Feet on the Ground, Head in the Sky

One would never guess, upon viewing a list of his achievements, that Juan Antonio Añel is just 30 years old and still in a training phase. The Spanish physicist already has 11 peer-reviewed articles, two edited books, nine book chapters, and 25 successful grants to his credit. His accomplishments beyond the research bench similarly belie his age: Still a postdoc, Añel has already reviewed papers for several journals and sits on an editorial board. He is the editor-in-chief for an American Geophysical Union newsletter and a free-software activist.

“I think it’s good that a postdoc spends most of his time researching and writing, but I don’t think that should be” all there is to research. –Juan A. Añel

A solid grounding

Añel studied physics at university because he saw it as “a kind of compromise” between mathematics–his early love–and a desire to solve real-world problems. Starting in the 3rd year of his 5-year degree at the University of Vigo, Ourense, in Spain, Añel spent 4 hours a week in Luis Gimeno’s Group of Atmospheric and Ocean Physics at the university’s Department of Applied Physics, computing climate change quantifiers using simple parameters such as precipitation and air temperature.

The role of the tropopause–the layer of atmosphere that separates the troposphere from the stratosphere–in global air-circulation patterns is not well understood. Añel began working on a computational profile of the tropopause, using information collected at 200 meteorological stations, and the complex project became the basis of his Ph.D. As he mastered the computer skills the project required, he deepened his knowledge of environmental sciences by attending meetings and summer courses and reading widely. He finished his Ph.D. in 2007, winning an award from his university for outstanding research.

During his Ph.D., Añel “planned for himself a very rigorous and very demanding work,” Gimeno says. “He acquired great abilities in the analysis of data and of scientific results and a deep knowledge of the state of the art in a field like the dynamics of the tropopause, which is one of today’s big topics in climate research. … He [now] finds himself at [an] equal level with any good international scientist working on these topics, only he achieved all this in a much shorter time.”

Añel stayed at Vigo for one more year, as a postdoctoral researcher, then in 2008, he set off for the Center for Environmental and Marine Studies at the University of Aveiro in Portugal for a second postdoc. The move was partly personal, partly professional, he says: Aveiro is close to Ourense, where Añel’s wife, also an applied physicist, holds a permanent university position. Another advantage: His current supervisor, José Castanheira, is a collaborator of the Gimeno lab, making it easy to continue his work. “When you finish your Ph.D., a lot of questions remain open and you have many ideas,” Añel says.

Añel’s research is continuing to shape up well. To date, he has secured 25 grants and bursaries from funding bodies, including the Portuguese Foundation for Science and Technology, the European Space Agency, and the European Science Foundation. His achievements were recognized with an award for young researchers from the Portuguese Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation.

The length of days, the shortness of trees, and the centrality of peripheral things

Juan A. Añel is currently doing a postdoc at Aveiro in Portugal. (Courtesy, JuanAñel)

Gimeno, Añel’s former Ph.D. adviser, partly attributes Añel’s early success to “his great interest in and liking for the scientific endeavor, which prompt[s] him to dedicate amounts of time much greater than average to work.” Añel, Gimeno says, is also “always looking for collaborations, contacts, [and] new projects to carry out.”

During his 1st year as a Ph.D. student, Añel edited a book for students about the free GNU/Linux operating system. Throughout his graduate studies, he gave physics lectures to environmental science master’s degree students. Since then, he’s coedited another book, this one on climatology and atmospheric science, and written nine book chapters. For the past 3 years, he has served as a contributing editor for the atmospheric sciences section of the bimonthly American Geophysical Union’s newsletter, and he became its editor-in-chief this January. He also reviews manuscripts for five journals and last year was invited to sit on the editorial board of the open-access journal PLoS One. “If I know why it’s important and that it’s helpful for society, I put my energy into these things,” Añel says.

Añel’s advisers have mixed feelings about all these peripheral activities. Castanheira, Añel’s current postdoc adviser, believes they are valuable, even at the postdoctoral stage–but only up to a point. “The day has 24 hours only, and the dedication to research required to [do] a postdoc in physics implies that the other activities are not much more than hobbies,” Castanheira writes in an e-mail to Science Careers. Gimeno advocates a more single-minded approach but finds it hard to argue with Añel’s results. “I believe that it is too early to start taking too many responsibilities outside of research, above all because the postdoctoral phase is, from my point of view, still a training phase, and abilities must be acquired that are going to be indispensable in the future scientific activity,” he says. But “I believe that [Añel] is approaching them well, doing, as ever, a good job.”

For his part, Añel finds these peripheral activities valuable. “I think it’s good that a postdoc spends most of his time researching and writing,” he says, but he doesn’t think that should be all there is to academic life. As a result of his reviewing activities, he says, he can now anticipate the kinds of issues a reviewer will raise about his research manuscripts. He has gotten to know many senior researchers and become more visible himself. He has learned to deal with bureaucracy and administrative issues. 

Managing all of this requires good time-management skills, Añel acknowledges. He uses a “to do board” and keeps track of “what’s a true deadline and what’s not a true deadline. I only try to do the most important work at each moment.” And even he admits that there are limits, estimating that he spends no more than 15% of his time on activities peripheral to research. “The only requirement is to have time to think … quietly” about research and to read the literature, he says.

His achievements are impressive, but Añel acknowledges that he is failing to keep up his standards in one aspect of his life: raising bonsai trees, which he does for a hobby. “I try to allocate some time to growing bonsais, but this is hard … for a postdoctoral researcher who needs a lot of time” for other things. “It’s difficult to have them to the point [where] you want them to be.” He may not have fully succeeded with small trees, but he’s doing quite well with a larger career. He says that thanks to his “hard work and luck, mixed with a good quantity of love for what I do, enthusiasm, and rational thinking,” Añel has got his research career exactly where he wants it to be, for now.

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