Ecologist found her way to make a difference

Ecologist Mar Cabeza moved from Barcelona to Finland because she wanted to join Ilkka Hanski’s research group.

“I tried to take an intensive course in Finnish, but stopped after my third attempt. I was working on my doctoral dissertation and was having trouble focusing on something that was even more difficult,” says Mar Cabeza, with quite native-sounding Finnish.

Her problems weren’t with learning per se, but with the way Finnish was being taught: too much grammar, not enough conversation.

“But talking is what is important!”

The different backgrounds of the students also made it more difficult to learn the language.

Cabeza teaches ecology and evolutionary biology at the University of Helsinki’s Faculty of Biological and Environmental Sciences.

“I have trouble writing Finnish, but when I speak quickly, nobody notices my mistakes. My academic language is English.”


Little Mar’s intense interest in all insects, worms and beetles horrified the nurses at her Barcelona kindergarten in the late 1970s. Her ‘asocial tendencies’ were also considered strange.

“The nurses called my parents to tell them that I didn’t play with other children and that I had no friends. I had a good time playing alone with snails and ants.”

The introverted little nature lover managed to always find a little bit of green, even in the centre of Barcelona. She is still delighted every time she finds forests, parks and bugs.

As a teenager, Cabeza was plagued by Weltschmerz: would the Earth survive, would an ecological disaster strike, why wasn’t everyone interested in environmental affairs? The young environmentalist wanted to find a place where she could benefit the planet. She was worried about the future of humanity.

“I did volunteer work and tried to save the world,” Cabeza sighs.

Academic competition

Studying natural sciences at the University of Barcelona was the next logical step for Cabeza. She studied ecology, biology and zoology among other topics.

She was a successful student, but found that it wasn’t quite what she was looking for.

“I wasn’t entirely comfortable, because I felt that at university, competition was more important than science. It’s difficult to maintain enthusiasm for science if the focus is on competition.”

Cabeza was motivated by curiosity, the desire to discover new things and phenomena in nature. After her Master’s degree she knew that she wasn’t done. She was already thinking about a doctoral dissertation.

The Finnish summer

Jyväskylä in the summer of 1997 was Mar Cabeza’s first introduction to Finland.

“Summer university and the Finnish summer, it was wonderful.”

However, she didn’t come to Finland primarily for the glorious summer, but to follow Professor Ilkka Hanski, the world-famous ecologist.  

“I knew Ilkka Hanski’s work and I admired him. When I met him, I asked him to be my doctoral dissertation supervisor.”  

He said yes. Professors Veijo Kaitala, Esa Ranta and Hanski encouraged Cabeza to come to Finland as a doctoral student. Things would work out, they promised.

Cabeza wanted to write a theoretical dissertation, as she was interested in modelling. Hanski suggested that the dissertation could combine metapopulation theory with conservation. Hanski was the director of the metapopulation research unit on the Viikki Campus, an Academy of Finland Centre of Excellence since 2000.

An academic father figure

Cabeza remembers how Hanski would send her out to give speeches on his behalf at an early stage. The young researcher found it terrifying, but Hanski trusted that Cabeza was up to the task.

“Ilkka was my mentor, my academic father figure,” Cabeza says.

Hanski encouraged her to network and to take on students. He also read everything Cabeza wrote.

“Ilkka would always give me a boost at the right time. He knew me better than I know myself. He was a visionary. He could always read me correctly, he helped me on my way and gave me many opportunities,” Cabeza explains.

“The door across from me was always open,” Cabeza says and motions towards the other side of the corridor.

Cabeza’s own passion for pedagogy and teaching was also sparked by Hanski and his way of encouraging others. Evolutionary biologist and Academician Ilkka Hanski passed away last May.

Disappointment and emptiness

Cabeza’s dissertation, Spatial population dynamics in reserve-network design, was completed in 2003. The study focused on how things should be done: how can resources be invested optimally to enable comprehensive conservation?

“I was in an ivory tower. I was so excited and so invested in my topic that I couldn’t see that my suggestions would be impossible to put into practice,” Mar Cabeza admits.

She only realised later that the theoretical tools she had developed would be useless, as real conservation is much more complicated than theory. And biodiversity is not the only thing in the world, even though it may seem like it.

The researcher was deeply disappointed when her work and modelling were primarily used in scientific articles, not in practical conservation measures.

“I felt so empty when I saw the world going in an increasingly bad direction and I was just playing around with numbers. I thought that maybe I could do something else.”

Today Cabeza is primarily known for her research on climate change. She is one of the University of Helsinki’s most cited researchers.

“I made a choice. I’m trying to predict what kind of biodiversity we may have in 50 years. These questions are still interesting. They are large, theoretical questions with only a small potential for impact,” Cabeza says.

Island camping

The University of Helsinki is one of the funders of the research station on Madagascar. The island is a valuable destination for natural science: the area was isolated for millions of years, and is home to organisms which are found nowhere else.

“Madagascar is the endangered paradise for ecologists.”  

Roughly ten years ago, Ilkka Hanski had the idea that the research station should also be a centre for conservation biology. The station was there, a course was arranged, but there was no teacher. Hanski asked if Cabeza would be interested in fieldwork on the island in the Indian Ocean.

“I had no previous experience of tropical forests, but I decided to go along. I taught theoretical conservation biology. Half of the students came from Finland and half were locals.”

On the tropical island the researcher felt she had gone back to her childhood ideals: she was as excited as she had been when she marvelled at the wonders of nature as a toddler.

“I had missed fieldwork.”

