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Something New Every Day: What One Entomologist Likes Most About the Job

Bernardo Santos in Chile

Entomologist Bernardo Santos, Ph.D., poses during field work sweeping wasps in Parque Nacional La Campana, Central Chile, a spot previously visited by Charles Darwin. (Photo courtesy of Bernardo Santos, Ph.D.)

By Carly Tribull, Ph.D.

Editor’s Note: This is the next post in the “Standout ECPs” series contributed by the Entomological Society of America’s Early Career Professionals (ECP) Committee, highlighting outstanding ECPs that are doing great work in the profession. (An ECP is defined as anyone within the first five years of obtaining their terminal degree in their field.) Learn more about the work ECPs are doing within ESA, and read past posts in the Standout ECPs series.

Bernardo Santos, Ph.D., is a postdoctoral fellow working with the Global Genome Initiative at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History in Washington, DC. He received his bachelor’s degree in biological sciences (2009) and master’s degree in animal biology (2011) from the Universidade Federal do Espírito Santo in Vitória, Brazil, and his Ph.D. in comparative biology (2016) at the Richard Gilder Graduate School at the American Museum of Natural History in New York.

Bernardo Santos, Ph.D.

Bernardo Santos, Ph.D.

Tribull:  Can you describe your current research?

Santos: Most of my research focuses on the evolution of parasitic wasps. I was originally trained as a systematist, and one of my passions is still to understand, catalog, and classify the enormously diverse family Ichneumonidae. Over the course of my career, my interests started to shift to understanding not only the phylogeny of wasp lineages but also how the evolutionary history shaped the diversity of phenotypes and ecological strategies seen among species in the group.

One of my main interests is convergent evolution, the independent appearance of similar characteristics in independent lineages. Convergence is a great tool to understand the link between ecology and phenotype: If the same thing evolved several times in groups with similar ecologies, we start to think that it may be an adaptation for that particular life strategy.

As a consequence, much of my current research focuses on generating, A, large-scale phylogenies reconstructing the evolutionary relationships across hundreds of species and, B, phenotypic datasets documenting the morphological diversity across the lineages I study. This means a nice balance of generating data on the lab, running bioinformatic analyses, and working with actual specimens and collections.

Another more recent component of my research involves sequencing whole genomes in order to understand the symbiosis between parasitic wasps and some symbiotic viruses that help them overcome the immune defenses of their hosts. The viral DNA is incorporated into the wasp genome and I’m working with several collaborators to try to map the genomic architecture of these viral insertions.

Finally, I still continue my work on revisionary systematics, describing new species and genera and trying to improve the existing wasp classifications! I’ve described 115 new species but still barely scratched the surface of ichneumonid diversity!

What’s your favorite aspect of your research?

The thing I love the most about my research, and my line of work in general, is the sheer diversity of activities that we get to do even for one project. One day you might be sweating profusely while collecting bugs in the rainforest; the next week you may be in an air-conditioned room presenting your work in a fancy convention center. One day you may spend hours literally cutting paper for specimen labels, and in the next you may be operating a hundred-thousand dollar DNA sequencer. Not to mention running taxonomic keys, computer coding, macrophotography—the list never ends! It’s really exciting and challenging to learn new things on a daily basis, not to mention it is so refreshing not having to do the same thing every day.

What’s a recent research challenge you’ve had to overcome, and how are doing it?

To keep it in the spirit of the times, how about managing work during a global pandemic? I think this is a challenge that the entire community is having to manage, and it’s particularly trying for early-career professionals given all the insecurities about the future job market, tenure clocks, et cetera. As of right now my institution is closed and I couldn’t come in to work even if I wanted to, and nobody knows when will be able to get to our offices again.

I am fortunate that I have a lot of data already collected that was waiting to be analyzed. So, in a way the quarantine time is forcing me to tackle analyses and writing for projects that have been dragging on for too long. Meanwhile, I’m trying to keep sane by exercising, playing music, and interacting with friends online.

Bernardo Santos: wasp collecting in Chile

For his research on the evolution of parasitic wasps, entomologist Bernardo Santos, Ph.D. ventured to the Valdivian forests of Southern Chile, a biodiversity hotspot, to collect specimens. (Photo courtesy of Bernardo Santos, Ph.D.)

