Case Study: Pablo Munoz-Rodriguez

Case Study: Pablo Munoz-Rodriguez

Pablo studied Biology at Universidad Autónoma in Madrid (UAM), Spain. At the beginning, he intended to pursue a lab-centred career, but he soon changed his mind and became interested in disciplines involving field work, especially conservation biology and systematics. During his undergraduate studies, he took all courses related to biodiversity and ecology and participated in two research projects: an EU-commissioned study of fish species diversity in Spanish rivers and the conservation assessment of a threatened plant species. Simultaneously, he started his training as systematist with the study of Acalypha, a poorly known genus of plants. He finished his undergraduate studies in 2010 and subsequently studied a Masters in Biodiversity at the same university. Both his final degree project and his master’s dissertation were concerned with the taxonomy of the species of Acalypha in South America.

 After completing his studies, Pablo spent four years working as a biologist for several scientific organisations and research projects in Spain. Especially significant was the project commissioned by the Spanish Ministry of Environment, which required to generate a checklist of all Spanish vascular plants, assign IUCN categories to all of them and identify the most important areas for Spanish vascular plants. The successful completion of this project, using a methodology newly developed during the study, made Spain the first country in the world, together with South Africa, to provide conservation assessments of all plant species in their territory.

Also relevant was his work as project manager for the Global Biodiversity Information Facility (GBIF). During that time, he taught two workshops on data quality in biodiversity and published a manual on preparing data papers.

In parallel to these other jobs, Pablo carried on with his studies of the genus Acalypha. Altogether, during those years he gained experience in plant systematics, conservation biology and data management.

Aiming to pursue a career in academia, Pablo decided to start a PhD. He applied to the Interdisciplinary Bioscience DTP in Oxford, which he joined in October 2014. This programme presented Pablo with the opportunity to conduct doctoral research and offered him additional, essential training, not only in disciplines relevant for his PhD —such as Bioinformatics—, but also in career development and professional skills. He undertook his two 3-month research projects in the Department of Plant Sciences, the first with Prof Robert Scotland and the second with Dr Steve Kelly.

For his D.Phil. dissertation, Pablo chose to join Prof Scotland’s group to focus on the systematics of the sweet potato and the wild species closely related. He conducted an extensive phylogenomic analysis of the species in this group that allowed him to investigate the origin of the crop species. The results of his thesis indicate, for example, that sweet potato originated a long time before modern humans, at least 800,000 years ago, and that its storage root is most likely not a consequence of human domestication as previously considered. He also identified the wild species that is most closely related to the crop and revealed a hybridization event between this wild species and the crop after divergence from a common ancestor. In this project, he benefited from his previous experience and from the training received at DTP, as well as gained experience in molecular lab work and phylogenomics. Pablo has published some of the results of his PhD in three scientific papers, and four talks and three posters at scientific conferences. His research received an Oxford Interdisciplinary Bioscience Impact Award in 2018.

During these years at Oxford, Pablo has been involved in teaching (as demonstrator in practical sessions and in field courses, and in undergraduate tutorials on plant systematics), in public engagement and in academic committees and scientific societies. He has been director of the Oxford Constituency of Spanish Researchers in the UK and council member of The Systematics Association.

The BBSRC DTP course requires students to undertake a 3-month professional internship at some point during their PhD. Pablo chose to do this at the International Potato Center in Lima, Peru (CIP). During his internship, Pablo joined CIP’s germplasm bank, one of the largest germplasm collections of potato, sweet potato and other root crops in the world, to learn how they work to preserve and improve the genetic diversity in crops. He also visited experimental stations run by CIP to learn about field experiments being conducted at the institution. This provided him a first-hand experience with scientific research that is of direct application to crop improvement and has a direct effect in human development.

Pablo in a field