am totally aware that science (in general) is not going through one of its best moments in regards to funding, but if I had to give advice to those who are wanting to make a start in the scientific community, whether it be in anthropology or another discipline, I recommend two things: perseverance and broad horizons. Perseverance, since I know what it is like to struggle to get funding the first years, in the end you will find a way. We have to feed off of the motivation we get from working in the beautiful field of biology and try to persevere. It will always turn into something! Having broad horizons is also a positive thing, not only for the funding that you could receive, but also for the energy you get from those overseas experiences and opportunities to see fossils. Also keep in mind that doing a doctoral thesis overseas can be a great experience, knowing that there could be more opportunities there.
- In relation to physical anthropology and regarding your experience, do you think it is a field with many professional options besides pure research?
I think that if one wants to find work in anthropology, one has to be open to different possibilities. Maybe within anthropology, nutrition or human genetics could offer more job opportunities simply because they have the most immediate application. Forensic anthropology and osteology are also easily applicable and can facilitate access to squads such as the scientific police or some other private archeology company. Education, both at an informational and educational level, is also a potential opportunity for this discipline. I am familiar with companies who are dedicated to disseminating information in biology and geology at the school and university level.
- Would you give us some advice for future biologists?
Biology is a thrilling field. I am dedicated to anthropology, but I am also passionate about other fields like zoology and ecology. I think biology is worth studying for the mere fact of knowing living creatures, how organisms work and what their ecosystems are like. Its knowing life and how it works… I think it is something very useful when it comes to understanding the world around us. In addition, it is often said that biology is a field with no opportunities…let’s be honest, it is less in demand than other degrees like engineering or those related to business management, however it doesn’t mean that there are no opportunities! I have acquaintances and even family members who work as biologists and are very happy with their jobs. My brother Javier García Martínez also studied biology and is working as the head of aquarists at the Madrid Zoo. So, at least in my family, the ratio of biologists working in biology is 100%. That doesn’t mean that 100% of biology graduates will find work, but it means that with a lot of effort and a bit of luck, you can achieve what you put your mind to!
- Last but not least, what do you think about YEB? Do you see it as a good initiative?
I think YEB is a fantastic initiative. An association by and for biologists in their fists stages is great work. It’s great because on occasion we, young people (I still consider myself young in certain situations), need information and advice from other young people. On many occasions we only have information given to us by senior biologists, who tend to see life from a different point of view (not good or bad, just ontogenetically different). Therefore associations of young people are starting to arise in the scientific community and they do great work providing one to one information.
Interview done by Stephanie Lois Zlolniski
Translated by Sarah Westergren