AAAS Lecture Series on Women in Science and Engineering

Essay: Gabriela Chavarría

I grew-up in Mexico City in a Mexican Catholic, and very traditional family, the oldest of five children, I was expected to get marry and have kids. Since early age I was interested in insects, love bees, due to the fact that when I was in elementary school my teacher will reward my good work with a hard work bee stamped on my homework. When I finished high school and decided to become a biologist my parents were shocked, what are you going to do with that degree? Study something more useful like graphic design, business management, something that is more for "women" something you can use when you get marry. I was accepted at the Universidad Nacional Autonoma de Mexico (UNAM) in Mexico City, the largest university in Latin America (approx. 100,000 students). I joined the Faculty of Sciences program in biology, and for four years I took all kinds of courses in biology. In Mexico in order to graduate from college you need to write a thesis and you need to commit a year of volunteer work related to your field of interest. My volunteer work was done at the laboratory of Dr. Juan Manuel Labougle at the then Centro de Ecologia, UNAM, now Instituto de Ecologia. In there I learned everything (taxonomy, genetics, behavioral ecology) on Africanized honey bees, traveling all over Southern Mexico during the times when the bees were starting to migrate from South America. During my time at Dr. Labougle's lab (which ended up been 2 years, while I was continuing taking classes for my college degree) I had the opportunity to interact with people in the field of bees, not only honey bees but all bees, there's about 20,000 described species of bees in the world, honey bee is only one. Dr. Labougle graduated from Kansas University, so we were exposed to a lot of interactions with scientists from the U.S.

When I graduated four years later, my parents said now what kind of career you are going to study, meaning that biology still was not a career for them. When I told them that I had applied to pursue a Ph.D. in Evolutionary Biology their last hope was gone. I was accepted at Harvard University to work under Prof. Edward O. Wilson and Prof. James Carpenter. I was lucky enough to receive a full scholarship and a teaching fellowship. My work  focused on the systematics, behavior, and biogeography of pollinators, especially Neotropical (Mexico, Central and South America) bumble bees. I conducted research on these topics in over thirty countries in North America, Central America, South America, Europe, and Asia. It was such an incredible experience to do my Ph.D. that if I can go back in time, I would do all over again, the same way.

When parents attended the graduation ceremony I realized that they finally understood that I had done what I wanted, that I had done it well, and that I was happy. The same month I got married and my life was transferred from Cambridge, MA, to Washington, DC. My husband an American, works for the Smithsonian Institution National Museum of Natural History, I am a Research Associate, while this is one of the greatest Museums in world, I never considered working there, I love my husband dearly, but I didn't want to be in working in the same place, a place that knew me as the girlfriend, the fianc*Še, and the wife. So, I decided to explore other scenarios and found an internship with the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation. It was perfect, three times a week, helping with their Neotropical migratory bird program, meeting lots of interesting people, and feeling that I was making a difference in the conservation of birds. My month internship really showed me that I wanted to do something for the environment, I had the scientific background and I was hungry for making a difference. The Foundation invited me to join them as a full time coordinator to launch their newly Invasive Species program, in which I have grown tremendously, new challenges have come along the way, and I am still looking to continue to learn more.

In December of 1999 then Secretary of the Department of Interior Bruce Babbit invited me together with 32 other people from the U.S. to become a member of the Invasive Species Advisory Committee to the Executive Order on Invasive Species, my term ended last December, but Secretary Gale Norton re-appointed my participation. Been with the top people doing invasive species work in this country has been so rewarding. I was recently asked to testify for one of the Weed Bills in the House of Representatives, I was so proud of been asked to do so, and it was a real honor to be there as an expert. Through this work I started to become interested in the whole global issue of invasive species, after all, these invaders come from outside the U.S. Last fall I was invited to join the executive board of the Global Invasive Species Programme.  I am currently continue to work for the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation early last year I became the Director of International and Special Programs, where I oversee, all our international programs, the invasive species programs, our borderlands program with Mexico, and several of the Foundation's Threatened and Endangered funds, like the Black-footed ferret. I represent the Foundation at the Canada/Mexico/U.S. Trilateral Committee for Wildlife and Ecosystem Conservation and Management, the Black-footed Ferret Recovery Team.

As I mentioned at the beginning of the essay, I love bees, therefore I have never stopped to care for them. I incorporated this passion through my daily work. In 1998 I coordinated a symposium called Saving America's Pollinators, to create awareness among policy makers, federal agencies, and ngo's in the Washington area about the importance of pollinators, not only the bees, but the birds, the hummingbirds, the bats, the butterflies, etc. After all, for every third bite of food we eat, we should be thanking a pollinator. What started as a half day meeting is now become the North American Pollinator Protection Campaign (which I am the co-chair), a consortium of 60 federal and private institutions doing work for pollinator conservation.

In this field of conservation biology women are few, but it has never occurred to me that because I am a woman I can't do things.

I am very often asked to come and give presentations about my work and about my passion for pollinators particularly bees, very often my talks encourage young students about the rewarding life that exists outside academia, and how important is to have a scientific training. I will be honored to come and talk to women in Latin America to give them encouragement and to share my experiences.


 

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