Academic fourth great-grandchild of Humboldt

Starting my Biology career knowing that I inherited such academic nobility felt amazing.

Go to the profile of Alejandra Ortega
Sep 12, 2019
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  Back in 2010 during one of my Botany classes, professor Phillip A. Silverstone-Sopkin drew a pedigree on the whiteboard and told us that we were the academic fourth great-grandchildren of Alexander von Humboldt*. That was during my first year of undergrad, and starting my career knowing that I inherited such academic nobility felt amazing.

  Professor Silverstone passed away last year. I write this essay as a homage to his teachings, and as a homage to the teachings of my other professors, too. They gave me the passion for learning about life, by going out into the field and understanding nature with all my senses.

Crossing over the Magdalena River (Geoscience class, May 2012). I am the one wearing blue sunglasses. Photo by Edgardo Londoño-Cruz.

  During my undergrad, the subjects I was taught were interconnected and my degree provided me with a holistic approach to science. The basis of this holistic approach, learning about life as a process that depends on everything happening on Earth, comes from the methodologies used by Alexander von Humboldt. In his expeditions, Humboldt observed all sorts of natural phenomena, studied them, and treated them as parts of a single entity called nature: “The natural sciences are connected by the same ties which link together all the phenomena of nature [...] and it would be injurious to the advancement of science, to attempt rising to general ideas, whilst neglecting the knowledge of particular facts” (Humboldt 1869, Introduction).

   He had the ambitious to investigate how natural forces interact with each other, and how these forces influence the environment, affecting the flora and fauna in a particular geography (Heyd 2018). Results of his inquiries are the basis of modern biogeography, and were a keystone in Darwin’s Theory of Natural Selection (Heyd 2018). Humboldt’s comparative methodology to understand biodiversity is the foundation of biological research in Colombia. In my University we work in the same way that Humboldt did during his expeditions. We observe geographical features to discover patterns in species distribution; we learn about mineral cycles to understand what affects the availability of resources; we study geological timescales to understand evolution. Combining independent and specialized sciences allows us to know nature as a unity. 

Prof. Silverstone directed the CUVC Herbarium of the Universidad del Valle. The university also has an experimental station on campus that includes a small portion of a dry tropical forest and where I used to grow my plants for experiments. This station host, among others, ten species of bats, a population of night monkeys Aotus lemorinus, populations from seven species of tortoises, and even our own frog species (being described as Colostethus univallensis). Photo from Wikipedia (Sahaquiel9102, CC BY-SA 3.0).

  Being a biologist in South America is a luxury, and Humboldt discovered that. In 1801, he arrived for the second time at the Viceroyalty of New Granada, this time landing in modern-day Colombian territory (Humboldt 1801). From Cartagena, he went down to Lima traveling through the Andes. As the Tropical Andes are a diversity hotspot, Humboldt not only discovered new species but also experienced the altitudinal climatic richness just by climbing hundreds of meters up in the mountains: “This portion of the surface of the globe affords in the smallest space the greatest possible variety of impressions from the contemplation of nature. Among the colossal mountains of Cundinamarca, of Quito, and of Peru, followed by deep ravines, man is enabled to contemplate alike all the families of plants, and all the stars of the firmament” (Humboldt 1858).

We learned to prepare and to mount plants sampled during our Botany fieldtrips. This Passifloraceae I collected is now one of the 100,000 specimens from Colombia included in the CUVC Herbarium collection.

  Biologists today do not embark on years of expedition, but still we expend some time in contact with nature. I had the amazing opportunity to travel around Colombia camping for a few days in almost every ecosystem. I learned about coral reefs in the Caribbean and about mangrove forests in the Pacific coast. I collected fossils in the xeric shrublands, and snakes and frogs in the rainforests. The deserts were the best place to see the constellations, while the melting snow in the Andes Cordilleras allowed me to experience consequences of climate change.

An Ophiuroidea I found during an intertidal walk in the Colombian Pacific Coast.

  Remembering those trips, I understand how much those field activities influenced my life and my passion for biology. For Humboldt, contact with nature provided enjoyment: “It may seem a rash attempt to endeavor to separate [...] the magic power exercised upon our minds by the physical world, since the character of the landscape, and of every imposing scene in nature, depends so materially upon the mutual relation of the ideas and sentiments simultaneously excited in the mind of the observer” (Humboldt 1858).

  Although some of us may be direct successors of his universal scientific approach, nature scientists are deeply influenced by Humboldt. We embrace adventure and discovery, regardless of the weather and the toughness of the terrain. Nowadays, we conduct life surveys, we list and classify species, and observe and take notes about everything concerning this planet. Earth may be 250 years older since Humboldt, but still there is much to be discovered and understood. Our duty as Humboldt’s academic descendants, is not only to keep studying our environment but understanding that our anthropogenic actions are also reflected in the natural phenomena (that are not so natural anymore). If we protect our heavily threatened ecosystems, such as the burning Amazon rainforest, we can hope to provide the space for many Alexander von Humboldts in the future. 


I am specially thankful to my friend and classmate Mauro Zucconi, who kept record of our Humboldtian academic order of succession. In the cover photo, Mauro and I are the two on the right, having a break during one of our fieldworks.

* Humboldt mentored Louis Agassiz in Paris, Agassiz taught David Starr Jordan maybe in Cornell University, who taught George S. Myers in Stanford University, who taught Jay M. Savage in Stanford University, who taught Philip A. Silverstone-Sopkin in the University of Miami, who taught me Botany I (non-vascular plants), Botany II (vascular plants) and Systematics at Universidad del Valle, in Colombia

-Heyd, T. Alexander von Humboldt y la unidad de la naturaleza. HiN: Alexander von Humboldt im Netz; International Review for Humboldtian Studies, 25-37 (2018).

-Humboldt, Alexander von. 1869. Personal narrative of travels to the Equinoctial regions of America. Translated by Thomasina Ross from 1907 George Bell & Sons edition, (available in http://www.gutenberg.org/cache/epub/6322/pg6322-images.html, consulted on 5 September 2019).                  

-Humboldt, Alexander von. 1801. The American Travel Journals, Journal II and VI, entry on 26-28 March 1801, available in Spanish at the Biblioteca Luis Ángel Arango del Banco de la República (available in http://www.banrepcultural.org/humboldt/diario/1.htm, consulted on 5 September 2019).  

- Humboldt, Alexander von. 1858. Cosmos: A sketch of the physical description of the Universe, Vol. 1.  Translated by EC Otte, Harper & Brothers, (available in http://www.gutenberg.org/files/14565/14565-8.txt, consulted on 5 September 2019).
Go to the profile of Alejandra Ortega

Alejandra Ortega

Biologist, Universidad del Valle; KAUST

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