Claudia Teutli Hernández, PhD

Biologist at ENES-UNAM, México

This interview was conducted in Spanish. Quotes from Dr. Teutli Hernández are translated into English. Many thanks to Dr. Martín Escamilla del Arenal for Spanish guidance.

Young Claudia Teutli Hernández was mesmerized by the natural world around her. Peering into swallow nests and examining the apple trees, she wondered, “Where does an egg come from? How does fruit grow?” Her afternoons were spent exploring outside in her agricultural community in the state of Puebla, México. Then, when Claudia was six, her mother died. Her father and two siblings moved to their grandmother’s house in the city of Puebla. She reflects on how this difficult time changed her: “You adapt. Now at this age, I understood something called ‘resilience’, the resilience of human beings.” Claudia joined the family business making and selling “cemitas,” a famous bread from the region. She was perplexed at how city life limited her time in nature, but her curiosity spurred her to keep questioning: “Why aren’t there trees in the city, why can’t I cut my own fruit from a tree, why can’t I go walking outside by myself anymore?”

Urban life did restrict Claudia’s free time outside, but it also gave her the opportunity for a strong public-school education. She considers her elementary and high school education to be foundational for her career; she was exposed early on to chemistry, biology, and medicine. Once she learned about ecosystems and biodiversity, her childhood passion for nature resurfaced, and she dreamed about her future: “When I began to learn about all of this [ecological] diversity, all I wanted to do was study orcas and be a marine biologist,” she says.At that time, though,the only university in México with a marine biology program was in Ensenada on the Pacific coast. Claudia’s family could not afford to pay for her room and board if she moved away, and they disapproved of her leaving Puebla. Thus, she opted to continue her education in biology at the local Benemérita Universidad Autonoma de Puebla (BUAP).

“Uno se adapta. Ahora a esta edad entiendo lo que se llama ‘resiliencia,’ la resiliencia del ser humano.”

Despite staying close to home for her undergraduate degree, Claudia needed to travel for her undergraduate thesis project. She went to Xalapa, Veracruz to do an internship at the Universidad Veracruzana. There, she met a mentor, Dr. Silva Lopéz, who would change the course of her career. Dr. Silva Lopéz had just completed a postdoc in the US focused on ecosystem restoration and lent his collection of books on the subject to Claudia. She learned that ecosystem restoration is the process of returning a natural space to what it was before it was destroyed by pollution or urban development. Throughout her internship, she was able to see this process first-hand as she participated in a large project to restore the Alvarado Lagoon, which opens into the Gulf of México.

Claudia wanted to continue studying ecosystem restoration and enrolled in a Masters program at CINVESTAV-IPN, Unidad Mérida.  She learned about Dr. Jorge Herrera Silveira in Mérida, on the Yucatán Peninsula, who was working on mangrove restoration. Mangroves are tropical coastal trees whose aerial roots stabilize the soil on the coast and provide homes to a myriad of ocean creatures. These ecosystems have been destroyed in México and other countries, due to changes in land use for agricultural purposes and hotels. Now, we understand that these coastal forests are not only important for biodiversity, but also for slowing climate change by removing greenhouse gasses from the atmosphere. Claudia’s Masters degree thus began her career studying how to bring back these important natural spaces.

While her family was not thrilled that Claudia traveled, first to Veracruz for her internship and then to Mérida for her Masters, they nevertheless supported her decision to follow her passions. Sometimes, however, she had to defend her choice to be a scientist:
“And you, what are you doing?” asked her grandmother at the dinner table one night, skeptically.
“I’m going to get my doctorate,” replied Claudia.
“And then what? Lots of studying! When are you going to work?”
“My job is to help recover ecosystems that are sick,” Claudia said.
“So, you’re a plant nurse!”
“Exactly! I’m a doctor who cures plants!” Echoed Claudia, triumphantly.
“Ah, that’s good. So you’re doing something good,” her grandmother concluded.
The tension between following her passion and being physically separated from her family is something that Claudia continues to grapple with today. One thing that has helped her cope has been having fellowship money that enables her to visit her family on a regular basis.

