An interview with Steffen Härtel
Posted by Mariana De Niz, on 24 January 2023
MiniBio: Prof. Steffen Härtel is a group leader at the Faculty of Medicine of the University of Chile, where he leads the Laboratory of Scientific Image Processing (SCIAN-Lab). He is also founder of CEDAI SpA (Center of Internet Assisted Spermiograms), director of the Chilean Center for Digital Pathology (CPDAI), of the Center for Medical Informatics and Telemedicine (CIMT) and Founding Director of the National Center for Health Information Systems (CENS), as well as executive committee member of Latin American Bioimaging (LABI), as one of Chile’s representative members. Steffen was born in Frankfurt, Germany, and studied his Diploma in Physics at the Johann Wolfgang von Goethe Universität in Frankfurt and the University of Bremen. He had a great interest in Latin America since early on in his career and did several internships during his Diploma at Universidad de Cordoba (Argentina), and Universidad Austral de Chile in Valdivia. He then joined the University of Bremen to pursue research on environmental physics and non-linear physics. During this time, he discovered his passion for biophysics, in particular membrane physics. He did his first postdoc in Cordoba, Argentina, in the lab of Bruno Maggio, and his second postdoc in Valdivia, Chile in the lab of Felipe Barros. His research interests are very versatile and combine membrane biophysics, cell biology, and image analysis. Steffen is passionate about training the next generation of microscopy specialists and has founded several training programs with this aim. He has lived in Latin America since 2001.
What inspired you to become a scientist?
I really thought about my answer to this question, to try to figure out if there was anything specific. I always had great imagination and good spatial reasoning. I was able to “loose myself” in space. For this reason, I liked architecture. I was thinking at a point to work as a carpenter, building furniture. And then of course, I was interested in Physics. I had attraction to the physics governing morphology and forms. So, among those 3 professions (architecture, carpentry and physics), I was undecisive. At some point I had the chance to live the reality of architects and felt they were very restricted – they barely ever (if ever) have the chance to do what they really want. So, I chose Physics -I realized this expertise would be useful in any profession, and physicists can work in different sectors. Once in this career, I liked various types of sub-disciplines in physics, like climate or ocean physics (but I soon realized that jobs for these two disciplines were limited to a few mayor research centers worldwide), and then of course I discovered biophysics! One can work as a biophysicist anywhere in the world, which makes it easy to move around and find challenges nearly anywhere. Once in this area, I found a passion for membrane physics and for 3D microscopy – I got to work on my life-long interest in spatial concepts. And that’s what I do until today. I took microscopy in two directions: imaging itself, and how to interpret data arising from images.
You have a career-long involvement in neuroscience, image processing, and microscopy. Can you tell us a bit about what inspired you to choose these paths?
I started my career in Frankfurt, Germany. Then I went for a year to Cordoba, Argentina – I wanted to do something totally unrelated to Physics. I wanted to learn a new language, and I learned Spanish. I met a professor from Cordoba who taught Economics and so this was what inspired me to go there. I also took courses in Astronomy. During this year abroad I studied whatever I wanted, basically. Then I went back to Germany and asked myself again what I wanted to do with my life. I went to Bremen, to an institute where there were very good groups doing work on non-linear physics – fractals and the Mandelbrot series, which at the time was a trendy topic, and on environmental physics at the University of Bremen and the Alfred Wegener Institute. I liked both topics and so I decided to go there. Finally, I didn’t like either topic as much as Biophysics, which I ended up choosing. But the mayor topic during my Diploma (the equivalent to a BSc and an MSc together which lasts 6 years) was environmental physics. It was while studying atmospheric physics that I learned about image processing of satellite pictures and programming. At the time- back in 1992, the field of image analysis within microscopy was barely explored, so I started programming. I wondered why scientists weren’t making the most out of the images acquired by microscopy, quantitative microscopy, which is something that only in the recent decade or two has started to become a major issue. I finished my BSc and then I met a Chilean scientist from Valdivia, Flavio Ojeda, who introduced me to flow cytometry. He worked on apoptosis, cell death, and immune cells, and I found flow cytometry very interesting. So, I went to Valdivia during my Diploma to do internships. Altogether, during my Diploma I worked in Bremen (Germany), Cordoba (Argentina) and Valdivia (Chile). Then I did my PhD in biophysics – membrane dynamics, apoptosis, and sphingomyelin expression at the outer membrane layers. At that time, Luis Bagatolli was returning to Argentina after his postdoc with Enrico Gratton. I was interested in everything he was doing, Laurdan and Giant Unilammelar Vesicles, and at the time he wasn’t focusing on a quantitative analysis of membrane domains. So, we met in Argentina and because of our discussions I applied to an Alexander von Humboldt postdoctoral fellowship to go to Cordoba. Luis Bagatolli at the time did not have a 2-photon microscope – available in Argentina, so he had to re-design his career towards Europe. So I entered the field of monolayers – with Bruno Maggio and his group including Laura Fanani, who were really leading the field of ceramide-sphingomyelin domain formation under non-equilibrium conditions. Around this time, in 2001, Argentina suffered an economic collapse, and this had a huge impact on the daily science. I