Now Cabeza has ten years of field courses under her belt. The years of experience mean that she knows what should be taught on Madagascar and how. She has become less focused on computer modelling.

“Our focus is on the relationship between humans and nature. We live in tents in the forest and in the villages. We’re trying to think of ways to make nature conservation easy for everyone.”

A Scientist’s hopes and fears

The African students who attended the first courses have moved on as intended. One of them is working at the ministry for the environment; another is coordinating a science programme for schools; many are teachers. Many of the Finnish students have continued their research on Madagascar.

“Perhaps I’ve rediscovered myself and my place. I feel like I’m doing something important. I’ve trained people who can really help others where they are and solve many problems.”

The fieldwork course has had great personal importance for the teacher and researcher. It’s a connection to the real world.  

“I don’t want to be a famous scientist, but I do want to do things that make a difference. As a scientist, I have that ability.”  

Cabeza fears for the future of the course. The previous course was in 2015, and it’s still unclear whether the course will be arranged this year – or ever again. It’s possible that all ecological research on the international research stations will end, also in Kenya where Cabeza worked this winter.

Creative teaching  

Cabeza was selected the best international teacher at the University seven years ago. Her students say she’s an excellent, engaging teacher and a dedicated supervisor.

This recognition makes Cabeza laugh.

“I still don’t know where that came from.”

But she has worked hard on her teaching.

“I try to be creative in my teaching. In Spain, university education was boring, just lectures and examinations. Finland opened my eyes: they had group work, essays and discussions.”

Cabeza wonders if she’s sometimes a little too excited by alternative teaching methods. The best thing would be to create and develop new courses and concepts. Old courses have to be reworked, or the teacher will get bored.

“I’m hugely interested in pedagogy, but at the same time it is challenging and sometimes makes me nervous.”


Finland has been at the forefront of education for years, but is this about to change? Cabeza says that she is sometimes worried about students’ attitudes.

Studying doesn’t have to be fun and entertaining all the time.

“A lot of research is slow, lonely work, that’s just what it’s like.”

Everybody finds fieldwork interesting, but analysing and writing the results can seem boring and difficult.

“Students may feel like they can’t force themselves to work on something boring.”

Students from elsewhere in the world tend to have better self-discipline than Finnish young people. On the other hand, finding your passion helps get through the difficult parts. For Cabeza, this means the desire to work and find out something new.  

“It’s sad if students lose the passion for science.”

Dance, inner joy

Cabeza also has a life outside the University, and a lively one at that. In her hobbies, she seeks out movement and emotion: she dives, hikes, climbs and above all, dances.

She even found love, her best Finnish teacher, on a climbing wall in Suutarila, Helsinki.

“We have a five-year-old daughter, and that has slowed down my hobbies a little. I’m taking a break from adventuring and focusing on things we can do as a family.”  

Cabeza has not given up dance. She particularly enjoys Afro-Cuban rhythms. Together with her husband, she teaches dance to children and the elderly at a local school.

“I’m not particularly competitive. For me, dance is about inner joy, I don’t really worry about technique. I enjoy hobbies where you compete against yourself, not other people,” she says.

Teaching dance and teaching conservation biology are not as different as one might think. Both involve reading people, encouraging them and exercising authority.


Mar Cabeza has made Finland her home, and she has even built her family a house here with her husband.

“After I got to live in my own detached house for the first time, I couldn’t even imagine living in an apartment. I wanted to be closer to nature.”

Unable to find the perfect house, Cabeza came across a plot of land in Kuninkaanmäki, Vantaa. The area had become established as a neighbourhood of detached houses some time ago, and it had been slightly neglected in its forest surroundings. For the ecologist, the place was perfect. The Kuusijärvi lake is very close. Sipoonkorpi National Park is easy to get to for a jog.

“We built our house to be as environmentally friendly as possible. We paid particular attention to energy efficiency. I just wish we could have used even more recycled materials.”

The outbuilding has a green roof, and the yard sports a greenhouse and a vegetable patch that helps feed the family throughout the summer. In the summer, the yard echoes with a loud clucking, as the family decided to house a flock of chickens together with their neighbours.

The neighbours are very important. When Cabeza and her husband moved to Kuninkaanmäki, they were the youngest people in the community. The previous generation had built their houses in the area during the 1960s and 70s. Cabeza’s family and the other newcomers reawakened an old sense of community.

“I feel like we’re in a small village, not so close to Helsinki,” Cabeza enthuses.

On Finnishness

When asked about her plans for the future, Cabeza sighs deeply. She is plagued by uncertainty: the University of Helsinki is in upheaval after budget cuts. Of course, uncertainty is a researcher’s constant companion, Cabeza points out.

“For now, my family, home and job are in Finland. Still, I wonder about the future.”  

Finland has become an important place for Mar Cabeza where she has found friends and a new home.

“I’m better suited to Finland than to Spain. I like being surrounded by nature and I don’t feel like chatting with people every day. My husband says I’m more Finnish than him!”

Mar Cabeza’s interview was published in Finnish in Yliopisto magazine 4/2017.



Barcelona, Spain, 1974


Ecology researcher


DPhil, University of Helsinki


Spouse and daughter


Detached house in Vantaa


Work, nature, dance, family, home

“We have a flock of chickens with our neighbours in Vantaa.

Three families take turns caring for them.

Each family gets about 12 eggs per week.”


Native Catalan, learned in Barcelona

The children’s show Pikku Kakkonen helped Cabeza learn Finnish.


From a poem by Antonio Machado

Caminante, no hay camino,

se hace camino al andar.

Traveller, there is no path,

The path is made by walking.