Claudia decided to do a PhD in ecosystem restoration to keep working on mangrove restoration, and moved to Spain to the University of Barcelona where she studied with Drs. Margarita Menendez and Francisco Comín. It was a bit of a shock at the beginning: “The language was a challenge. Even though it’s Spain, they speak Catalan to you,” she said. “I remember arriving at the airport and seeing the word Sortida and thinking, what’s that? Oh, Salida (Exit), OK, let’s go, let’s go.” She was also surprised to discover racism against Latinos irrespective of their country of origin, “for them we were all Sudacas” (a derogatory term referring to South Americans). Despite these challenges, Claudia adapted well. She made some Catalan friends, was excited about her project, and learned a lot.

Claudia’s PhD project studying mangrove restoration was split between México and Barcelona because mangroves do not grow in Barcelona. Thanks to a Mexican governmental grant, she came back to México yearly to collect samples and study the mangroves in the Yucatán peninsula. The first step in recovering a mangrove ecosystem is to restore the source of water that was lost due to construction, ensuring that a fresh supply is continually flowing to the site. The second hurdle, however, is to coax the soil to be hospitable for mangrove seedlings. Claudia studied two pioneer plant species, Batis maritima and Salicornia virginica, which are succulent shrubs. She measured the soil nutrients and pH to evaluate the process of secondary succession, where plants recolonize a badly damaged ecosystem. Her doctoral work ultimately showed that farming these pioneers transformed degraded soils into fertile soils that could support baby mangroves.

In parallel, during her PhD, Claudia did an extensive bibliographic review of unpublished knowledge (termed “gray literature”) to document the barriers to mangrove restoration. She found that to be successful, projects must not only be ecologically functional, but also socially acceptable and economically viable. Thus, in addition to her scientific research, Claudia works directly with local fishing communities to bring mangroves back to their lands. Fishermen who have watched their incomes drop due to declining fish populations can often gain part-time work with a restoration project, to dig a channel that will bring fresh water back to the region, for example. Some community members have even pivoted to eco-tourism, making a living from showing restored mangroves to tourists. She has watched communities take ownership of the restoration project: “I am a conservationist, I helped this tree to grow, I helped bring water back to this area,” she says. Claudia is filled with happiness as people transform their perceptions of mangroves from smelly trash dumps to beautiful natural spaces.

After finishing her PhD, Claudia is now in Mérida working as a postdoc and continuing to collaborate with Dr. Herrera Silveira. She is a professor in the new Escuela Nacional de Estudios Superiores (ENES) institute at the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México (UNAM) in Mérida. Claudia teaches classes in ecosystem restoration, and has a lab space to perform experiments. “It’s brand new!” Claudia explains, “We don’t even have lab chemicals yet!” She enjoys taking undergrad and graduate students to the mangroves on the north coast of Mérida, where she can teach hands-on about mangroves and restoration.

Claudia’s research is now focused on how mangroves pull carbon dioxide from the air to reduce greenhouse gas levels in the atmosphere – something desperately needed as climate change accelerates. Mangroves have the potential to sequester huge amounts of carbon for good, thanks to elegant chemistry involving the salt water and soil. She explains that young mangroves capture even more carbon than mature mangroves: “It’s like people,” she says. “When you’re a kid, growing from a baby to a child and from child to adolescent, you need much more energy, and you grow very fast. Once you are an adult, you only grow around your waist, so you need much less energy for growth.” Encouraging young mangroves to grow, then, is a quick way to remove carbon from the air to mitigate climate change.

“Hay dos cosas importantes. Uno: nunca pierdan la curiosidad, nunca nunca. Siempre sean curioso. Dos: ten paciencia… hay que tener paciencia porque hay cosas que no dependen de nosotros.”

The curiosity, passion, and resiliency Claudia developed during her childhood have made her a true trailblazer. She struggled to find opportunities to study ecosystem restoration in México, but now she is bringing this field of study to Mexican universities for undergraduate and graduate students. Claudia mentors PhD students who are pursuing their own degrees in ecosystem restoration. She offers this advice to those considering a scientific career: “There are two important things: first, never lose your curiosity, never, never. Always stay curious. Second: be patient… You have to be patient because there are always things that are out of your control.” By pioneering the field of mangrove restoration in México, Claudia’s work opens new opportunities for students, coastal communities, and ecosystems alike.

by Rachel Duffié

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