focused on data analysis more than experiments which needed equipment and material. I had 2 years of postdoctoral fellowship so I focused on what was possible. There were many things to do in the field of monolayers in terms of image analysis, and I dedicated myself to work with Bruno and Laura. Around this time, Luis Bagatolli went to Denmark since he did not have the technology he needed in Cordoba. We continued to collaborate though, doing 3D image analysis. I finished my postdoc in 2003 after two years while the crisis in Argentina continued. I went for a second postdoc in Valdivia, southern Chile. Felipe Barros (whom you also interviewed) was there and he was doing fascinating things with microscopy, FRET, and apoptosis, before going into a different direction on metabolism. Felipe had a confocal microscope, and I liked the idea of doing science in a smaller place, far from huge cities like the Santigo, capital. I spent 3 years in Valdivia, Chile at the Centro de Estudios Cientificos CECs working on 3D microscopy and image analysis. During this time, I developed a software and generated algorithms for signal quantification in the context of co-localization, FRET and various other microscopic techniques. This multi-faceted software allowed me to understand and control everything I wanted to investigate. Perhaps I’m a control-freak, but I’m not very fond of commercial software where you press a button, but you don’t really know what’s happening at the algorithm or numeric level. I feel you lose touch with the origin of the data, and the origin of a signal. Otherwise, you get values, but probably you don’t quite know why and what the values really represent.. Later, I began a collaboration with Miguel Concha from Santiago, and entered the field of developmental biology. I was able to bring in my expertise in quantitative imaging tools, which is something very important and useful in the field of developmental biology. We started research groups which collaborate very well in terms of personal and professional relations. I like working with friendly and careful teams, rather slow than accelerated, especially in terms of data interpretation, I have worked there ever since as an independent researcher, trying to contribute as much as I can to building up the discipline of microscopy and quantitative science. We applied for equipment grants to build infrastructure, we developed training programs for microscopy and imaging, started Imaging Units, and we started building a light sheet microscope in collaboration with Ulrich Kubitscheck at the University of Bonn. We want to do hands-on too – not just to use commercial equipment, but to give a chance to our students to build state-of-the art and novel microscopes, and open microscopes. It’s not so trivial. For example, if you cannot rely on things as simple as stable electricity, or high-quality shock absorbers, it’s difficult to build and maintain microscopes. Also, at the Faculty of Medicine, you might not easily find personnel who specialized in electricity or physics, whom you need in order to work properly if you are designing equipment such as microscopes. We still suffer from this: the electrical infrastructure has been a pain, especially in our old buildings. Also, perhaps many people at governance levels, don’t realize the importance of something as basic as stable electricity, and that microscopes need this for their correct functioning. It’s difficult to convey this simple message. The other important issue is that we have worked towards building better networks. There are a lot of great scientists in Chile and the region, but we need better organization to exchange expertise, provide access to infrastructure and train personnel.
Can you tell us a bit about what you have found uniquely positive about working as a researcher in Chile and the differences and similarities you see between your education years in Germany and the education style you are involved in now?
Well, an important point is that education is absolutely free in Germany. This is also the case in Argentina or Uruguay. Here in Chile, we have low taxes, but the individual is responsible of paying for everything. Even though the University of Chile is a “Public University”, there has been more than 90% of financing coming from the students. So this complicates academic education quite a lot. For example, if a student fails a course, you realize this not only impacts their career, but also their pocket, which is usually a family budget that includes three generations. It’s always a difficult decision to make. Additionally, we have the same “disease” in Chile as in the rest of Latin America, which is lack of funding for science and education in relation to our GDPs (Real Gross Domestic Product). It’s well below what a modern society should and needs to invest in order to respond to the sustainable development goals of the UN. The ratio of scientists to the population is very low, so there’s a lack of critical mass, lack of communication and lack of community work around the researchers. In terms of students, the quality is not different to other countries where I have worked. There are great students with a lot of motivation – I try to have and maintain a stimulating and caring relationship with all my students – they are passionate about their work, they are enthusiastic, and there’s a wish to grow and improve the scientific landscape for the countries and the region. But it’s not enough, we are losing a lot of competent people because of the state’s lack of investment in science and the perspectives young researchers, and their families, need to survive and contribute. Also, because the discipline of image analysis is relatively new (not only here but everywhere in the world) it needs investment and an adequate environment. Especially at the beginning, one needs significant energy to generate a critical mass – so we’re struggling with this important timeframe quite a lot. I feel we’re doing miracles to make it work relatively well. But it takes a huge amount of dedication. I think this is true for nearly all Latin America.
