Historia Natural de una Investigadora santarosensis

After a brief soiree with the job market, I’ve been thinking a lot about El CV and wondering whether it does justice in describing our meandering paths. By looking at my CV it’s impossible to tell that I’m Hispanic, Tejana, or a farmer’s daughter but these traits reveal a large component of my life history strategy. This brief manifesto describes my road to Rome. “¿Hay algo más pretencioso que una autobiografía?” (-Isabel Allende).

Childhood: The cotton farm. My dad’s old truck. Bluebonnets and Blue-Bell Ice Cream. Daycare abuelos. Getting into trouble for laughing too loud at night with sisters. My mom’s voice recordings of books when she was out of town. “Hottest, coolest times in Texas. Come play. Schlitterbahn-bahn-bahn” … the TV commercial.

High school: My parent’s worried about the public high school our neighborhood fed into–teenage pregnancy, violence, high dropout rate–and enrolled my older sister and me in a private, all-girls Catholic high school. I got into trouble, failed a few classes, yelled at a nun (one of the few things I regret in life), and was just short of kicked out. I graduated Salutatorian from the public high school instead. How ’bout them manzanas.

College: In 2002, the University of Pennsylvania was recruiting female, Hispanics into their Bioengineering program. I jumped on board not thinking about the price tag. I took out loans and was eligible for financial aid and the Federal Work Study Program. As part of the Federal Work Study Program, I interviewed for a job with a professor studying moths and butterflies of Costa Rica and was hired on the spot. Looking back, I should have been accepted to UTAustin as part of their ‘Top 10%” admittance program. But I didn’t know how to apply online.

Dan goofing off

Dan goofing off

Those first few years were rough. I nearly failed math and engineering courses for which I was ill prepared (pinche manzanas). I’d never been around rich people, and not flying to Europe for Spring Break courtesy of mommy and daddy was isolating. So I transferred to the Biology major and retreated into the world of Costa Rican butterflies, picking up extra hours to help pay for that Ivy League price tag. It was in that corner office in Leidy Labs where I was able to peer into the vast world and history of tropical ecology. During the summers, Dan Janzen and Winnie Hallwachs hosted me as NSF-REU student in Area de Conservacion Guanacaste (ACG), Costa Rica where I participated in the field-end of the Lepidoptera inventory process and found a passion for tropical dry forests, environmental gradients, and plant-insect interactions. I felt more comfortable, confident ,and beautiful living in Spanish than I did living among the elite UPenn crowd. ACG was, and continues to be, home.

Leidy Labs

After I graduated, I lived for a year in Osa Peninsula, an hour walk south of Bahia Drake, as volunteer on a vertebrate inventory project. After running out of money, I worked at a nearby eco-lodge as cocinera, host, tour guide, whatever, for minimum wage (about a dollar an hour) to pay for the boat, taxi, bus, and flight back to Philly for a well-paid position as lab technician. There’s nothing more daunting than arriving in a big city with nothing but the cash in your pocket and pending student loan payments. I slept in Leidy Labs for several weeks, until the 2nd floor women’s shower broke and I had to swallow my pride and ask a friend to crash at their house. I’ve never looked at money the same way and I’ve never been, and continue to be, so indebted to the generosity of others.

Inventario Peninsula de Osa

Grad-school: Working in ACG one summer, I was introduced to Brian Enquist, who oversaw the San Emilio Long Term Forest Dynamics Plot (aka the Hubbell plot pre-BCI). I later applied and was accepted to the EEB PhD program at the University of Arizona. How to fund my research in Costa Rica was always una lucha. I took up part-time jobs on top of TA-ing. Grant writing at a local non-profict environmental education organization was an amazing experience and if securing a tenure-track position isn’t in my cards, I hope to do something related. I waitressed one semester too but that didn’t pan out so well. I also applied to as many grants and fellowships and travel awards as I could. I landed a handful of small ones and, on my last try, was fortunate to receive an NSF pre-doc. All to get back to tropical dry forests. While in Tucson, I fell in love with the Catalina Mountains, Whittaker gradients, and Forrest Shreve, and so extended my dissertation to include elevational gradients across latitude. This eventually put me into contact with Susan Harrison who was sampling in the Siskiyou Mountains in southern Oregon (another Whittaker gradient).

Rasgos funcionales

Colectando rasgos funcionales

Post-doc: Naturally, I’d been wanting to return to my Lepidoptera roots by combining the Janzen-Hallwachs Lepidoptera inventory with plant functional trait ecology. During the past 10 years of working and living in ACG, I was always intrigued by the remote and inaccessible Santa Elena Peninsula. The question was a mango bajo: Do harsh serpentine soils promote or inhibit plant and caterpillar specialization? I wrote to Susan Harrison (serpentine ecology extraordinaire) with a NSF Postdoc in Biology proposal idea, which was funded, and now I have been submerged in the ecology of plant-insect interactions in serpentine soils.

Corteza amarilla en Bosque Seco Tropical Mirador Santa Elena

Now: Sitting in Sector Santa Elena, ACG. In many ways, my scientific ideas have matured here under the influence of climatic seasonality of tropical dry forests, elevational and latitudinal gradients, environmental heterogeneity and, of course, under the influence of Dan and Winnie and the myriad other investigadores, guardaparques, y funcionarios that have been an integral part of my scientific upbringing. In many ways, I am orgullosamente a product of the ACG community…an Investigadora santarosensis.




Even with the uncertainty of life as a postdoc, a groaning economy, bullshit about being a minority, it’s hard not to be optimistic…and grateful. From here on out, anything else is icing on the cake. Post-PhD? Yes. Thankfully. Happily. We need more minorities on the inside. Academia, I’m here to stay. My rules now. To hell with Reviewer #2. To hell with the Prof who told me I should dress less Latina. This is for the 18-year old me, who really should have had a mentor like the 30-year old me. This is for all the undergrads and grads shooting in the dark, on a shoestring, in unknown territory. Adelante. Hay mucho que hacer todavía.


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  1. Pingback: Compilation of stories on paths to ecology and evolution | Dynamic Ecology

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