What insect/bug/arthropod best describes you (or what’s your favorite one(s)?
I have a soft spot for bioluminescent insects, meaning they are able to produce and emit light. While many people are familiar with the glow of Fireflies (family Lampyridae), bioluminescence has actually evolved three times within beetles and also occurs in an usual group known as Railroad Worms (family Phengodidae) and in groups of Click Beetles (family Elateridae).
What is your “job description”
I was hired to be a field biologist and science reporter for the Tambopata Research Center. This entailed initiating my own research projects and producing media content to promote the scientific work and amazing wildlife occurring in the region.
What do you study now?
There are three main studies I’m interested in which involve new behaviors and life histories of arthropods in the Neotropics. The first is an unknown spider species in the genus Cyclosa that builds a decoy structure resembling a larger spider in its web. The second study involves two new life histories for butterfly species that have evolved complex relationships with ants, which is known as myrmecophily. The third is a study of unknown bioluminescent beetles in the click beetle family, Elateridae. I recently received a National Geographic Grant which helps to support a new project applying novel tools to this targeted arthropod biodiversity inventory in the Neotropics.
What is the best thing about your job?
I get to work in a the Amazon rainforest, which one of the most biodiverse places on the entire planet, and have free range to study whatever I choose. This has allowed me to be an explorer and make new discoveries in the Amazon – a dream come true! I also get the opportunity to collaborate with many other researchers, science writers, and media outlets including the BBC and National Geographic.
What is the worst thing about your job?
I think, like many other biologists, we struggle trying to find both work that we love and a solid paycheck. Freelancing, grants, and support from the Tambopata Research Center have helped immensely and I hope to continue to have the ability to make this kind of work a career.
What inspired you to first study science?
Despite growing up in the dense urban city of Los Angeles, my love of science and nature likely spawned because my father has a biology background and my mother is an avid gardener of native plants. This in turn attracted many native reptiles, birds, and insects to our yard, which got me hooked on biology!
What do you do in a typical day?
Walk and sweat. The Peruvian Amazon is a vast, hot, wet jungle and I spend hours hiking around with my camera, a net, and lots of small vials so I can photograph the organisms I encounter and collect ones of interest. Being an entomologist in the tropics means I’m never bored on a single hike, because I encounter different arthropods every single time.
What advice would you give to someone interested in becoming an entomologist?
There is a LOT of work to be done in this field. Arthropods are the most diverse group of animals on the planet, and we don’t even have a clear estimate of how many different species exist! In addition, insects and other arthropods impact every facet of our lives, from agriculture to human health, and are integral models to study genetics, chemistry, etc. My advice would be to familiarize yourself in different biological fields in addition to learning about insects, such as molecular genetics and evolution, because these are advancing rapidly and are integral to being a successful biologist today (fun fact, this is the advice my Master’s advisor gave me and I’m extremely glad I listened).