Can you describe your current position?

Right now, I am a postdoctoral fellow working with the Global Genome Initiative at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History. My role is mostly research-based but I also do various service activities for GGI, including managing a project aiming at collecting DNA barcodes for all genera of terrestrial invertebrates that are represented in the NMNH collections. I don’t have to teach or mentor as an inherent part of my role, but I’m also looking for opportunities to engage in educational and outreach activities, and the museum is such a great place for that!

You recently mentored undergraduate students for a National Science Foundation “Research Experiences for Undergradautes” project during summer 2019. What was that like?

Of course, it was an amazing experience! I was very lucky to have an absolutely brilliant and motivated student, Ms. Marissa Sandoval (@megarhyssamar on Twitter), working with me. Marissa worked on a project collecting genomic data from ultraconserved elements for a subfamily of ichneumonid wasps with an intriguing biogeographic pattern.

The Smithsonian is a really great place for an REU because there is so much going on at the museum in addition to normal research activities. Besides doing the research for our project, she also participated in outreach with visitors and a ton of tours, seminars, and other activities with the other interns. After the summer was done, she attended the ESA meeting in St. Louis to present her work and won an award for best student presentation in her session! I couldn’t be prouder!

How has your life changed in the transition from graduate student to postdoc?

The main change is that as a postdoctoral fellow you become more independent, for good and bad. On the bright side, I have a lot of freedom to pursue the projects that I find most interesting and to plan my activities as I see fit. I don’t have regular committee meetings, progress reports, or anything like that to keep me in check, which means that I need to be extra careful in managing my time. Another big change is the constant job search, which can be quite stressful, especially if you are an immigrant whose visa depends on your continued appointments!

What advice would you give to current students finishing their Ph.D.s? Or ECP members just starting their postdocs?

I would say plan your career in the long term. As graduate students we often get so focused on our thesis projects that we forget that a Ph.D. is the time to find out what your research program is. That is, to think about the broad questions that you want to investigate—i.e, “what your career is about.” Think not only about where you want this current project to go but also about what are your career goals for the next 5, 10, 15 years, and start planning the skills, connections, and resources that you need to achieve those goals. I know it sounds hard but having a sense of where you are going can bring a great deal of peace of mind!

Bernardo Santos: middle school outreach

Working on outreach with middle school students in New York City, entomologist Bernardo Santos, Ph.D., enlisted six-graders from Washington Heights to choose the name of a new wasp species from the Dominican Republic. (Photo courtesy of Bernardo Santos, Ph.D.)

If you could go back in time, what advice would you give to your undergraduate student self? Your graduate student self?

I would tell myself that good science is more about focusing on the cool questions you want to answer than about building the largest and most impressive datasets. I feel that for so long all I cared about was to amass incredible amounts of data that, as my Ph.D. was coming to an end, I found myself drowning in tons of data but with little time to properly analyze everything. We usually are quite good at knowing how long it takes to collect data, but we tend to underestimate the time it takes to analyze and discuss it. I didn’t learn my lesson completely, but I’m trying to do better!

What is one thing you would change about the field of entomology?

I wish there were more appreciation for taxonomy and basic research; this is a problem that affects biology at large but it’s definitely also an issue with entomology. I feel that there is this weird “cognitive dissonance” in which everybody recognizes that taxonomy and systematics are important, but very few people actively work to promote jobs or grants that contemplate the field.

What’s the coolest thing about the insects you study that you wish more people knew?

With parasitic wasps, it’s not uncommon that their very existence has yet to be explained! There is an astounding number of people, even biologists, who have never or rarely heard of parasitoids. That’s pretty shocking considering that this is one of the most important ecological interactions, not to mention their astounding species diversity. I wish that people knew that they are missing out on a whole world of wonderful and freaky creatures. Parasitoids are often more important than predators in regulating insect populations, and they use extremely diverse strategies to exploit their hosts, from using echolocation to find hidden hosts to using symbiotic viruses to disable the host immune defenses.

Carly Tribull, Ph.D., is an assistant professor of biology at Farmingdale State College and 2019-2020 vice chair of the ESA Early-Career Professionals Committee. Email: cmtribull@gmail.com.

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