For my parents, it was always essential that my brothers and sister went to college. My father was a high school teacher in the public sector in Bogota, Colombia, which meant that his children could get into the public university for free. I came to enroll in biology at the public university of my hometown, Bogota, one of the biggest public universities in the country and a center of academic excellence.
I first realized what being a tropical biologist meant during a one-month field trip I took with twenty other fellow biology students during my first year of college. We went to a remote rural area in the southern part of Colombia, La Macarena. The trip was organized by older students in the biology program whom we were helping with their research. La Macarena has been under social conflict for several decades; at the time of our visit, the area was in part occupied by guerrilla groups. But because we were from the public university, which to them represented the working class, we were able to do our research without being affected by the conflict. We were camping in this beautiful rain forest, and ran out of food halfway through the trip so we were relying on farmers’ generosity for food.
I helped a classmate with his research on ants, and it just opened up a whole new world for me. I realized I just loved fieldwork in rural areas, even though I was brought up in a big city by a father who avoided at all cost contact with remote rural areas. I was very lucky that my parents gave me permission to go on this field trip, although my mother was hesitant to send her 16-year old daughter on a field trip with all these older boys, both my parents knew that it was required to be successful as a biologist. Today, I am still grateful that they let me go, because it gave me a lot of confidence and a great understanding of tropical ecology.
Another life-changing experience was when I received a Smithsonian fellowship to work as a research assistant on Barro Colorado Island, in the middle of the Panama Canal, where I ended up staying for almost two years. The fact that I, as a woman, was able to go to Panama and work together with top-of-the-line researchers from the US and Latin America was very unusual at that time. I came from a working class family and I would never have come up with the resources to travel to Panama. This was a key period in my life, and I am convinced that I would not have been in the US today had I not had the opportunity to do research in such a wonderful place. From Panama, I moved with my family (a new born baby) to Princeton where my partner at the time went for his PhD. The first year in the US was difficult, being able to speak fluently in English was a challenge, and for a person like me who loves to talk, it was very frustrating not to be able to express myself properly.
During my time at Princeton I got a position at the Center for Environment and Energy, where I worked part time on a research project looking at the ways eucalyptus plantations in North Eastern Brazil operated as alternative energy resources. Through that project, I realized that ecological phenomena were not isolated from human influences. This really made me look more into geography, where environmental processes are very much related to human activities. When an ecologist studies deforestation for example, he or she will study its effects on ecological processes, which is fascinating, but deforestation is a social process as well. Understanding these types of problems requires an interdisciplinary approach.
To do this type of work, I went to Clark University in Massachusetts for my PhD in Geography. My adviser is really at the forefront of interdisciplinary research, which was not as popular as it is today, now that climate change is a real “hot topic.” My adviser had very high standards and made me work hard, but really was very generous and provided anything I needed for my research. Together with members of my PhD committee and classmates, he really inspired me to pursue a career in science. Although I was not sure if a tenure track career was good for me, I applied for a postdoc at Brown University and one thing leads to another.
Here at Rutgers, I work as a biogeographer and try to understand how tropical landscapes in Latin America change over time, and how people influence and are affected by these changes. I’m working on a site in Yucatan, Mexico. Never in my entire life would I have imagined that I would be a professor at Rutgers now. I always tell my son: life is not only about being smarter than everybody else, but it’s also about opportunities that come to you.
The Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute fellowship program in Panama opened the doors to a scientific career for me and I hope that more young biologists will get these opportunities that I had. If we are interested in having more diversity in college institutions, some structural changes can help. As a Latin American woman, I really had to challenge the stereotypes that people have. Often, I have to explain to people that I’m a scientist and not a professor in Spanish literature. It can be tough to be taken seriously in the science field, and you have to be on your toes constantly to make your points. At the same time, my background has also opened opportunities for me; universities are really looking for ways to increase diversity, which I think is really important. Students can just as well benefit from a man in a white coat teaching the science class as they can from a woman with an accent.
As a professor, I get questions from many female graduate students about whether they should start a family before or after their PhD. For me, having a child early on worked out very well, because my son is 16 now and more independent, which makes it easier for me to combine the demands of a tenure track job with family life. The best path however is always unique. My life has been full of surprises and serendipity, and the opportunities that have crossed my path have worked out well in the end.