Award winner applies machine learning to big data and models disease-related ecological interactions

Angel Luis Robles Fernández, Master's student from Universidad Veracruzana, earns jury selection for multidimensional exploration and analysis of host-pathogen relationships

Angel Luis Robles Fernández, a Master's student in physics at Universidad Veracruzana, is a winner of one of GBIF's two 2020 Young Researchers Awards. Photo courtesy of Mr Robles Fernández.

Angel Luis Robles Fernández, a Master's student in physics at Universidad Veracruzana in Xalapa, Mexico, has been named one of two winners of GBIF's 2020 Young Researchers Awards.

An expert jury recognized Robles, who was nominated by the GBIF Mexico delegation, for his innovative application of species occurrence data in helping to predict the emergence of new host-parasite assemblies with potential to create public health risks for human communities.

Researchers generally suffer from a lack of in-depth knowledge about existing interactions between host species and their pathogens, which limits their ability to forecast new pairings that might hazard human lives or livelihoods. Building on recent research that shows the importance of phylogeny (or evolutionary relatedness) in accounting for variation in the number of parasites that host species accommodate, Robles will construct a database combining geographic, phylogenetic and environmental information for species pairs across four well-known host-pathogen assemblages:

The combination of GBIF-derived geographic information, phylogenetic data from vertlife and environmental data from WorldClim provides a big-data mash-up for exploring the patterns of interactions between thousands of pairs of host and pathogen species. Robles hopes that the analyses generated through the use of a suite of statistical, machine learning and artificial intelligence-based tools can quantify the likelihood of pathogens finding new hosts and provide geographically explicit scenarios of host susceptibility.

"As a physicist, my interest in this area lies in generating theoretical models that explain the statistical distrubutions of the incidences between hosts and pathogens," said Robles. "Beyond providing another example of the successful application of methods from physics toward the study of ecological systems, my study could provide hypotheses for future theoretical and field research or even help inform decision-making across relevant scientific and policy fields, such as invasive species management and public health."

"Working with Ángel has been a thrilling experience in the search of patterns and relating ideas that could generate genuine research and novel insights in understanding nature," said Andrés Lira-Noriega, Research Fellow at el Instituto del Ecologia (INECOL) in Xalapa, who himself won a Young Researchers Award in its inaugural year. "I am happy to see that he found the opportunity to use his knowledge in Physics and programming skills in the fascinating and challenging problem of combining dimensions of biodiversity, which we have been discussing since 2016 when we first met, he as an undergrad in and I as a newly arrived researcher at INECOL."

Lira-Noriega added, "This grant means a lot both for Ángel and the entire community: it reflects the great advantage of working in a multidisciplinary framework in a world that seeks updated and freely available data to monitor biodiversity, while also reinforces the idea of insisting on looking at ideas from different perspectives."

“Having access to large volumes of data provides the opportunity to test hypotheses on major issues as demonstrated in the current pandemic," said Patricia Koleff of CONABIO and head of the GBIF delegation from México. "The involvement of young students from various disciplines is essential, and I am sure that this recognition will motivate Angel Luis to continue these types of study.”

Robles is the fifth Mexican national to win the award, following Juan Manuel Escamilla Mólgora (2016), Emma Gomez-Ruiz (2013), César Antonio Ríos-Muñoz (2011) and Andrés Lira-Noriega (2010). He is also third student to win while attending a Mexican university, preceded by Gonzalo Enrique Pinilla Buitrago (2015) and Ríos-Muñoz.

Robles shares the award with Vaughn Shirey, a PhD candidate from the United States. The pair will both receive a €5,000 prize and recognition at the upcoming GBIF Governing Board meeting.

About the Award

Since its inception in 2010, the annual GBIF Young Researchers Award has sought to promote and encourage innovation in biodiversity-related research using data shared through the GBIF network.

About Universidad Veracruzana

Universidad Veracruzana (UV) is a public institution of higher education, located in the state of Veracruz, Mexico. Founded in 1944, UV has from its conception held a strong social vocation and commitment to the community of Veracruz and is also recognized nationally and internationally. Learn more at


CONABIO—"la Commisión Nacional para el Conocimiento y Uso de la Biodiversidad" in Spanish—is a permanent Mexican inter-ministerial commission; its purpose is to generate the knowledge base the country needs for public policies and decisions on biodiversity. To this end, it is mainly dedicated to creating and keeping updated the National Biodiversity Information System (SNIB), supporting projects and studies on the knowledge and use of biodiversity, providing advice to government agencies and other sectors, carrying out special projects, disseminating knowledge on biological wealth, follow-up on international agreements and provide services to the public. It was created by Presidential Agreement on 16 March 1992.

2020 Young Researchers Award Jury