Post-doc wins coveted L’Oréal-UNESCO Women in Science Award

Environmental scientist Dr. Aida Cuní-Sanchez who spent two years at Colorado State University completing post-doctoral sustainability research in the Warner College of Natural Resources has won an award for her research into the protection and sustainable use of African rainforests.

Aida Cuní-Sanchez
Cuní-Sanchez at a camp site in the Albertine Rift region of central Africa

Cuní-Sanchez won the sustainable development category of the 2020 L’Oréal-UNESCO For Women in Science award for her work in the Albertine Rift region of central Africa, a region of the continent home to tropical rainforests with rich and diverse animal and plant species that is currently under threat from climate change and forest degradation. Founded in 1999 by L’Oréal and UNESCO, the For Women in Science (FWIS) program has recognized outstanding female scientists for their research.

Cuní-Sanchez research interests, at the interphase between natural and social sciences, have focused on tropical forest ecology, carbon stocks, forest use by local communities and local communities’ adaptation to climate change. Her time at CSU was part of a sustainability partnership with the University of York in England. At CSU, she studied under mentor Dr. Julia Klein, an assistant professor in the department of ecosystem science and sustainability, who also leads the Mountain Sentinels Collaborative Network that works towards sustainability of mountain environments and communities worldwide.

Klein said Cuní-Sanchez’s boldness and ability to collaborate in a competitive and challenging field make her more than worthy of the recognition.

“Aida is on the cutting edge of how we do science in the service of society. She’s really taken a groundbreaking approach to understanding challenges that are happening in West African montane forests, working in a collaborative fashion and calling attention to important ecosystems around the world that just don’t get as much attention,” Klein said. “Like Aida, there are so many women making vital contributions to sustainability all around the world, and I really appreciate L’Oréal’s highlighting a few of these really deserving women like her.”

Q&A with Aida Cuní-Sanchez

Below Cuní-Sanchez talks about her inspiration, mentors and her future vision.

Q: What got you interested in this field?

Aida Cuni Sanchez
Cuní-Sanchez poses with a research team in the Albertine Rift region of central Africa

A: As an undergraduate student I managed to go to a field course in Madagascar. It was mind blowing. I discovered the rainforest, baobab trees and coral reefs. I had always dreamed of seeing the lemurs and the unique biodiversity of this island. It is paradise for biologists. I also discovered poverty. And that had a huge impact on me. I felt I had to do something to help preserve the incredible biodiversity, but also those poor peoples. That is why I focused my career on tropical forests and sustainable development.

 Q: Did you always want to go into academia?

A: No, definitely not. I wanted to work for a large conservation NGO like WWF. I thought I would just do my Ph.D. and then move to something else. But one research project led to the next, and they were all very interesting and impact driven, so here I am. Working for a large university gives you objectivity and prestige: as a ‘scientist’ you are allowed to say things others can’t say, and people listen, and I like that.

Q: What was the work that led to your award and what will you do with it?

A: The award recognizes your career so far and the project you propose. Few women have spent as much time as me in the African rainforest, either measuring trees or talking to indigenous peoples. Of course, there are the publications, I have several, but I think they value that my research has had an impact. For example, it has been used to design management plans of protected areas in Africa. For my project, I will try to cultivate some useful trees of the African rainforest; some which we still do not know how to cultivate. Cultivating them can help provide food and medicine to local communities while helping fight climate change.

Q: What’s next for you?

Aida Cuni Sanchez
Cuní-Sanchez travels by canoe in the Albertine Rift region of central Africa

A: I have many ideas! If we manage to cultivate these useful trees, we will have to improve market chain, and eventually get certified to export to Europe or U.S. I have recently started a project on edible caterpillars as insect protein (cheaper and more sustainable) is likely to increase in the future. I always use a participative approach to my research; I think we can learn a lot from what Indigenous peoples know.

Q: Who is your greatest influence?

A: Many people influenced who I am now. But probably, Dr. Rosie Trevelyan was the one who had the greatest impact. Rosie runs the NGO ‘Tropical Biology Association’, based at Cambridge, which organizes field courses in Africa and Borneo, including the one I went to Madagascar. The courses provide field insights to European and African (or Bornean) students. She has worked very hard to make this world a better place – in conservation, development and capacity building. I remember I told her when I met her in Madagascar that I wanted to be like her when I grew up.

Q: What would you say to young women starting a career in science?

A: Go for it! The only barriers are those which you set. Believe in yourself, if you are motivated, and you work hard, anything is possible. We can all make this world a better place.

This Q&A interview was originally conducted by the PR team at University of York in England.