Can you tell us a bit about your day-to-day work as a group leader and director of the CIMT (Centro de Informática Medica y Telemedicina) and CENS (Centro Nacional en Sistemas de Información en Salud)?
Besides research, we have the teaching and capacity building programs, so we are working a lot in respect of how we can offer excellent teaching programs, how we can do excellent research, how we can pay reasonable / sustainable salaries – this is a constant headache. We’re writing a lot of grants all the time. I feel I do more administrative tasks than science at this point, but this is all in order to provide the necessary funding and engines, not to lose momentum, and give continuity to the people. It takes a lot of resources and time to train people and then it is a pity to lose them because of lack of resources. I think I lead a life where I’m constantly worried for things to work out, while trying to grow as a scientist within the environment, and trying to establish the tools that we need to pursue the research questions that we are interested in. This is true for many fields: biology, medicine, computer science, mathematics, physics, microscopy, while also trying to have a positive impact in public health in terms of medical informatics. But this is what I like! This mixture of people, motivations, and disciplines. We need to ensure, as an institute, that we offer all the resources to enable scientists to work in an efficient way and with state-of-the-art tools, especially with such a versatile group of interdisciplinary people. I think this the main “worry” of many institute directors: to see how to survive, how to create new ideas and impulses, and how to thrive. This load is shared with the early career researchers who “push the car” from a different level. But I think it’s important not to lose one’s joy and confidence, when it comes to the scientific career-building. It’s important to find the famous balance between finances, the scientific work, creativity, and personal happiness and fulfillment.
How did you become involved with Latin American Bioimaging, and what are your expectations with regards to LABI and microscopy in Latin America?
We work towards building trust and confidence between groups across Latin America, good scientific ethics, good vibrations, and creating a culture of synergy and united forces to grow together and do things better. It will help to exchange expertise, to exchange personnel, to help and support one another. I think this type of connections and networking will be very helpful in the future, that is the essence of collaborative science. We need to work together to train new leaders in the field of microscopy.
You are the founder of CEDAI (Centro de Espermiogramas Asistidos por Internet) SpA. Could you tell us a bit about your role and your aims?
This was born from our interest in applied science. We wondered why not offer remote biomedical analysis, something called espermiograma digital (digital spermiogram) from the distance. Lots of mistakes can be made by subjective, visual analysis – without quantitative support by algorithms by doctors or medical technologists-, for instance in the classification of sperm motility, head morphology and sperm DNA fragmentation. Automated image analysis can make a difference: the output being less subjective. So, we had this idea to do this analysis remotely, rather than selling a software that needs an operator which is always a source of errors. We do remote coupling to the microscope of the medical technologist at the other end. They take pictures and make movies and then transfer these images to us, where we have the experts. We centralize the imaging database, we have the algorithms, and we have a trained expert who does the cross-check. We found that among medical technologists there was a certain resistance when it comes to using specific software, so we thought it was a good idea to centralize this and decouple the computational burden from the wet lab professional. We created a spinoff: CEDAI SpA. Later, I left this business because I wanted to detach myself from “conflicts of interest”. I found quite a lot of resistance to be the owner of a (small) company, and, at the same time, a scientific researcher. I had to offer lots of explanations. So I decided to leave it to collaborators that did not want to follow a scientific career to lead the company until today. I have no actions anymore, but the company is developing successfully. I actually enjoyed the process of building up a company to provide services that improve the quality of medical diagnostics and are valuable and necessary to the people. Unfortunately, medical services are still paid by number of treatments, not by quality or outcome . I noticed that I have a certain talent to be a catalyst and drive good ideas into practice. But, I’m not a good seller!
Have you had many opportunities to interact with other Latin American groups, outside of Chile?
