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How One Entomologist Brings a Passion for Science Back to Her Home Country

La Loca trail

Melissa Sánchez Herrera, Ph.D. (foreground), collects insects on the La Loca trail in Yatacue Anchicaya Paque Nacional Natural Farallones de Cali, with students Juan Pablo Monguí (above) and Vanessa Amayain (below) in February 2020. (Photo courtesy of Melissa Sánchez Herrera, Ph.D.)

By Manpreet Kohli, Ph.D.

Meet Melissa Sánchez Herrera, Ph.D., postdoctoral researcher and lecturer at the Universidad del Rosario in Bogotá, Colombia, where she investigates the diversity of Neotropical Odonata and is exploring environmental DNA techniques for the detection of these insects in aquatic ecosystems. Melissa was born in Bogotá, and she obtained her undergraduate and Master’s degrees in biological sciences at Universidad de los Andes. She moved to the United States in 2010 and received her Ph.D. at Rutgers, the State University of New Jersey. In her current role, she also teaches evolution, entomology, and non-major classes about the importance of biodiversity and human health. Melissa has been a member of Entomological Society of America since 2010, is the incoming president of the Dragonfly Society of the Americas, and also one of the founding members of Entomologists of Color and Sociedad de Odonatología Latinoamericana (SOL).

Kohli: What is the main goal of your research? Can you describe your current research?

Sánchez Herrera: I am an organismal biologist, and my research focuses mainly on the fascinating order Odonata. The main goal of my work is to examine questions related to the historical events explaining the origin of the biodiversity around us. I use phylogenetic hypotheses and integrate them with population genetics theory to better understand current patterns of insect diversity.

As a Colombian, I have always been fascinated with the amazing and dazzling ecosystem diversity in my country, and that is why I have been investigating these evolutionary patterns mostly in Neotropical species. Currently, I am working on the damselflies in the family Polythoridae, especially working on species delimitation of the genus Polythore, which has striking arrays of wing colorations. In addition, I have also been working on developing environmental DNA (eDNA) protocols for detection of dragonflies and damselflies in watersheds in protected areas of Colombia, such as national parks.

wing coloration variation in Polythore damselflies

Representation of wing marking variation in the new tropical damselfly genus Polythore. (Image courtesy of Melissa Sánchez Herrera, Ph.D.)

Did you always want to be an entomologist? And why damselflies?

Yes and no! I started out being very interested in vertebrates, especially birds. But a field trip to the Tatamá National Park introduced me to odonates in 2005; since then, they have been my study model. I chose them because they are charismatic, with dazzling colors, and their flight is magnificent, which makes catching them a challenge. Also, in the Neotropical region there is still too much to be discovered about their diversity, not only at the species level but also at the genetic level.

Through the years, I have realized that damselflies are excellent models to understand many evolutionary processes. They are insects that are resilient to the changes of our planet, and their fossil record is undeniable. They are very good ecosystem health indicators, allowing us to monitor one of the most important natural resources, fresh water. They exhibit very interesting reproductive behaviours as well. So many questions to explore in this system!

I love insects and now have expanded my “ode” love to other critters like butterflies, beetles, bees, termites, roaches. and other non-insect arthropods like spiders and scorpions.

What have been the most exciting moments of your life as a biologist? Is there any particular one that stands out? 

I have had the chance to travel extensively to various countries like Guyana, Ecuador, and Peru, which is always so much fun. But perhaps the moment that stands out is finding Polythore damselflies in the Amazon. They are so difficult to see that, when I finally found and captured it, it was one of the happiest moments that I had dreamed of for a long time.

Another moment that stands out was when I won the National Geographic scholarship to go to look for Polythore in the Amazon. I remember I was on a train with you when I got the email, and we jumped and shouted on the train to New Brunswick.

Yes, I do remember it. It was very exciting! You also teach in your current position. What are your favorite parts and challenges in teaching?

Sharing my knowledge and generating excitement about biology is the most rewarding part of my job. My favorite part about teaching is when the students have an ‘ah-ha’ moment, when they realize through their own experience those abstract conceptual theories.

