When you meet Jorge Ramos, the first things you’ll notice are his easy smile and genuine interest in others. Give it a few minutes, and you’ll be captivated by his enthusiasm for science and entertained by his quick wit.
Those qualities are particularly helpful when you’re a graduate student conducting research in a foreign land.
Though born in the western part of Texas, Ramos grew up in the dry deserts surrounding Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, and developed an early appreciation for water. That, along with his parents’ penchant for giving him books about nature, planted the seed that over time, grew into a deep love of nature and all its mysteries.
Ramos, a fifth-year doctoral student in Arizona State University’s Environmental Life Science Program, is studying the ecology of wetland ecosystems — a pursuit that soon after landing him at ASU has since taken him to places around the world. For his dissertation, he is studying the ecology of constructed wetlands in Arizona, but is also part of a research team studying aquatic ecosystems in Cuatro Ciénegas, Mexico — a complex, somewhat mysterious network of pools and streams considered by some to be a possible birthplace of life on Earth.
“When I got to ASU, I heard that a group of faculty and students come down to Cuatro Ciénegas every once in a while to study deserts and water, and that’s what I’m interested in. All of a sudden, only four months after coming here, I was on a plane to Cuatro Ciénegas and it blew my mind. It’s a desert with incredible hydrology, incredible surface water and incredible species, and it just added another perspective to what I was interested in investigating,” Ramos said.
The next generation
As an ecologist, Ramos is one of at least four generations of ASU scientists who has traveled to this remote desert to study the spring water and all that thrives in it. On this trip, he gathered more water samples from several springs for a study that he and fellow grad student Jessica Corman started back in 2011, but he primarily joined this trek to help professor James Elser, as he and a team of undergraduate honors students filmed a documentary about the importance of this now-protected land.
“He’s got expertise in hydrology and wetlands ecology, and that’s a lot of what’s going on here, so we needed that help,” said Elser, a professor of limnology with ASU’s School of Life Sciences. “He’s also been working with my grad student Jessica Corman who did her dissertation research down here, so they are a good team, it seems.”
Ramos and Corman have sampled more than 18 spring-fed ecosystems throughout the Cuatro Ciénegas basin. This rare oasis, located in the Chihuahuan Desert in the state of Coahila, Mexico, hosts many unique organisms and more than 70 endemic aquatic species. Although the Mexican government has formally designated 528 square miles of the basin as a preserve, it stopped short of preventing locals from using the water for crop irrigation and dairy farming. Some of the pools have dried up.
“We’re starting to see patterns on how different Cuatro ecosystems respond to different courses or pressures such as human alterations or climate change,” Ramos said. “We’re also looking at how the water is affected by either natural events such as hurricanes, or even just how they’re connected to each other because these are not just surface waters. We’re starting to realize some of them are connected underground and some of them are not.”
Ramos is committed to the research here and enjoys the complexity of the international aspects. He frequently serves as an interpreter or helps to make lasting connections with local landowners, non-profit organizations and government officials who must provide the researchers access to the protected pools or “pozas” — something that’s not always easily obtained.