I’ve always been a keen traveler, so I had the chance to travel a lot. I was a postdoc and whenever I had a free moment I would use it to travel. In this way I met Uruguayan colleagues, Colombian, Chilean, Argentinian, etc. It becomes natural to me to move around, and in this process build friendships everywhere I went. Scientific networking happens naturally rather than by design. The Latin American sub-continent is amazing. Different people, different cultures, different everything. There are many aspects shared among the countries, others are very unique. So it all has been a very enriching experience for me.
Who are your scientific role models (both Chilean and foreign)?
My Valdivian colleague, Flavio Ojeda, who invited me over to work on flow cytometry was one – he had managed to build the first flow cytometer in Latin America in the 1990s in a very remote region in Chile – I realized one could do beautiful science regardless of the remoteness of the region. Of course science is different from the big labs in mayor cities, but possible if you are clever. He taught me a lot. Later I had a phase where I was inspired by topics rather than people. At some point I worked on liposomes and I became very interested in the work of Bruno Maggio, Laura Fanani, Enrico Gratton, Luis Bagatolli –When I heard that Luis was going to Cordoba, I felt that the stars aligned, and that this was a great chance to work together. When we met, I really liked him. He was a bit rebellious, with a very solid and inspiring idea of how to do science – he was very committed and dedicated- body and soul to his work and life as a scientist. Unfortunately, Luis had to migrate to MEMPHYS in Odense, Denmark. There was no possibility to acquire a 2 photon microscope in Cordoba at this time, so Laurdan microscopy was impossible. That is when Bruno Maggio came into my radar –I did not come to Cordoba because of him, but I met him there and realized that he was an excellent scientist who worked on lipids, lipid membrane dynamics, domain formation. and monolayers. His contributions to science have been impressive, he managed to do great science with little resources. So altogether, I was happy t to have worked in Latin America as a postdoc, rather than the USA, France, England, or any other typical guest countries for young German scientist. I preferred a different path and enjoyed it. I prefer collaborating rather than competing.
Anyway, after meeting Luis Bagatolli I got to know Felipe Barros, who was setting up a brand-new confocal microscope at an emerging research center in southern Chile, which was a challenging and admirable job. I also got to know the work of biophysicists like Ramón Latorre, another excellent scientist and pioneer in many aspects. Felipe, just like Luis or Bruno was very rigorous at what he does, with a great personality. I’ve also learned a lot from . He is a medical doctor by training, like many Chilean scientists, and while I brought some aspect of biophysics to the equation, he taught me a lot of cell biology. We all know that many things are unpredictable when you work on living systems in vitro or in vivo. The challenges are very different to those in data science or biophysics, and with Felipe and his lab, I was able to explore this experience very closely.In 2006, I started my own lab, the Laboratory of Scientific Image Processing (SCIAN-Lab) at the Medical Faculty of the University of Chile, in close collaboration with a developmental biologist (also a physician by training), Miguel Concha. We set up spinning disk microscopy and were able to do life imaging in developing organisms over days in three dimensions and different channels. Very soon, I became interested in super-resolution microscopy, an incredibly valuable tool, and the decision on what system and what type of super-resolution approach to use is a complex one, each method has its pros and cons. I met Mats Gustafsson and read his work on structured illumination microscopy and found it beautiful. We spent an evening discussing science and the possibility to introduce structured illumination microscopy in Chile, when he moved to California, and I really enjoyed the discussion, his reflective character, the science, his approach, etc.. Very sadly, he became ill and passed away in 2011.. Shortly after that, I started collaborating with Jörg Enderlein from Göttingen, who combined the use of quantum dots with SOFI (Stochastic Optical Fluctuation Imaging) ; we implemented the technology in 2012 . We worked on ER dynamics and receptors – I learned how difficult it is to choose the correct method to be applied within a broad biomedical scientific environment. Most methods are expensive and complex to maintain, and you must make the right choice for the science to make progress in an adverse technical environment with the lack of basic infrastructure. It starts with electricity. I liked SOFI and SIM because they are relatively simple. The magic comes from computational power, more than sophisticated technical elements. Not as complex and technically demanding as STED, at the beginning.
What is your opinion on gender balance in Chile, given current initiatives in the country to address this important issue. How has this impacted your career?