Teaching during the pandemic has been challenging. In particular, practical and bioinformatics labs have become more problematic. The restrictions due COVID-19 have made our relationship with students completely different. When planning all the practices, we have to think out of the box to keep them engaged in class but also make them reflect about their own learning.

For my online classes, I love making students work in teams to generate pieces of information like infographics or Instagram stories or videos, among others, to keep them engaged in the class. Also, I like creating role-play activities where students debate important and controversial topics. These active learning activities make the class dynamic and help students feel they are making important contributions that they can share with a general audience.

You have also taught summer courses to high school students. Can you tell us more about this experience?

Well, I have to say it is a completely different experience than teaching undergraduates. In an undergraduate class you have the whole semester to interact with the students, while high school courses are short and intense, one-to-three-week experiences where you are with students for up to eight hours a day.

I have taught high school students in both the U.S. and Colombia. I was an instructor for five years for the Aim High Academy Summer Program, which was tailored to high-achieving, low-income, first-generation college-bound students with an opportunity to work with Rutgers University as they study earth ecology. During these years, I was able to teach almost 200 students, with very different backgrounds about urban diversity, plants, insects, ecology and evolution; most of these students went to college, and some took a path within biology and environmental sciences. This program had a large fieldwork component, and taking these urban kids to experience nature was great and a rewarding experience. It was a lot of fun watching students get excited about catching bugs and get into the water to sample macroinvertebrates. Seeing these students present their research at the end to their parents made me feel very proud. Those intense three weeks were totally worth it.

In Colombia, I was part of the Clubes de Ciencia (Science Clubs) Colombia. For this program I, along with an international peer, developed a one-week club experience. This was right at the moment I was starting to think about getting into eDNA research, so I decided to design the DNA Safari Club using this approach. Thirty very curious and enthusiastic high schoolers affiliated to the STEM academies within the rural public school district in Bogotá participated in this program. We went to the field, got dirty, collected water samples from a small river within campus, extracted DNA and used PCR detection protocols for macroinvertebrates, plants, fish and bacteria.

The last day, they presented their research in a poster session to their parents and the general public. They sent me wonderful pictures full of messages of how I was able to open their eyes into becoming scientists. This was again an intense yet an extremely rewarding experience. Working with high schoolers is refreshing; it makes you feel how worthy it is to be teaching about biodiversity and science!

Clearly you have successfully taught and mentored a lot of students from different backgrounds and without any prior research experience. Do you have any tips for those who might be interested in mentoring?

Thank you! I have been fortunate to share my knowledge with a lot of students. Part of the success of a good mentorship is communication. If you are clear about your expectations and keep channels of communication open with the mentee, then you are in good shape. Make them feel comfortable to be able to share their failures. Be present, but don’t micromanage. Allow them to ask any question, and talk to them about your mistakes and the tips that you used to fix them. Show them that, besides doing research, you are a person that watches movies, listen to music, and has a family, etc. This is important for them to feel comfortable with you at a personal level.

I try to give them the tools so they can be independent and solve problems. I continuously question them about what we are doing in the lab or in experiments, to reinforce the important concepts they need to know. And, after a few months, I stop working with them as a student and start treating them as a colleague. I listen to their ideas and trust their contributions, and that is usually the beginning of a great working relationship. Also, you have to acknowledge that all of us learn differently, and maybe some will need more supervision to feel comfortable, while others are more independent. Their personal goals might be different than yours, so setting your and their expectations is what you need to have a win-win relationship with your mentee.

After all these years, I have met wonderful students that have accomplished their career goals, some in academia, others as medical practitioners, others in environmental sciences, or in industry. But, we have to acknowledge that sometimes there might be students that might not like working with you, but that is OK—do not take it personally. I end by saying that by mentoring I ended up learning so much more than science—cultures, music, movies, food!

As an early-career professional, what is your long-term career goal, and how has it shifted, if at all, since graduating?

To be honest, when I started as an undergraduate, I was not sure of the path I was going to take. The only thing I knew is that I wanted to be a biologist. After doing my undergraduate thesis, I realized how much I liked research, asking new questions and discovering new ones. My curiosity in the natural world motivated me to pursue a Master’s and then a Ph.D.

