Whitney R. Harris Center Recruitment Video
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Whitney R. Harris Center Recruitment Video

September 12, 2019

I actually always knew that I wanted to be
a biologist because when I was a child I read a book about a wizard who could talk to animals.
So I thought biology was the closest thing that I could get when I realized that wizards
weren’t real. I was born and raised in Madagascar, went to vet school in Madagascar. I got a Master’s degree in Epidemiology from the University of Montreal in Canada and then came here to do a PhD in Biology, Ecology, Evolution, and Systematics. Growing up in Papua New Guinea,
Papua New Guinea is northeast of Australia, it is a tropical country, so it is just above
the equator. You’re always exposed to nature. Growing up, I have childhood memories of going
and playing; looking for birds. I knew that I wanted to study something that was related to that. I am Camilo Calderon, I come from Colombia, I started working with bats roughly 11 years
ago, when I was working in a mammals collection in my previous university in Colombia. I had
to organize 2000 bats into the different genus and species, and the difference localities
that we had. After doing that for a month I decided that bats were really interesting. When I started undergrad I knew that I was interested in wildlife and conservation but
beyond that my career goals were vague at best. Once I got here I became involved in
pretty quickly in one of the research labs, in Dr. Parker’s lab and had the opportunity
to learn things like DNA extraction in the lab that year and then go to the Galapagos
as a research assistant over the summer. That definitely put me on the track of field biology. When I was looking into graduate programs, I knew that I wanted to do research that merged
conservation with animal behavior. The perfect merger was to go into bumblebee research because
the conservation is direly needed and they’re model organisms in the study of behavior.
Nobody had really merged the two. We have the Missouri Botanical Gardens, the Saint Louis Zoo, and many universities that are involved in ecology/evolution research, but
the Harris Center combines it all and provides an outlet for everyone to become more focused
in these conservation goals. In my opinion, there should be a giant banner on the Biology website page that says “Harris Center! This is what it can do for you!” We have now attracted
22 endowments that we manage to provide. The various services and benefits is to the graduate
students. We offer five endowed fellowships that provide full stipends, all tuition, some
research money for five students for four years each in plant conservation and one endowed
fellowship with the Zoo in animal conservation. Some of them receive full ride scholarships
with their tuition and stipends paid. All of the students who are associated with the
Harris Center can participate in our competitive grants program. Once in the spring and once
in the fall we offer research grant opportunities. I received a research grant from the Harris
Center to help fund my pilot study over the summer working with disease ecology of Galapagos
penguins. I also took a research course in tropical field biology at the Organization
for Tropical Studies in Costa Rica. I wouldn’t have ever been able to afford to do that without
funding from the Harris Center. It provides a lot of advantages for graduate students
in terms of financial funding, in terms of collaborative research with other institutions,
as well as experts from other fields. Some of the faculty at the Missouri Botanical Gardens
and the Saint Louis Zoo serve on advisory committees for the students. They provide
facilities, the Missouri Botanical Garden has a wonderful library, for example, that’s
open to the students. We’ve had several travel grants for conferences and professional meetings
where I present the work that I’m doing and am able to network and have some collaborations
with other researchers. The more support you can get, the better. You get field assistants,
you get undergraduates to help you, this is all helping your program, but it’s all helping
the undergraduates that are coming up. Bob Marquis, who was the Harris Center chair at
the time, was like “All first year students trying to plan pilot projects should apply
to the Harris Center because the purpose of the Harris Center is to help you have a successful
pilot so that you can then use that data that you get in your pilot project to apply to
national grant competitions.” They’ve also provided me funding to go to difference scientific conferences that have really helped integrate me into the scientific community. It’s one of the things that’s really wonderful about the Center, is that these students come and
they form a cohort. They are very socially connected, they interact with each other outside
of school, they work together on their science and they then remain not just a network connected
with us, but connected with each other. Students come here and they know they’re well-supported,
both financially and spiritually, and the students all get along really well. The department
is great and the Harris Center is great because it provides you that environment to thrive
academically, but also socially too, which is a really, really important aspect. It also
creates an environment for a lot of students here in the department to collaborate. We set up our students, both our graduate and undergraduate with internships and sometimes,
when they graduate, they go to work for those places. In part thanks to the Harris Center,
which also helps us go to those meetings and portray our work and everything we do. At
these meetings I met a colleague who was interested in working with me based on the things and
the methods that I have been developing in my dissertation. We started collaborating
and talking and this led to a formal job proposal. It has given me a lot of confidence as a scientist.
It has allowed me to also publish papers in peer-reviewed journals, not a lot of people
get to do that. That gives you a level of confidence in the field, knowing that you
can do this kind of research elsewhere. If you can do it in the US you absolutely can
do it in countries like mine. It gave me the chance to start a job position next year.
I would not be where I will be next year if it was not for the Harris Center; I wouldn’t
be here right now if it wasn’t for the Harris Center. Imagining that the Harris Center didn’t
exist, trying to imagine how I would have done everything that I’ve been able to do
in the four years that I’ve been in the PhD program, I don’t see how it would be possible. I would like to say “misaotra betsaka,” that’s how you say “thank you very much” in Malagasi.
I am hopefully a better researcher and conservationist thanks to their support and I’m hoping to
make them proud. Conservation around the world starts at the Harris Center.

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