Forging my own trail

Today on #MeetAScientist, get to know evolutionary ecologist and biogeographer Dr. Patricia Salerno. Patricia grew up in Venezuela, where she discovered her passion for biology and field work. She later moved to the US to do her PhD and postdoctoral research, where she found her way into the world of science communication. In addition to talking about the differences between science in Venezuela and the States, Patricia shares how she found her way to the work she does today and how she continues to (as she says) "machete her way" to carve out a career that suits her best.

When did you first identify as a scientist?

I guess my road as a scientist isn't as clear as it is for many of my fellow scientists and friends that say: “I always knew I'd be a herpetologist when at age five I would chase around lizards.” I'd say the first time I felt like a scientist is when I published my first first-author paper in the journal Evolution and got press from The New York Times, when I was around 30 years old. Before that (and at times after that) the road was windy and difficult for me. I used to stress and even suffer thinking the direction my road was heading was fuzzy, blurry, completely unknown. Now, I find it a strength, both of character and career. I feel like I can machete my way through a deep forest to slowly open my own trail. I have no idea where this trail is headed, but it's a blast to work my way through it — and learn a million things in the process.

I grew up loving nature mostly from the TV screen. I recall thousands of hours of watching nature shows on Venezuelan TV, where I learned about meerkat altruism and lion infanticide and coral spawning and other awful and amazing things that nature is capable of. I also had hundreds of hours of stationary wildlife watching from my living room window inside my family's tenth-floor apartment, where most afternoons I could see macaws and parrots and falcons flying by and every morning I was woken up by the sounds of very loud chachalacas. Occasionally I would spot large iguanas and sloths sunbathing on the large tree next to the creek in my neighborhood. During my lifetime, my hometown, Caracas, has never been a city that a kid can explore on his or her own. My love of nature was kept indoors, but it definitely grew, slowly and quietly. At 17 my parents gave me an incredible christmas present: a telescope. As a shy introvert, I often retreated from uncomfortable highschool and college social situations onto rooftops in the outskirts of Caracas, where the five million city lights were dim enough to allow me to gaze into the skies. There, I grew to love many galaxies and planets. Though I dreamed about it nearly daily, I never once considered becoming an astronomer, because I regularly thought: “I’m never going to be good at math and physics.”


After doing a year of architecture in college — the career that I thought that I wanted — I switched to Biology because I couldn't register for any the architecture classes in my fourth quarter… I had to pass Calculus II to be able to do that. So, since I couldn't really register for much, to sort of pass the time I decided to register for Organismal Biology, and completely, unexpectedly fell in love with biology — with the diversity of life and with the amazing outdoors that I got to know through many field trips at Universidad Simón Bolívar. In this first quarterly class that I took, we would explore for weekends at a time the various and fascinating ecosystems in Venezuela, such as the cloud forest in the northern coastal range. I will forever remember that first time that I went to the Rancho Grande Biological Station in Henry Pittier. Meant as a five star hotel built in the 1936 (!!), this abandoned yet nearly finished construction was now invaded with the cloud forest; from a bat colony in the basement to the lianas and trees that now made their way inside the beautiful marble flooring. After that, I never looked back to architecture, even as I realized that biology had more math and stats than I ever thought it did. Despite my initial fear of math, I have grown to love and embrace it as a part of my career (and as a side product, have made my mathematician sister proud!).

What does your research center on today?

My work today mostly focuses on understanding the many levels of biological diversity, using genetics and genomics tools for testing various hypotheses about the ecology and evolution of species in their natural environment. My doctoral dissertation, for example, focused on understanding the evolutionary history and possible mechanisms behind the enormous endemism of frogs found atop the flattop mountains of Venezuela — one of the most isolated, pristine, and fascinating ecosystems that inspired works such as Conan Doyle's novel, The Lost World, and the more recent Pixar movie Up. Understanding life's diversity at the species level can help us preserve them based on their threat and on their uniqueness; and understanding diversity at the population level can help us determine their likelihood of persistence and adaptation in the highly modified human world (the Anthropocene Era) and in the face of a rapidly changing climate.

