A physicist by vocation and a telecoms engineer by mistake, Javier Santaolalla is able to blend humor and science in his informative drive that has led him to publish books, create three YouTube channels and do stand-up. And all thanks to being one of the 1000-plus young people from the Canaries who have benefited from the Fundación MAPFRE Guanarteme scholarship program. Without it, he would not have managed to fulfill his dreams.
TEXT: ISABEL PRESTEL IMAGES PROVIDED BY JAVIER SANTAOLALLA
Born in Burgos – specifically in Briviesca – in 1982 , but raised in Gran Canaria, where he moved with his family at the age of nine , Javier has a multitude of talents. Of all of them, one s tands out above the others: his ability to continually set himself challenges. Challenges which, thanks to his tenacity, willpower, work capacity and, of course, talent, he usually overcomes. Anyone who talks to him for a few minutes realizes this. But, also, anyone who follows one of his three YouTube channels (Date Un Voltio, Date un Vlog or Date un Mí); has read any of his six books (the most popular, The Higgs Boson is Not Going to Make Your Bed); has seen one of the Telecienciario videos he presents on El Mundo online; or has attended any of his monologues in which he blends humor and science, two concepts a priori difficult to combine.
But, make no mistake, reaching this point has not been easy. Javier has worked hard. He has studied a lot and was fortunate to have his talent discovered and recognized, warranting a grant from Fundación MAPFRE Guanarteme, which placed its full trust in his project and ambitions. Obviously, given his academic record, it was easy to intuit his tremendous potential. For this reason, in 2006 he was able to start out on the path that led to him fulfilling one of his dreams: witnessing the start-up of the largest particle accelerator in the world.
But, let’s start at the beginning… Or in the middle. When he decided to study Telecoms Engineering, despite having been born a physicist, as he himself states. “I had always studied thanks to grants and managed to get good grades, even when, in my third year at college, I realized that I liked physics much more. So I started studying online via the UNED in my spare time, combining it with my Telecoms degree, to see what happened.” What happened was that he became hooked: “The more I studied, the more I liked it. Indeed, I realized what I wanted was to be a physicist.” Despite this, he completed the engineering course. But he wanted more: to attend classes in order to finish his second degree course and, in the Canaries, there was no Physics Faculty. Moreover, he was not eligible for a Ministry of Education grant, as this was his second college degree. And, given the situation of his family, with limited resources, he could not afford it.
I believe there is a huge divide between science and society at large. People do not know what the Higgs boson is because nobody has explained it in a fun way
His only option was to seek a scholarship from a private institution that would enable him to complete the last two years of his physics degree, followed by a master’s degree in Fundamental Physics, in Madrid. “When they saw my grades and my academic record, they decided to offer me a grant. This was really important for me, as I felt supported by Fundación MAPFRE Guanarteme from the outset. They believed in me and in my project. And, thanks to them, I managed to fulfill my dream.” On completing his studies in Madrid, the CIEMAT (Energy, Environmental and Technological Research Center) offered him a research fellowship at the CERN. Precisely what he had been preparing for over the past seven years.
“There were many reasons why I wanted to work at the CERN. Located in Switzerland, it is a NASA-like physics laboratory, which has several peculiarities of great interest to me. The first is that it is an international agency, a sort of physics UN. Secondly, it has been in operation since the 1950s: the greatest physicists in history have worked there. And thirdly, it was precisely in 2008 that the most powerful particle accelerator ever was started up. A huge device they had been designing for over 30 years. It was the milestone project of the decade, aiming to discover a new particle. I wanted to be there. And I was.”
As Javier had expected, that trip was a landmark event for him: “The four years I was in Geneva marked the achievement of a dream, a personal fulfillment. I was in a very special environment, at a fundamental moment, working on a truly important project. And I could see how an elite international institution operates, understanding how the world of science works and sharing experiences with top-flight scientists. That’s why it was important professionally speaking, but even more so personally.” He knows that what he learned there has served him well and will do for the rest of his life.
The project and his scientific training placement ended in 2012. He returned to Madrid and decided to take a break. At the age of 30, he had two college degrees, a master’s degree and a PhD, was married (since he was 22) and had spent four years in Geneva. “During my sabbatical year I began to tell people what I had studied and about my experience in Switzerland. And they seemed to be interested. I understood that there was an opening for discussing these matters and doing in an entertaining fashion for the general public. I think part of the success I enjoyed at first was due to the fact that I was a scientist who looked like a real geek, a veritable nerd talking about physics, but with a sense of humor. This contrast drew the attention of the media.” Bit by bit, he gained ever greater popularity. That was how he became the communicator he is today, a job he loves.
The main reason he adores this task of spreading the word about science has to do, precisely, with his love for physics, that great unknown: “I studied engineering instead of physics because nobody had told me what it was really all about. I believe there is a huge divide between science and society at large. People do not know what the Higgs boson is because nobody has explained it in a fun way. And I thought that I could do it.” This posed a whole new challenge: learning how to communicate. “Frankly, I didn’t know how to do it.” By devoting time and energy, he finally managed it, like almost every challenge he sets himself. However, it entailed “making a great effort, putting in many hours planning and prioritizing. When I was 20, my friends would go out or head to the beach, and I stayed in studying.”
The truth is that his endeavors and tenacity helped him get to where he is today. But also that grant: “If I hadn’t been offered it, I would have started working or sought a scholarship in a lab, preparing a doctoral thesis on something related to physics. In any case, nothing to do with what I finally did.”
Fundación MAPFRE Guanarteme supports the talent and education of local youngsters
Living in the Canaries often reduces the chances of young people studying what they like the most: the islands do not offer all college courses, nor all the master’s degrees. That was precisely what happened in Javier Santaolalla’s case. And it is in those cases that young people have to turn to the Fundación MAPFRE Guanarteme scholarships. They are much more than a financial grant; they offer them the chance to set their sights much higher and achieve whatever they aim for.
So much so that these programs are now firmly established in the Canaries as one of the major boosts for professional development available to young people on the islands. Without these grants, they would be unable to continue their postgraduate studies in various subjects such as science, industrial engineering, nanoscience, technological innovation, economics, industrial ecology or musical interpretation; and in different European destinations. Or gain professional work experience in countries such as the United States, Japan or Canada.
With these scholarships, Fundación MAPFRE Guanarteme strives for excellence through an action plan that includes the granting of merit, research and specialization scholarships. Moreover, in recent years, they have devoted over ten million euros to them and a thousand youngsters from the Canaries have already benefited, being able to fulfill their dream of completing the pertinent studies for their professional development.
Education, the promotion of talent and excellence, and thus fostering the employability of youngsters on the islands has become one of the top priorities for this institution. In 2019, its educational activity can count on 1,847,000 euros, of which 639,000 euros have been earmarked for the scholarship programs.