During his PhD at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis, Juan Fernando Díaz Nieto was part of an expedition that trekked across the tropics of South America and discovered a new species of mouse oppossum (R. S. Voss et al. Am. Mus Novit. 3778, 1–27; 2013). He’s since returned to his native Colombia, where he is a professor of biology at EAFIT University in Medellín.
What do you study?
I work with marsupials, rodents and bats. I’ve always been interested in fieldwork — being able to go to unexplored regions that have a high potential for diversity. I also work in museums and use genetic techniques to investigate diversity.
What’s it like to do fieldwork in Colombia?
For decades Colombia had zones that were too dangerous to go into. The 2016 peace accord with the FARC, which ended the long civil war here, helped give access to large regions of the country. It’s still complicated: to access these areas, one must be careful, work out the logistics and sometimes ask permission — and not just of the government. Many areas have been taken over by other armed groups.
Tell us about a project you recently led.
In July, I and colleagues led a biodiversity project in the Anorí region in Colombia, which is United Nations-backed and involved ex-combatants from the FARC. They weren’t serving as guides but as co-investigators. We planned the project with them. After the fieldwork they came to our laboratories in Medellín, working alongside us.
What’s the future for science in Colombia?
There’s a lot of altruism among researchers here. One person might go into a difficult zone and end up giving the world access to a valuable sample. There are lots of social issues in our country that we have to face. But we are willing — our passion will guide us.