Before moving to the states for your PhD, you started out your career in Venezuela. Can you talk about some of the differences between doing science here and in Venezuela?

Well, there are many differences across academics and landscapes, as well as culture and socioeconomics. Venezuela has been a socialist country with free healthcare and education for decades, so my outstanding undergraduate education was completely free. It also easily rivals almost any (if not all) undergraduate institutions that you could attend, for a lot of money, in the United States. The biology program at Universidad Simón Bolívar had a plethora of requirements: five years of classes plus a required undergraduate thesis for obtaining your title as a “licentiate in biology,” which essentially forged you into a professional at the Masters level, without the same title. Needless to say, I had no idea of the privilege that this country and institution offered me, which I only realized once I became a teaching assistant at the University of Texas at Austin, a large university where biology classrooms are regularly capped at 250 students. There I learned and understood the intricacies of privilege, that the privileges that I grew up with — biodiversity and nature everywhere, small classes, free outstanding education, constant fieldtrips and nearly individualized lecture classes — were the complete opposite of what my students had as privilege — state-of-the-art laboratories, intimate interactions with science rockstars, amazing lecturers and technological support, and outstanding facilities and equipment at their grasp.


Having obtained my licentiate degree in Venezuela, and later my doctoral degree at UT Austin, truly gave me the best of these two worlds. I soaked in and combined the privilege of an outstanding free undergraduate education with the privilege of accessible (through Teaching Asistantships) and outstanding postgraduate education in a place with amazing facilities and funding. The coffee breaks with E. Pianka (whose Ecology book I used in Venezuela for my classes) and being a teaching assistant with Jim Bull (who discovered the temperature-driven sex determination that I helped study as a field assistant in a remote location in the Venezuelan Orinoco river) added an extra dose of awesome that I never dreamed of as an undergrad in Venezuela.

Recent political issues in Venezuela now make it very difficult for me to remember the privileges of the socialist dream that I grew up in. Frankly, there were many hidden issues: the dream was unattainable by most. Many marginalized communities had no access to clean water or electricity and were living in conditions that people from the developed world cannot even imagine. They do not have a chance to even dream of being accepted to the amazing University that I attended. But nowadays, even my alma mater suffers from the extreme policies and the economic breakdown that now plagues Venezuela — from a mass exodus of professors that receive less than one dollar a month as salary (when they get it), to students that simply cannot finish their undergraduate degree due to insufficient funds to buy supplies as cheap as ethanol for lab courses. Despite having left the country “only to get my PhD,” the current situation makes it nearly impossible for me to return to an academic position. But that doesn't mean that I'm not willing and ready to give back, by co-leading workshops to train Venezuelan and latin american students in bioinformatics and data mining, and also by co-leading research studies in gender representation in Latin American ecologists.

Oddly enough, the current US situation gives me plenty of dejá vu with respect to the early Chavez years. The war on science, on truth, on education, and on free press is nothing new, but rather borrowed and modified ideas from a plethora of authoritarian populists around the world and catered to an audience that is most likely to listen: the disenfranchised of the US. This makes me realize that Venezuelans and Americans, despite enormous differences in history and culture and socioeconomics and biodiversity, are all one and the same. As the naturally flawed creatures we are, we all make mistakes that need amending. Our biggest mistake, as Venezuelans, was to think that it wouldn't get that bad and to hope someone else fixes our problems. I strongly hope this will not be the road that the United States — my second home country — follows. I see with admiration many bright young people exerting and inputting energy into enacting real change, which I hope will put a stop to this dangerous war on knowledge and truth that harms every citizen.

You've got quite a bit of science communication experience in radio. In the fall, you started a regular radio segment with a global production team. What got you into radio and what advice do you have to people who want to embark in radio and podcasting as a communication medium?

