Professor Silvia Medina-Villar has always been fascinated by the big questions in biology: understanding how different species and ecosystems interact, and the social and environmental implications of these interactions. With her academic career having taken her from studying exotic shrubs in Chile to working for the plant production products department of a Spanish agriculture and food tech research institute, she now teaches in the Bachelor in Environmental Sciences for Sustainability program at IE University.

I’m from Madrid. I studied a bachelor’s degree in biology at the Universidad Autónoma de Madrid, pursued a master’s degree in renewable energies at the Universidad CEU San Pablo and then went on to study a PhD in the ecology department of the Universidad de Alcalá

My goal is to continue doing research in plant ecology and biological invasions, and to teach biology and ecology to undergraduate students, while in my spare time, I enjoy climbing and hiking. I also love getting to know different places and cultures, and visiting natural parks.

Tell us a bit about your background.

My PhD was about how exotic, invasive trees can ecologically impact fluvial and riparian ecosystems. In undertaking impact assessment for exotic invasive species, it’s essential to list the species by their hazard level to focus management efforts on the most harmful species. As a PhD student I was a visiting researcher in Universidade de Coimbra, Portugal and the University of California, Santa Cruz in the US, both of which were very rewarding experiences. I learned a lot during those stays; I got to know other countries and cultures, other universities and ways of working, and built good networks. 

What about your professional background?  

After I finished my PhD in 2009, I did a postdoctorate in the US at Purdue University, Indiana, and then I had a postdoctoral contract at Universidad Rey Juan Carlos in Madrid. During this period I investigated how two different global change motors, such as exotic invasive species and climate change, can act together to affect biodiversity. 

After that I won a competitive postdoctoral contract at Universidad de La Serena in Chile, where I was the principal investigator of a research project on the impacts and causes of invasion of an exotic shrub in the country. Coming back to Spain I worked for the Plant Protection Products Department at Instituto Nacional de Investigación y Tecnología Agraria y Alimentaria, the research center of the Centro Superior de Investigaciones Científicas, and later at the Centro de Biotecnología y Genómica de Plantas.

Since 2021 I’ve been associate editor of the journal Biological Invasions, and I’ve also produced a technical report on potential invasive species for Spain for Tragsatec. And now I’m teaching at IE University as a professor on the Bachelor in Environmental Sciences for Sustainability.

What inspired you to pursue your career?

I was always interested in how plants adapt to different environments and interact with other ecosystem components. Specifically, I’m fascinated by exotic, invasive plant species, and why they’re so successful outside their native ranges. There’s a close relationship between biological invasions and humans—due to globalization, the movement of different species around the globe has increased, raising the likelihood of introduced species becoming invasive. 

Together with other global change motors such as climate change or land-use change, biological invasions are one of the main causes of biodiversity loss worldwide. In addition, invasive species also produce socioeconomic impacts and affect ecosystem services. Therefore, in studying the factors that make some species more prone to invade ecosystems, as well as the behavior of these species in new ecosystems (their ecological impacts, species’ interactions, etc.), it’s essential to implement prevention and control measures. 

Each invasive species has its own context-dependent invasion history, and while it’s difficult to make generalizations, this opens new research opportunities and approaches in this area. Studying invasive species and other global change components is important, as they affect us all and humanity needs to implement more sustainable practices to reduce the consequences of the global change we’ve created on Earth. I think that teaching how our planet and the life on it function, and how to take care of both, is one of the most important tasks in our society to make a positive impact on future generations. 

Why did you decide to teach at IE University? 

There’s no better way of learning than teaching! From my little experience as a professor I can say that I’ve developed new communication skills and improved my teaching methodologies. Being a professor is one of the most rewarding professions; transferring knowledge and values and helping students to reach their academic goals is very satisfactory. 

IE University has a very innovative, international and multicultural environment, where studying and teaching is very enjoyable. Besides, it’s one of the top-ranked universities in Europe: it’s highly recognized for its Sustainability Office, and for being one of the first carbon-neutral universities worldwide. The Sustainability Office has developed innovative academic programs, which can help prepare the next generations of global leaders to provide comprehensive and sustainable solutions to modern societal and environmental challenges.

How would you describe the Bachelor in Environmental Sciences for Sustainability to potential candidates?   

It’s a very novel program, carefully designed to prepare future generations—those that will occupy the positions with the capacity to influence politics and stakeholders—to face the current environmental problems we have on planet Earth, such as global warming and contamination. In this program, students will have an overview of how planet Earth and all its components and habitants work, so they’ll be able to develop more sustainable measures, techniques and strategies adapted to different geo-political, cultural and socioeconomic contexts.

What advice would you give someone interested in pursuing a career in environmental sciences for sustainability?

More sustainable technologies, practices, politics, and societies are needed to face the environmental issues we have on our planet, which are ultimately affecting human beings. Being an expert in sustainability implies being motivated to help our planet, understanding the root and characteristics of all environmental problems, being ingenious to think about solutions, having an open mind to the changes needed to reach sustainable goals, and being inspired to educate others towards this sustainable challenge. 

If you like research and innovation and you want to make a difference in the world, a career in environmental sciences for sustainability is what you’re looking for.

Finally, what do you think are the most important skills for a successful environmental scientist?

I think that to be a good scientist you need to like what you’re going to investigate and believe in it, have an open mind and strong creativity.