For the types of questions I wanted to answer for my Ph.D., I thought that working with international experts in my field would be the best option for me. So, I decided to move to the U.S. to start my Ph.D. with Dr. Jessica Ware, at Rutgers-Newark. That was a cultural change for me; I was bilingual, but communicating in another language can be quite a challenge at the beginning. But this experience allowed me not just to accomplish my research goals, but it taught me about cultural diversity and inclusivity. I started getting the tools to become a better teacher and mentor.

I always knew that I wanted to move back to Colombia after my Ph.D. and bring my expertise to my country. So, when it was almost time to finish, I started writing research grants with my fellow Colombian colleagues to find a way to come back. I was lucky enough to get successful funding for doing it, and that helped me land the postdoc position that I currently have. However, having a permanent position here in Colombia is a challenge, so I don’t see an easy way for me to stay here for much longer. In a country like mine, we have an enormous potential for science, but the lack of education and connection with the general public sometimes hinders our ability to be recognized by our society and government. So, besides my research ambitions, I would like to keep working as an advocate of science literacy for all and inclusivity and diversity in science.

Were there any limitations as an international researcher in the United States?

While the U.S. offers a lot of great opportunities, there are indeed a lot of limitations to being an international scholar here. First, you have to constantly worry about your visa status. To maintain the status we always need to be thinking of next steps. You have to be always employed so as to not fall out of status. This essentially meant that, when I finished my Ph.D., I had to make sure that I had a postdoc position or a job lined up. This was a very difficult and stressful experience, as I was trying to finish my dissertation.

For international scholars it doesn’t end there, because as soon as you are a postdoc you have to have a job lined up again in the next year or two to avoid falling out of legal immigration status. Basically, you have to hold a position all the time. We just can’t afford to take a break for a month or two before moving on to the next position.

Second, as an international researcher, you are usually not eligible for a lot of government positions and funding. This shrinks the number of jobs we can apply to. Funding is also very tricky because a lot of large funding agencies including the NSF are not open to international students. Therefore, more often than not you have to rely on your advisors to arrange funding for you. Not to mention that not being eligible for most of these opportunities puts us at a disadvantage when job hunting and competing with researchers who didn’t have these restrictions.

What are some of the challenges of doing research in Colombia?

Well, in Colombia, despite the creation of a new Ministry of Sciences and Technology, investment in science is precarious. In 2018, it was only 0.25 percent of GDP, about 2.2 trillion Colombian pesos (about $616 million U.S.). This is much less compared to the NSF budget for 2018 of $6.653 billion. Recently, our government convened a “Mission of the Wise Men” that proposed increasing the national investment in science to 1.2 percent of GDP. All this was before the pandemic hit. COVID-19 showed the lack of investment in science and public education in our country, but it also demonstrated the great scientific potential that the country has.

The problem is the lack of opportunities and public enthusiasm for science. I believe that scientists should focus on educating about its importance, on disseminating in a simple way, without jargon, with the general public so that they understand the benefits that financing science can have. Unfortunately, politics is the only scenario where we can change the laws, and it is time to know how to better choose those who govern us. So, we must be more present in everyday life than in our experiments if we want to be taken seriously.

What’s the coolest thing (or fun fact) about damselflies that you wish more people knew?

Well, people tend to recognize dragonflies more readily than damselflies, so just to notice damselflies is a win! Hahaha! And a lot of people don’t know that they don’t eat plants, that they’re voracious predators at both life stages, nymphs and adults, their efficacy [successful kill percentage] is almost 97 percent! Way higher than any mammal!

That is very cool indeed. Thank you so much Melissa!

Read more about Dr. Melissa Sánchez Herrera’s work at Universidad del Rosario, Bogotá, Colombia, at www.polythore.com or on Twitter at @melsanc.

Manpreet Kohli, Ph.D., is a postdoctoral associate at the department of Invertebrate Zoology at the American Museum of Natural History and is the Eastern Branch Representative of the ESA Early Career Professionals Committee. Email: mkohli@amnh.org.  

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