I discovered something in Chile, when I first came to Valdivia in 1994, that surprised me enormously: More than half of the professors in the Physics Department were women. This is extremely rare in any physics institute in the world. I wondered “what was happening?” because the prejudice I had about Latin American was the typical macho image . Then I discovered the existence of “la nana” – nannies (generally women from low-income families, most with a Mapuche background) that are employed in households; they take care of everything in the house, children, cooking, cleaning. In a middle-class family in Valdivia, the nanny prepares breakfast, then the nanny takes the children to school while mom and dad can go to work, and when mom and dad come back from work, lunch is served, dinner is prepared, and children are showered and ready to go to bed. I realized this allows women to concentrate on their work by employing other women to take care of the household. This has contributed and continues to contribute to a balanced ratio of male and female scientists in the department. However, in general, in Physics as in Computer Science the ratio of women is about 15%. In the Faculty of Medicine, as physicians, there are more women, but in Physics there are a factor 5 to 6 more men. In my group there’s a balance, since I have computer scientists, biologists, and people from health disciplines. We try to adapt to the needs of each individual, regardless of gender: if they have children or need to bring the children to the lab once in a while, we include them in lab activities, play a movie, or take them to the aquarium so they don’t get bored. But still, many women need to leave benchwork aside for a while when they have children, and this usually happens at moments of high pressure, during master, PhD or postdoc. These are moments when high productivity and performance is expected from scientists, and the experiment won’t wait for you, there is pressure to get new data by a certain deadline – and then if your child gets sick in the middle of an experimental session, you lose the work. There are difficult, sometimes decisive moments, and tend to affect women more than men; as they are still number one when it comes childcare in most cases. Many women (more than men perhaps) tend to develop scientific careers that is middle ground and avoid the stress of becoming group leades, like lab managers or staff scientists, with all the pros and cons involved. The career and economic instability also don’t help – it’s very demanding to be fighting all the time to keep paying wages in a very competitive environment– some pay this price, and some are unwilling to do this. So, the equation is far from a balanced work-life equilibrium at all stages, and every individual has to make a choice.
What is your favorite type of microscopy and why?
Hmmm, I think I’m quite versatile in my microscopy preferences. I like in vivo microscopy a lot, but also expansion microscopy which generates incredible images. The aesthetics of the imaging itself rather than the type of microscopy is what I like. After all, all types of microscopies are useful and respond to specific questions. If the image or sequence is good, and you can acquire useful information from it, the specific source doesn’t really matter.
What is the most extraordinary thing you have seen by microscopy? An eureka moment for you?
I am not so much in front of a microscope as I would like at the moment. Time flies by when you’re at a microscope. You don’t notice it. You think you’ve been there for 15 or 30 minutes and then someone comes and asks you if you’re joining for dinner, and then you wonder how/when many hours passed by. You’re in a bubble observing, focusing, and handling the sample and the machine. Time doesn’t exist anymore. I like and appreciate this bubble. I like teaching too, when you see that young scientists start to enter in this bubble and ask you questions that you already lived, and find things awesome or beautiful for the first time. You re-live this, and this is very rewarding to me. Aside of this, we are now doing light sheet microscopy in the context of developmental biology, and the acquisition itself is very long, so only when you see your 24-hour acquisition you realize there’s something fascinating or unexpected. It’s not real-time. When Luis Bagatolli visited us in Chile back in 2007 or so, and we managed to generate GUVs (giant unilamellar vesicles) with defined lipid compositions and imaged them with spinning disk microscopy in different channels, it was a great experience. Or when you realize that a protocol works, for example using expansion protocols and seeing that it works, is a great feeling. I also like biofilms, seeing how bacteria grow – it’s very illustrative to see communities growing. Developmental biology in general is beautiful: how cells migrate, the patterns they form. You never get tired of seeing these phenomena.
What is an important piece of advice you would give to future Chilean scientists? and especially those specializing as microscopy?
I think a good advice is joining us in Latin American Bioimaging and take advantage of the training and networking opportunities that are offered by different groups within the continent, but also through Global Bioimaging. Young scientists need to be exposed to all sorts of ideas and environments in their own countries as much as abroad. I want young scientists to engage with other realities, and then to come back with new experiences and background. To make the most out of the educational opportunities that exist here. However, I’ve noticed with many of my students in Chile (and perhaps it’s similar for most of Latin America) that there is a huge attachment to the family, so I have to really push some of them to go abroad and explore new realities.. The attachment to the family is much stronger than what I have experienced among Europeans or even students in the USA. The family continues to play an important role until very late in life. Still, I try to promote this exchange between cultures and countries as much as I can. For example, we’ve established a joined MSc program in Medical Informatics with the University of Heidelberg and Heilbronn. I think this flux of ideas, researcher, students, and cultures is important and leaves a mark in the labs world-wide.
