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Biotechnology: Giving Nature a Helping Hand
Every week, Venetia Briggs' parents, both orchid enthusiasts, took their children into Belize's jungle to see the plants. By 17, Venetia was teaching foreign students about tropical forests. She launched her science career with a job at the Belize Zoo.
She's had many female role models—her mother, grandmother, college zoology teacher, first graduate advisor, and "excellent women biologists from all over the world"—during her Ph.D. studies at the University of Miami.
Specializing in animal communication, Venetia researched red-eyed tree frog 'dating.' "They use visual, acoustic, and even vibrating signals to attract a mate," she reports. Venetia studied them at the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute in Panama. "My work was super-exciting, very cool. The project was so unique, I'd go out in the field at night, working on my own. The frogs were models for questions I needed to answer. They opened all kinds of doors for me."
One door led to a bigger animal. Venetia is Belize's first official Wildlife Ecologist. She splits her time between her employer, the University of Florida Research and Education Center, and her field site in Belize. Venetia co-directs a research station with an ambitious community-based conservation project for Belize's endangered jaguars. By using camera traps to track jaguars' movements, "we hope to provide information to landowners that value 'big cats' on their property, and economic incentives for land use that protects the jaguars," explains Venetia, who's often in the jungle placing and monitoring cameras. Her team involves the community in landscape conservation and potential tourism resulting from jaguar research.
"I live out of a suitcase," Venetia admits, "with six addresses in four countries since completing my Ph.D. You have to really love it, or it gets tiring. But I'd be completely bored in an office. I need the outside! I'm happiest in the jungle, in the middle of nowhere. It's so beautiful."
Trying to maintain a social life makes "coming home to my family a top priority." Venetia's brother in California is her biostatistician. "It gives us more time together. In the middle of the jungle, I pull out my laptop and we discuss the numbers."
At conferences, Venetia, a UNESCO-L'Oréal fellow, is pleased to hear professors say that young women are taking over Ecology. "I got paid to play with tadpoles and frogs. Now I get paid to run with phantom jaguars in the jungle, and teach the next generation. I'm so excited to be home in Belize. This is my complete dream job," Venetia declares.
Exploring Deep Down
Maja Zagmajster's dream job has a different setting: underground caves. "I blame it on the bats," she announces. While she was studying zoology at her home university in Ljubljana, Slovenia, finding a live bat lying on a street aroused her curiosity. "I did some research and discovered bats are very fascinating—and one of the world's most endangered mammals." Maja found some professors and students already studying bats. Together they organized the Slovenian Association for Bat Research and Conservation. "If you start a society, you'll meet people who share the interest, and can apply for research funds," notes Maja, who was society president for ten years.
For their first international study project, Maja visited caves where bats roost in winter. To explore more challenging caves, she had to learn rope-climbing. Special gear, including helmets, overalls and lights, is required. "Caving is very popular, combining sport, research, fun, and social activity," says Maja. "Visits are always in a group, for safety."
She specialized in biodiversity of cave animals for her Ph.D. at the University of Ljubljana. "I learned new tools and techniques for analyzing the distribution of animals. My region of research, the Western Balkans, is a world hotspot in subterranean biodiversity, with about 1,000 species that live only in caves." Maja hopes to help preserve them.
Caves require different amounts of exploration time, varying with size and depth. Maja, a UNESCO-L'Oréal fellow, has gone as deep as 180 meters in one vertical drop to enter a cave. "Underground, you can't explore quickly. When you come out, it doesn't feel like you were in a cave for eight hours or even more." Just during the summer of 2009, Maja visited 20 caves. "They're an unusual, challenging, exciting environment. With our studies, we answer difficult questions spanning many species, not just cave animals."
European caves are the world's best-studied. "In the 16th century, people thought dragons lived in them! Real cave animals weren't discovered until the 19th century, first in Slovenia," explains Maja, now a researcher who also teaches undergraduates at the University of Ljubljana. "I'm so lucky to be able to do this as my full-time job."
