How did you get where you are today?
When I was an undergraduate, I had a chance to work on a project on mahogany in Bolivia. It was mind-blowing. Bouncing along logging roads on the back of a Jeep, I couldn’t believe my luck. I spent my days searching for mahogany seedlings and trying to learn the local names for the trees. I spent my evenings trying to improve my Spanish and listen to the Bolivians tell stories about the forest. With all the depressing news about deforestation and cattle ranching that I heard in the U.S., I hadn’t realized that a vast part of the Amazon was still intact. I loved every bit of this experience—working with the Chimane indigenous people, fishing for our dinner in the early morning, and exploring a forest that stretched to the horizon. This kickstarted my next 25 years of working on the biodiversity and conservation of tropical forests and the wellbeing of the people who depend on those forests.
What does your job entail? What's the day-to-day like?
At the Museum, my day-to-day involves calls with colleagues in Peru and Colombia, strategy sessions with my team where we plan our next trip or expedition, and writing emails, technical reports, and book chapters. In the field, my day-to-day involves covering as much ground as possible and collecting every plant with fruits or flowers, pressing those plants with my colleagues late into the night, and coordinating a 20-person team that is studying the rocks, waters, plants, fishes, frogs, snakes, birds, and mammals of a remote, unexplored place.
What has been your favorite part of the job, or a memorable moment?
It's too hard to single out one moment; the whole job sometimes feels like one long, beautiful highlight reel. I’ve flown thousands of kilometers over the Andes and Amazon in a small plane, come face-to-face with a startled tapir, shared intense conversations with indigenous people in the Peruvian, Bolivian, Ecuadorean, and Colombian Amazon, been stalked by a jaguar and seen gorgeous petroglyphs and rock art made by people who lived in these forests 10,000 years ago. And I’ve been lucky to spend all of these moments with an incredible team of people—my colleagues are spectacular and have taught me so much.
What advice do you have for future scientists?
Stay curious. Let what you see guide the questions you ask. And work in multidisciplinary teams. As a biologist, I’ve learned so much from anthropologists, geologists, and geographers—it is important to keep pushing the edges your knowledge.