Originally from Colombia, Juan Carlos Silva has enjoyed a long and varied educational journey, studying and teaching across Europe and the Americas. His professional career has followed a similar trajectory, starting in Colombia and taking hold in the US, before leading him to Spain and IE University, where he is now the academic director of the Bachelor in Environmental Sciences for Sustainability and head of the Department of Environmental Sciences for Sustainability.
My home country Colombia is the second most biodiverse nation on the planet. Hailing from such a naturally beautiful part of the world, I am perhaps more acutely aware of what we stand to lose through climate change. Understanding the potential problems faced by different societies because of global warming, I decided to pursue studies that would ultimately help me to provide comprehensive solutions to the ongoing climate and environmental crises.
Outside my work, I am a keen amateur road cyclist and take my bike to campus every day—even on bitterly cold winter mornings! I am also passionate about geology; in fact, I have an impressive rock and mineral collection back home in Colombia.
Tell us about yourself.
I’m an Earth System scientist who pursued his Bachelor of Science in Geology at the Universidad EAFIT in Colombia. Afterward, I was a research intern at the Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences at UCLA. In 2004, I earned my Master of Science degree in Environmental Geology at the Universidade Federal de Pernambuco in Recife, Brazil. I then spent a year as a research intern at the University of Tennessee on a stunningly beautiful campus right next to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
I then moved to Switzerland where I earned my PhD in Natural Sciences, with an emphasis on Environmental Isotope Geochemistry, at the Universität Bern in early 2009.
Could you take us through your impressive professional background?
Following my PhD, I took a postdoctoral research fellowship at the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute in Panama, before becoming an assistant professor in the Department of Earth Sciences at the Universidad de Caldas, Colombia, in 2011.
Then, in 2012, I was awarded the prestigious Marie Curie International Outgoing Postdoctoral Fellowship which allowed me to undertake my research activities at Stanford University in the US and the University of Leeds in the UK. During this period, I investigated the effects of global warming, ocean acidification and ocean deoxygenation on the global biogeochemical cycles and the effects of this deadly triad on marine biodiversity.
I went on to become a tenure-track assistant professor at the University of Houston. I returned to Colombia in 2018 and was appointed to top positions at UAN University, Uniminuto University and the Colombian National Science Foundation.
For the past five years, I have been a guest lecturer at several universities in the US, the UK, China, Brazil, Uruguay and Colombia. Between 2018 and 2022, I held leadership roles in several renowned research institutions, including Testlab Laboratories’ One-Health Research Group, Colombia’s national Marine and Coastal Geology Research Group and the Colombian Consortium of Carbon Removal and Climate Solutions.
My research and academic appointments have been complemented by a range of industry-related posts. I have spent time consulting for several companies in a variety of sectors. I have also acted as an advisor on energy and environmental issues for the Colombian government.
What inspired you to pursue your career?
The tropics are an incredibly beautiful part of the world, known not only for their incredible biodiversity but also for their impressive variety of water resources and astonishing geodiversity.
Tropical areas experience different processes which shape their striking natural landscapes continuously. In our warming world, however, some of these processes have intensified and are now putting human lives—and the very sustainability of these ecosystems—at risk.
So I decided to focus my studies and research activity on the use of non-traditional stable isotope geochemistry as a tool to precisely fingerprint and quantify the rate and magnitude of climate and environmental change. I am actively working on the development of diverse nature-based climate solutions which can help us tackle and adapt to the ongoing climate crisis.
Together with a multi- and transdisciplinary group of research scientists, I am currently developing an effective, inclusive, highly democratic and socioeconomically sustainable carbon dioxide removal technology that can help us to slow down global warming. Our research shows that this innovation will rapidly and effectively remove gigatons of the anthropogenic carbon dioxide that has been building up in our atmosphere since the 19th century.
With this technology, we also hope to mitigate the effects of other environmental threats resulting from global warming such as sea-level rise, coastal erosion, soil degradation and so on. We aim to see the international community achieve carbon negativity before 2040 while also contributing to meeting the 2030 Sustainable Development Goals.
Why did you decide to become an academic director at IE University?
IE University is one of the top-ranked in Europe, renowned as one of the first carbon-neutral universities worldwide and for its innovative IE Sustainability Office. They have formulated a long-term strategy to develop innovative academic programs which help prepare the next generation of global leaders to provide sustainable, comprehensive solutions for today’s environmental and sustainability issues.
IE University’s commitment to tackling problems like global warming by providing high-quality education in an inspiring and diverse environment is the main reason I am so thrilled to be here.
How would you describe the Bachelor in Environmental Sciences for Sustainability to future candidates?
Over the last two centuries, the anthropogenic-driven environmental and climate crises have become a major threat to 21st-century societies. Governments, academia and industry have worked together for more than 60 years to find effective solutions to mitigate these crises, without affecting the sustainability of global societies. Although some progress has been made, the ongoing issues are far from being solved.
The Bachelor in Environmental Sciences for Sustainability seeks to prepare the next generation of global leaders to tackle the environmental and climate crises in a scientifically informed manner. Our graduates will understand complex environmental problems from various perspectives and be able to devise innovative technological solutions. They will also be capable of working alongside various stakeholders to place these innovations at the disposal of society and industry to foster profitable green business worldwide.
What skills should a successful environmental scientist possess?
I am absolutely convinced that curiosity, creativity and strong communication and leadership skills are all vital components for any individual wanting to have a positive impact on modern society. Graduates of the Bachelor in Environmental Sciences for Sustainability will be well prepared to become the next generation of global leaders, capable of developing and implementing innovative, effective and sustainable environmental solutions.
What advice would you give someone interested in pursuing a career in environmental sciences for sustainability?
Science and technology are the main pillars of socioeconomic development in global societies. That said, it’s well known that many of these technological and scientific advances have negatively impacted the natural environment. For instance, the burning of fossil fuels has led to progress but is the primary cause of global warming. We are just a few decades away from the point of no return and must quickly find technological solutions to help us avoid global catastrophe.
Doing so will require a large group of professionals focusing on environmental sciences for sustainability. Forecasts predict that over the next four decades, the international community will see an exponential rise in the demand for these kinds of professionals in order to drive the next industrial revolution—the Green Revolution.