Guillermo Figueroa-Muñoz: From salmonids in Patagonia to alewives in Maine
Growing up in Chile’s Patagonia region, Guillermo Figueroa-Muñoz never imagined he would end up in Orono, Maine, over 6,000 miles away from his hometown of Puerto Cisnes. Thanks to a little luck and hard work, though, the University of Maine Ph.D. student is using the research skills he learned studying fisheries in his home country to research the reintroduction of alewives in Maine’s lakes — and learning English while he does so.
In graduate school in Chile, Figueroa-Muñoz studied the relationship between invasive salmonids and participated in sampling of salmon escaping from aquaculture facilities in Patagonia. It is a common occurrence — between 2010 and 2020, 5 million salmon escaped from these facilities. Since salmon are not native to the region, they could become invasive in the sensitive ecosystem, threatening freshwater fish populations and traditional livelihoods.
While finishing his master’s degree at the Universidad de Concepción in Chile, Figueroa-Muñoz worked with Ivan Arismendi, associate professor at Oregon State University’s Freshwater Ecology and Conservation Lab. Arismendi knew University of Maine’s Christina Murphy from her time doing a Fulbright project in Chile and from her time pursuing a Ph.D. at Oregon State University.
“It’s a very small word in fisheries,” Murphy laughs.
Murphy and Joseph Zydlewski, researchers in the U.S. Geological Survey Maine cooperative Fish and Wildlife Research Unit and faculty in the Department of Wildlife Fisheries and Conservation Biology, were looking for a Ph.D. student to work on a project about the reintroduction of alewives in freshwater systems in Maine. Alewives were present in Maine’s lakes hundreds of years ago, but their historic habitats have changed. The impact of bringing them back to Maine’s lakes and streams today — particularly on managed fisheries and recreational opportunities, like landlocked Atlantic salmon fishing — is a topic of great political, social and ecological interest to the state.
When Murphy reached out to her network to pass along the job opportunity, Arismendi suggested Figueroa-Muñoz because of his exceptional research skills, experience with similar projects in Chile, publications and grades.
There was one catch: Figueroa-Muñoz didn’t yet speak fluent English, and this particular project would require a significant amount of communication with stakeholders beyond UMaine.
“It has a lot of technical challenges and requirements to interact with people on the ground and be an effective communicator,” says Zydlewski.
Still, Arismendi encouraged Figueroa-Muñoz to apply for the position. After speaking with their candidate, Murphy and Zydlewski knew that Figueroa-Muñoz was the right choice for the job.
“He has experience in research techniques that are really ideally suited for this particular project. His experience in Chile was functionally analogous to the challenges he’s taking on here, looking at a fish that is coming from a marine environment into a freshwater system and trying to figure out the ecological roles,” Murphy says.
Murphy and Zydlewski made an effort to ensure that their new student would have everything he needed to succeed. In addition to conducting research, Figueroa-Muñoz has taken English classes through the Maine Bridge Program. His English speaking skills have improved tremendously since he started. Figueroa-Muñoz credits the instruction of head instructor Erin-Kate Sousa, but Zydleweski says it is as much a “measure of his capacity and his willingness to work.”
“It’s been wonderful to watch him go from really functioning in a rudimentary capacity to someone who has given really clear, concise scientific presentations multiple times,” Zydlewski says. “It’s part of his education and part of what he’s going to take out as his skill set. Frankly, he stepped into the project and he’s been phenomenal in it.”
Murphy and Zydlewski said that Figueroa-Muñoz’s passion as a scientist — as well as his knack for bonding with his labmates — has been an asset for the project and for the lab community.
“He exemplifies so many of the good qualities of an effective researcher,” Zydleweski says. “There’s many times where he’s been in a meeting and he’s said, ‘This is my dream.’ This is where he wants to be. He wants to gain a skill set and he wants to be a productive and influential person in the field of fisheries science. He wants to be useful and serve the public good. He has all the capacity and intellect as well as having the community skills.”
Figueroa-Muñoz’s co-advisers also believe that their student’s achievements in the field and in the community illustrate a vital lesson about equity in science.
“He thought the doors were going to be closed and locked because science can be really exclusionary if you don’t have the language tools,” Murphy says. “I think it just shows how important it is that we don’t take our responsibilities lightly as researchers and academics because we have a lot of power to provide opportunities and a responsibility to make sure that we are providing opportunities. If we want to make science a better, more inclusive place, the people who really want to be inside need those doors opened.”
For his part, Figueroa-Muñoz has been impressed with the resources at UMaine, the state’s R1 research university, as well as the support from various government agencies for his research.
“We are working with people from the Alewife Interaction Committee, and they are really accepting of my inclusion in this project,” he says.
Figueroa-Muñoz says that the experience of attending graduate school at the University of Maine — one that wouldn’t be possible, he insists, without the support of his wife Maria Rosita Buchoff, who moved to Maine from Chile with him — has been wonderful so far.
“This is, like, the best environment for doing research,” he says.
Still, he does hope to return to Chile after completing his Ph.D. to use all the skills he has learned in his native country. He certainly hasn’t forgotten his roots. In the spare moments between perfecting his English, preparing proposals and conducting research in the field, Figueroa-Muñoz recently led an article for the prestigious publication Science about how Chile’s new policy allowing artisanal and recreational fishers to capture salmon escaped from aquaculture facilities will help better manage the populations and minimize their environmental impact.
“I want to learn as much as possible here and come back to Chile and contribute to study the ecology of freshwater systems in Patagonia in terms of food webs and fish,” Figueroa-Muñoz says. “I would like to thank my advisers and my labmates. I’m living my dreams. I’m really proud of being here.”
Contact: Sam Schipani, firstname.lastname@example.org