I don’t have formal training in radio and have only been doing it for a couple of years. But it's something that I quickly fell in love with. Now, I plan to pursue a career where I can formally incorporate radio into my teaching and research. My experience with radio, and my formal training in Science Communication, started with the Sustainability Leadership Fellowship at Colorado State University when I was a postdoctoral researcher. This fellowship, created and led by the amazing and inspiring Dr. Diana Wall, aims to train senior PhD candidates and postdocs in communicating their science to the media and the public. As part of our three-day Science Communication workshop, led by Liz Neeley from The Story Collider, I had many inspiring conversations with several of the guest panelists/trainers, particularly Chris Joyce from NPR Science Desk, that made me believe that my intense love for writing and music and art could eventually result in a career in science communication. Two of my co-fellows (Adam Dillon and Travis Gallo) mentioned that they wanted to start a one-hour radio show that interviewed local scientists, and I quickly jumped on board. After about a year, the show sort of fell apart because we were all too busy and it was simply too much work the way that it was modeled, which also made it difficult (or impossible) to recruit new fellows or students to the show.

Having hopes that I could keep the idea of a weekly radio segment alive, I designed and developed the Weekly Sustainable Digest, which is a five minute radio segment that covers a one to two stories in Sustainability and Conservation and features local Sustainability events. After half a semester of many trials and errors, and of essentially running it by myself, I managed to recruit three additional Sustainability Leadership fellows. These students are now essentially running the show, after my postdoctoral stint ended and I left for what I term my “pre-job-sabbatical” in Costa Rica. They have been enormously successful at continuing the show and developing it even further! Needless to say, I'm very proud of them and happy that this can continue, not only to communicate science to a large audience, but also to help train future science communicators in our field.


In the last two years, I have taught short workshops in science communication to over 50 graduate students from around the world, in part modeled on my training as a Sustainability Leader. I also make my students produce and develop a 5-minute podcast in less than 24 hours! This is an enormously demanding task, which has been a very fruitful experience for me (by observing the varied and diverse voices that radio can bring out) and for my students, who manage to produce beautiful radio pieces and discover a previously unknown love for radio and podcasting!

My biggest advice for people that want to get into podcasting and any form of science communication… is to just go for it! The biggest setbacks that we ever have come from not believing in ourselves and not giving ourselves the room to fail. Failure is the main component of effective learning and in any creative endeavor you will fail many times over. Scientists who are used to the academic rigour and strict rules of publishing struggle the most with the freedom given by truly creative endeavours such as podcasts. This lack of structure can be frightening at first, but it allows you to follow your own voice in ways that strict scientific rigour and method can never truly allow. It also provides an outlet for the creative and artistic side that many scientists I know already have!

Perhaps the most important question we ask of all, when you're not science-ing, teaching or communication, what do you do to unwind?

Well, I probably have too many hobbies for my own – professional – good, but my main form of unwinding and distraction is without a doubt music. I have been playing musical instruments since I was 5 years old, and I cannot imagine a life without music. I use it to overcome personal hurdles (by writing many sappy songs), to detox from a long work day by obsessing over a tune that I work on for hours until I manage to recreate as best as I can, and by singing and playing songs that I have played for years (on guitar, piano, and cuatro — a Venezuelan string instrument) that provide me with comfort and calmness. Other hobbies I use to unwind are martial arts, swimming laps, road biking, beachbumming, more music (playing traditional latin american music in bands), making bead earrings, and on occasion backpacking to amazing landscapes to soak in the outdoors while tuning out technology and society for days at a time.


Dr. Patricia Salerno was born and raised in Caracas, Venezuela, in a time full of changes, dreams, and nightmares. She did her undergraduate in Universidad Simón Bolívar in Caracas, Venezuela, a campus within a botanical garden, which lies in the premontane cloud forest of the Caracas suburbs. She went to graduate school at the University of Texas at Austin, where she finally grew into the person and scientist I hoped I would be. Now, she is a Postdoctoral Research Associate at Colorado State University, and an instructor/coordinator for the Organization for Tropical Studies, waiting for new opportunities to arise, while making the most of the time I have available to finish projects and develop new ones. You can follow her on Twitter @patitepui