Saving a Forest
Unlike Maja, Maria Gabriela ("Maga") Gei works high above the ground, studying trees. Maga always excelled in math, but disliked her Electrical Engineering studies at the University of Costa Rica. Then she met a group of forest conservation students who were educating people on the Caribbean coast about how an oil company's explorations there would harm the environment.
"I decided to switch to Biology, and got to know my country on field trips to places I'd never been," Maga remembers. For graduate studies, eager to remain connected to her homeland, she chose a University of Minnesota program that lets her continue research in the tropics, while teaching general biology to undergraduates. So far, her five-year program is very gratifying, even while "surviving two tough Minnesota winters."
In September 2010, she moved to the Guanacasta Conservation Area (GCA), one of Costa Rica's last remaining dry forests. "In areas with nice climate, 97 percent of original forest was cleared for human settlements, agriculture, and ranching," explains Maga, who's relieved that some regeneration is occurring. "Thanks to my UNESCO-L'Oréal fellowship, I have more time for research and field work, and can pay for my experiments. I go to GCA on short trips to develop my project: studying a group of trees involved in the important nitrogen cycle, which is being altered by humans."
Maga's research goal is showing why the remaining forests are vital. "It's tempting to stay here and have the resources to continue doing research, but I want to return to Costa Rica and be part of rescuing forest ecosystem services. And I hope to have volunteers from my college." She loves her flexible schedule, the chance to be outdoors enjoying nature, and her program's excellent teamwork. "These days, it's teams that do the research. You have to exchange ideas. My program is demanding and multifaceted. I've had to learn computers and chemistry, and will learn a lot more in the field."
To Maga, "Anybody who applies creativity and enthusiasm is able to do great science. It requires a lot of observation, but it's very rewarding. I think we are responsible for keeping the earth's beautiful things around for future generations. I want to help do that."
The Lure of the Sea
The oceans are Giovanna Sotil's inspiration and research setting. As a teenager in Lima, Peru, a television program about molecular biology in France inspired her to start reading about genetics.
In high school, "most of my teachers were nuns. One loved animals, and kept fish in the classroom. Another was a former marine biologist," Giovanna remembers. At Universidad Nacional Mayor de San Marcos, she studied biology, working with geneticists.
When she was ready to start a Ph.D. program, "I had no travel money for the places where I wanted to study phylogenetics." She's grateful for the UNESCO-L'Oréal, Andrew Mellon, and EU-Censor fellowships that allowed her to study in Panama, France, Texas, and Florida, and work closely with her advisor at Lousiana State University. "To see how environmental factors affect biodiversity, I study how a certain marine snail, living in both the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans, adapts to environmental changes, like shifts in water temperature. We use genetic, molecular, or biochemical tools. In some widely-separated places, the snails have developed very different ways of dealing with the changes. It's awesome."
As Professor of Biological Sciences at Universidad Nacional, Giovanna enjoys teaching future biologists. "They all know all about Ricky Martin! But they don't know why biologists are so in love with their careers. To be in science, it's not for the money. It's the excitement of learning new things all the time. For every question, when you answer it, you have not one fact, not two, but thousands! And it's never-ending," she says enthusiastically.
Once, Giovanna had "a professor who would take us to the beach and teach us diversity by explaining different organisms. It amazed me." Now, on the beach, Giovanna teaches her nine-year-old nephew "why this animal is here, or how that plant is different. I let him watch me do very simple experments there. I know that can make a child curious, and build interest about nature and a love of biology," she observes. Living on Peru's coast, "We always hear the music of the waves. I care about letting people know what we have—and how we can protect it."
What is Biodiversity?
The richness of life on earth evolved over billions of years and includes millions of species, from tiny bacteria to giant trees. "Biodiversity" describes the differences among these species and changes depending on where you are on the earth, like a tropical rainforest or the North Pole. Conservation biologists use biodiversity to measure the health of a particular ecosystem—a loss of biodiversity often indicates a problem. They focus on finding ways to preserve and protect biodiversity. This includes reducing or preventing the effects of threats like pollution and climate change, or the problems caused when humans move into previously uninhabited areas.
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