In one of the last fragments of the Tropical Dry Forest of Costa Rica. Katherine researched the … [+]
Katherine Gonzalez, a young Costa Rican scientist, is helping to explore how a tiny fly in the middle of the jungle can hear the love songs that male frogs produce for females. The flies then find the frogs and feed on their blood.
Now a PhD student at the Bernal Lab at Purdue University in Indiana, Gonzalez says that growing up in a rural town and going out into the countryside on holidays gave her an appreciation for nature.
“On family vacations we would visit our relatives in the rural province of Guanacaste, and swim in pristine rivers where howler monkeys would swing through trees and sometimes peed on us,” he said, “All these experiences with nature changed when I became older, or at least when it became clear to me that my environment was changing. I still remember when our river turned red because a meat company threw biological residues (blood and other parts of animals) in our river.”
By pursuing this concern for nature, Gonzalez is now answering questions about how frog communication systems work. She does this by looking at the natural phenomenon scientists call eavesdropping – one organism listening in to the sounds or other communications of a different animal.
“Eavesdroppers exploit male frog calls and prey on them, adding an extra selective pressure for the frogs that call for mating,” she said.
Gonzalez wants to find out what makes the auditory (listening) system of this little fly so special.
“How can they solve variations in sound when multiple frogs are calling or when environmental conditions make a noisy background?” she said.
Gonzalez is also investigating the role anthropogenic (human-made) noise plays and whether these interactions are changing.
“By understanding this complex communication system, we cannot only improve our knowledge and better understand what is happening out there but also learn from nature and improve our own communication system by implementing technologies inspired in these mini-speakers of nature.”
“Our research then, is trying to build a bridge between engineering, biology and evolution.”
For Gonzalez, the biggest challenge in her work is also her greatest opportunity: being a foreign female scientist in the US.
“Being a Latina, first generation, person of color, immigrant, and woman is a huge challenge that many of us face every day,” she said, “Our identity is questioned, the experiences we have since we were kids are different for the people that surround us every day, our thoughts and opinions are sometimes different too – but also, our identity is what brought us to where we are.”
Gonzalez says although Costa Rica has a relatively high female representation in STEM fields – 43.3% – and it is very high compared to other countries such as Colombia, there is still lack of female representation in senior research positions or faculty.
“For instance, in 40 years of the national award in Science and Technology given by the government (Premios Nacionales de Ciencia y Tecnología) only 7 women have been awarded against 45 males since the beginning of the award,” she said, “We desperately need more women in science, role models that little kids can look up to that look just like them.”
Katherine González at Purdue University holding a túngara frog. At Purdue she investigates anuran … [+]
Costa Rica also abounds with marine riches and there are other researchers there focused on sharks.
Andres Lopez, 42, is a Costa Rican marine biologist and co-founder of conservation NGO Mision Tiburon, which focuses on research, education and advocacy.
While most conservation efforts are focused on the ocean “highways and way-stations” of adult sharks, his group of Costa Rican scientists and conservationists have, for over a decade, focused on the bays and coastal waters where those sharks give birth.