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Two Young Women Scientists From UMSL Forge Their Futures In The Galapagos

Charles Darwin revolutionized science. His theory of evolution was based on careful observations of birds and other wildlife in places like the Galapagos Islands.

One thing that has been really slow to evolve is the gender mix in science. Men still dominate many scientific fields, just like they did in Darwin’s day, more than 150 years ago.

But gradually, more women are breaking in.

I met up with two young women scientists in ― where else? ― the Galapagos. Here are their stories.

Maricruz Jaramillo fulfills a dream

Maricruz Jaramillo, Mari for short, grew up in Ecuador’s capital, Quito. But she always loved being out in nature.

Credit (Courtesy Maricruz Jaramillo)
Mari always loved being close to nature.

“When I look at pictures of myself when I was little, I always see I have a really happy face when I’m outside,” Mari said. “I don’t know, maybe I associated it with spending time with my family, my dad. And I could just run, and I would pick up stuff from the ground. I just really love being outdoors.”

I was pretty much the same way. I brought my mom home tadpoles, caterpillars, earthworms — and eventually a Ph.D. in ecology and evolution. Mari’s getting hers, now, from the University of Missouri-St. Louis.

And she’s doing fieldwork in the one place I think every ecologist wants to go.

“Ever since I knew I wanted to be a biologist, I wanted to come to the Galapagos Islands. That was my goal," Mari said. “And my dream too.”

To the Galapagos

But the Galapagos are not easy to get to. The islands are in the Pacific, 600 miles west of Ecuador. From St. Louis, it took me two days, three flights, a ferry ride, and 45 minutes in a pickup truck to get there.

Charles Darwin took a ship: the H.M.S. Beagle. He was only 26 when he visited the Galapagos — about Mari’s age.

What he saw changed his life — and the history of science. Most of the wildlife that lives on those volcanic islands is found nowhere else in the world: giant tortoises, marine iguanas, and those little, sparrow-like birds known as Darwin’s finches.

Credit (Véronique LaCapra, St. Louis Public Radio)
Marine iguanas are found only in the Galapagos Islands. They can swim and feed on algae growing on rocks near shore. A gland in their snout removes salt from their body, which they expel by “sneezing.”
Credit (Véronique LaCapra, St. Louis Public Radio)
Mari sets up a mistnet in a field near the small town of Bella Vista, a mostly agricultural area on the island of Santa Cruz. When fully extended, the net will reach well above her head.

Mari first made it to the Galapagos five years ago. She’s back again, studying a kind of malaria that’s infecting birds there.

Malaria and mistnets

In Hawaii, avian malaria has driven many native bird species to extinction. That hasn’t happened in the Galapagos, but Mari and other scientists are trying to gauge the threat.

Most mornings before dawn, she heads to one of her field sites with a small team of assistants, to set up nets and try to catch some birds.

Credit (Véronique LaCapra, St. Louis Public Radio)
Mari carefully untangles a small ground finch from a mistnet.

The mistnets, as they’re called, look sort of like volleyball nets, but around twice as high, and reaching almost to the ground. Their mesh is nearly invisible. The birds fly right into it and get snagged.

Mari and the others work quickly to untangle them.

“When you have a bird in your hand, it’s just really warm and soft,” Mari said. “And you can feel its really fast heartbeat. You just know you’re holding something really fragile.” 

Each bird gets weighed and measured and Mari, or one of her helpers, takes a small blood sample to test later for malaria. Then they release the bird again.

“This little one is ready to go,” Mari said.

Samoa Asigau: “Think like a mosquito!”

Credit (Véronique LaCapra, St. Louis Public Radio)
Samoa smells the not-so-fragrant water in a gravid mosquito trap, which uses stagnant water to attract female mosquitoes.

Samoa Asigau speaks Motu, along with Pidgin and English — among the many languages in her country, Papua New Guinea. It’s an island nation just north of Australia.

Samoa met Mari in graduate school in St. Louis. She’s in the Galapagos trying to help solve a different piece of the avian malaria puzzle: which species of mosquito is transmitting the parasite from bird to bird.

Just before dusk, Samoa sets out her mosquito traps.

“The thing about trapping mosquitoes is you have to think like a mosquito,” Samoa said.

Female mosquitoes — they’re the ones that bite and can spread disease — like to lay their eggs in stagnant water. So Samoa mixes up a smelly brew for her traps.

“Every time I pour this water, in my mind I’m thinking, mosquitoes please come, come to it, so I can trap more mosquitoes in the morning,” Samoa said. “Seriously, that’s what I do every time. Ooh, it smells good, right?”

Credit (Véronique LaCapra, St. Louis Public Radio)
Looking through a microscope, Samoa uses a small dissection knife to cut the head off a mosquito. She’ll then try to extract its mucous-like salivary glands to look for the malaria parasite.

Actually, it smells like rancid gym socks.

The smellier the water, the more mosquitoes she’ll get ― and be able to dissect. Working with a microscope, delicate tools, and very steady hands, she’ll chop off their tiny heads and extract their salivary glands to look for the malaria parasite. Samoa has stared at so many mosquitoes, so close up, she has started to appreciate them. Especially a species called Aedes aegypti

“It’s one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever seen,” Samoa said. “It’s covered in these black and white bands, all over its legs, all over its abdomen, its face. Yeah, the first time I saw it under a microscope, I kind of fell in love with it, in a weird way.”

Credit (Via Wikimedia Commons/Muhammad Mahdi Karim)
The mosquito Aedes aegypti, which is known to transmit human diseases including yellow fever and dengue, is covered with striking black and white bands.

Seeking opportunity through science

Samoa says her parents encouraged her to get an education and pursue a career in science. But she says most people in Papua New Guinea hold strongly to traditional beliefs ― and gender roles.

Credit (Courtesy Samoa Asigau)
Samoa says growing up in Papua New Guinea’s capital, Port Moresby, she thought of herself as a “fancy city girl.” She is 7 years old in this family snapshot.

“And just growing up and looking around and seeing the opportunities that were given to males rather than females? That sort of placed an aggression in me. Good aggression,” Samoa said. “It told me that, hey, why do males always have to get chosen over females?”

For Samoa, becoming a scientist started out as a way to prove herself. But eventually it became more than that. “I realized that, no, science was something that I really wanted to do,” Samoa said.

Science as a way forward for women — and a way of life

Once she gets her Ph.D., Samoa wants to return to Papua New Guinea to help protect wildlife there. And she hopes to be a role model and train a new generation of female scientists.

“Empower young girls, empower women, and tell them, you know, if I can come from a country like Papua New Guinea, come and do research in a place like Galapagos, and study at an institution like my university, then you can do it too,” Samoa said.

Her friend Mari plans to keep doing research in her home country of Ecuador. Maybe, in the Galapagos Islands.

“I don’t know exactly if I would enjoy my life as much if I wasn’t a scientist,” Mari said.

Credit (Véronique LaCapra, St. Louis Public Radio)
Samoa helps Mari extend a mistnet at Media Luna. They often work together in the field.

Sometimes, though, Mari thinks about all the hard work and long hours.

“But then I realize, what else would I be doing? I wouldn’t be enjoying it as much if I was doing something else,” Mari said. “So it’s my way of life. It’s essentially what I am, I think.”

St. Louis Public Radio’s Véronique LaCapra traveled to the Galapagos Islands and produced this feature for the PRX STEM Story Project, with support from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation.

Follow Véronique LaCapra on Twitter@KWMUScience