Where do you see the future of science and microscopy heading over the next decade in Chile, and how do you hope to be part of this future?
At the end of 2022, after these years of COVID-19 pandemic and severe social challenges, including a failed fist consensus of Constitutional changes in Chile, I am not feeling as confident as I used to feel. Many academics and researchers are exhausted, And so am I. The stop and go during the pandemic within the lab, the virtualization of teaching and education and mental health issues among students and colleagues have required a lot of extra energy and time, and I feel that I need a long vacation or sabbatical to regain the lost energy. The country itself must think and define very well where it wants to go in the next decade. So, heavily concerned and involved in drafting ideas for 2030 and beyond; of what we want and need to do in terms of research and development in microscopy, imaging, and digital health. Right now, there’s no robust development strategy in Chile. It is not clear where the country wants to be in 2030. For a second year in a row, centers of excellence in Chile need to apply to so-called “bridge grants”, instead of calling for new proposals that could address new challenges for the next decade. We are in a surviving, but not in a creative, purposeful mode. In the past – when I arrived in 2003, there was a coherent path, there was a roadmap, there have been perspectives and a step by step development with opportunities towards a big picture of a developed country with a stronger scientific community and advanced human capital formation. Right now, there are many projects and think tanks on hold, and this frightens me. The funding agencies for instance show instability. For example, this week, the calls for funding applications for new centers of excellence were cancelled. So, no Centre of Excellence will be renewed or generated following new ideas and proposals. For instance, two of the country’s most important centers in neuroscience will close due to the lack of new calls, young researcher and infrastructure depend on us, and as you know, usually early career researchers are amongst the most vulnerable – they have young families, are economically unstable, so it is a very critical situation right now for us. There’s lots of uncertainty of how we will evolve in the upcoming years. So right now, I’m very worried about what’s going to happen. For me it’s quite chaotic to try to envision how to invest resources and energy if we do not know what is going to happen over the next 5-10 years in Chile. The president’s speech that research and education are important is essential, but from speech to reality there is still a massive gap, and a big question mark of how to deliver energy to the grounds.
In terms of advanced microscopy, even basic supply like electricity makes us vulnerable. This raises the question: what science can we perform if basic things are not working? You need more or less stable conditions to do high quality research. Otherwise, it doesn’t work. This is worrying.
There are less possibilities for young people in the academic pipeline. This is also due to the reduced interest and funding from the state and the universities. The average age of the academics at our Faculty of Medicine is 60! Imagine the implications of this. Imagine what you think as a young researcher, looking for an institute to start your own lab, and you realize the average age of your colleagues at the institute, is 60. It’s a complex environment. In many places, retirement is mandatory at a certain age, and I think this healthy because it gives space and opportunities to the newer generations. New forms of leadership, new ideas, etc. But many countries don’t have this, and Chile has become one of them. So, taking everything together, I’m going to take long holidays to re-think things, re-gain perspective and relax.
Beyond science, what do you think makes Chile a special place to visit and go to as a scientist?
The map reveals the miracle: Chile is incredibly long and thin, so you have all types of environments and climatic conditions in a very condensed form. Chile has the cleanest skies in the world. If you like the sky, the stars, space, you can come here to the desert and just watch the stars and you’ll have tears in your eyes of how beautiful that is. If you like forests, volcanos and lakes, there are beautiful places, too. I love kayaking, and there are some spectacular places here. The sea is beautiful too – everything that the ‘Humboldt Current’ (a current of cold water flowing north-wise from Antarctica along the coast of South America all the way to the Galapagos islands) provides in terms of biodiversity is incredible. The southern fjords are wonderful. In the Chilean forests, there are astonishing trees, the araucaria trees, you cannot see anywhere else in the world. All the way at the South there is Patagonia, the Beagle Channel too, and then all the way to Antarctica. Easter island is also great, and a completely different culture – different customs, different food, etc. There’s a huge versatility along the whole country. Aside of the natural beauties, people are also very nice and welcoming. I like people in Latin American in general – I’ve felt very comfortable traveling through Uruguay, Brazil, Argentina, Peru, Bolivia. You never get bored! And, Chile has no dangerous animals! You don’t have to worry about some crazy bug or snake bite when you are hiking or camping, other than some random mosquitos, so you can go happily camping anywhere you want. Well, as long as you do not have to experience an earthquake or tsunami it is quite a save place to be.