Bárbara Saavedra,
an elusive and tenacious foxfire

By Claudia Andrade Ecchio

Ilustration: Jo Jiménez


What is it that encourages and feeds the flame of science in each of us as women? This was the question posed by biologist and ecologist Bárbara Saavedra in a presentation at the Society of Cell Biology in 2017. The metaphor that she used in her talk is significant for those like her who have made the public space their own: women in science are like foxfires, she says, a tiny flame that burns on its own in hostile territory, blazing its own trail and zigzagging around at ground level. We are a new force, numerous, creative, passionate, prepared, she states with conviction. Her words remind me of all those curious young girls who play with woodlice, collect shells on the beach, make herbariums with plants from their gardens, or memorize the constellations that light up the night sky. Each one of them is a woman of science, and that tiny, mischievous and capricious spark that drives them to observe and think about the world they inhabit can become a flare capable of imagining other possible futures.

The famous phrase “the personal is political,” attributed to the North American feminist Carol Hanisch, seems applicable to Bárbara’s professional career. Her profound conviction about the value of biodiversity for the welfare of humankind has marked out her own path, leading her to promote initiatives to protect Patagonian peat bogs and to reflect on the urgency of incorporating the intrinsic relationship between nature, human rights and democracy in Chile’s new Magna Carta. To listen to her is to connect with her passion for preserving wetlands, for the restoration of ecosystems devastated by human actions and for the defense of guanacos and huemuls (south Andean deer) preyed upon by an extractivist economy. To read her words is to understand that an ecological stance is not a fad but an imperative, and that the urgency of her discourse is consistent with a personal choice that seeks to generate concrete political action.

This enthusiasm for building a culture of conservation, which would place Chile at the forefront of protecting biodiversity, singles her out as a person who inspires many young girls and teens to pursue scientific careers. Bárbara is very interested in the presence of female role models in science, considering the long history of silencing and minimizing their work: there is massive value every time a woman engages in science. Their scholarly work unfolds inch by inch, created by women who are the artists of their own lives. When women begin to share this, the raw material of science is brought closer to other women like themselves. I share this female synergy and the implicit revolution that lies behind making one’s way in the arid academic and professional field. That image of collaboration and sisterhood, implicit in Bárbara’s wishes, invites us to see how women of science, seemingly isolated from each other, with their own stories of struggle and survival, have collaborated in the fabric of this network that lights up the path of those who precede them and those who will come after.

Eleven years ago, Bárbara wrote in her blog that women of science would make a difference and rewrite history as we know it. She asserted that we would build a different future, which will only be possible if we recognize the vital interrelationship between human beings and biodiversity, the cornerstone on which our national socio-ecological system stands. From her personal and public position, Bárbara Saavedra calls on all of us, the incorrigible foxfires that are difficult to stamp out, to work, subtly but with tenacious resistance, for this necessary change that we must make in a thousand and one human practices, transforming them from activities that destroy our planet’s natural base to practices that would allow us to sustain it over time.


Discover more Chilean women who are changing the world



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Isabel Allende

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Christiane Endler

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Bárbara Saavedra

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Fernanda Fuentes

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Bernardita Astaburuaga

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