SEEDing a peer network for all students: an interview with SEEDS alumna Betsabé Castro

SEEDS alumna Betsabé Castro is a recipient of prestigious 2015 NSF Graduate Research Fellowship Award.
Castro completed her BS at the University of Puerto Rico, Rio Piedras, and is currently completing her MA at the University of Missouri, Columbia. She will begin her PhD program at the University of California, Berkeley in the fall of 2015.

ESA’s SEEDS program is the proud recipient of a new 4-year, $597, 643 grant to develop activities that guide students to identify ecology as a viable career option, develop a sense of personal connection with science, and surmount cultural stereotypes that hinder participation. Read more about it in the SEEDS NSF award announcement.

Interview by Teresa Mourad, Director, Education and Diversity Programs,ESA

SEEDS Alumna Betsabé Castro studies artificial selection of medicinal and edible traits in plants native to Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic, and other Caribbean islands.

SEEDS alumna Betsabé Castro, a PhD candidate at the University of California, Berkeley starting in fall, 2015, studies artificial selection of medicinal and edible traits in plants native to Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic, and other Caribbean islands with support from the NSF Graduate Research Fellowship.


What is your research project about?

My research question is: Can artificial selection of ethnobotanical plants enhance phenotypic variation?  I am interested in comparing plants selected for their medicinal and edible value in Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic, as well as other Caribbean islands, to examine whether the selection of those traits lead to evolutionary change and variation in phenotypes.


What shaped your project?

I have always been interested in plant-people interactions.Looking back, I can trace my interest to my childhood, where I spent many hours with my grandparents while my mother worked more than one job. We could not always see a doctor when sick, but my grandparents both knew how to prepare herbal medicines using plants in their backyard. I would help them to prepare traditional herbal decoctions, infusions, and aromatherapy inhalations.

I started out in college thinking I would study medicine but quickly realized that it was not for me. Then I discovered a strong curiosity towards environmental science and ecology courses in the second year of college. I also reconnected with my ethnobotanical interest after taking a workshop on medicinal plants with Maria Benedetti and a course on Puerto Rican ethnobotany with Dr. Gladys Nazario. Since then, I have been involved in multiple projects: investigating the ecological role of the invasive African grass (Megathyrsus maximus) on Mona Island in Puerto Rico; examining a trophic cascade involving humans, coyotes, mule deer, and native wildflowers in the Rocky Mountains; studying biocultural conservation of Mapuche traditional ecological knowledge in Puerto Saavedra, Chile; exploring ethnobotanical properties of invasive species in Puerto Rico; and in my most recent research project evaluating linguistic endangerment worldwide from a socioecological approach. I must say that I have fell in love with both ecology and ethnobotany!

I feel that listening to the people in our communities is of great value. Our elders have traditional ecological and botanical knowledge that should not be ignored. They know the plants that grow in the wild, what is edible, which parts of the plant can be used for healing, and which ones should be avoided due to toxic properties. So my project will involve collaborating with communities who are willing to share their knowledge about the natural world.


What challenges do you expect in this project?

The greatest difficulty might be to find community elders in remote and urban areas willing to talk with me. I am interested both in the plants they might cultivate in their small gardens as well as plants that are harvested from the wild. I will begin by working through various local contacts I have established and hope to add new contacts. This project is also challenging because I am attempting to integrate knowledge drawn from the disciplines of anthropology, ethnobotany, ecology, GIS, evolution, genetics, and conservation biology.


What do you see yourself doing after your PhD?

I hope to start my own Caribbean ethnobotany/ecology lab at a research institution.  Hopefully, I will be able to do this in my home island Puerto Rico.  I am interested in building an organization to preserve the ethnobotanical practices and biocultural diversity of the Caribbean Basin.

I also see myself mentoring science and non-science students. I am the oldest of four children and I am the only scientist. Growing up, I was not not directed towards science. Sometimes it is difficult for my family to understand my drive and passion for science, why I am doing what I am doing and why I need to stay in school for another five years instead of getting a regular job.  They are happy that I am happy with what I do and to see me accomplish the goals I have set out for myself. As I am constantly translating my work to my family, I believe that as professionals in science we have the responsibility to share our knowledge with society, and to encourage others to discover science through diverse experiences.  I would like to give back what has already has been given to me, to help other students seek out opportunities. We need good advisers in science, especially strong women mentors.


What advice do you have for students considering a career in science?

Step out of your box: try to visualize a different world, a world with unlimited possibilities! I tried different things to see where my true passions lie.  There will be family pressure to make money, to seek prestige. A PhD is a high price you pay if you don’t have the passion. Make your own path in life, seek new and unexplored venues, write your own story, and foremost, have fun with what you do. Follow your gut and go with your passion, whatever it is!

Joining a peer network, like SEEDS, is also important to keep yourself challenged, motivated, and connected with awesome people. Also, surrounding yourself with good advisers is critical to guide you through your process and who can also write good letters of recommendation for you. Always seek help and constructive comments from your peers and teachers, especially when writing. I am extremely grateful for my writing groups , as well as my peer review networks over the years that offered many critiques on my writings and my applications over the past several months.


To what extent has the ESA SEEDS program helped you get to this point?

I discovered SEEDS in 2009 thanks to Dr. Elvia Meléndez, one of my former advisers. She encouraged me to apply for a SEEDS fall trip at Mountain Lake Biological Lab and to join our local SEEDS chapter at the University of Rio Piedras , called Amá, Ké, Kashi, Ará (AKKA, in taino language means “Water, Earth, Soil, People”). At that time, I would have not imagined that becoming a SEEDS member would be a tipping point for me in my scientific career.

SEEDS helped me nurture and develop my leadership, interdisciplinary, networking, and critical thinking skills. SEEDS became my second family, a medium for my continuous intellectual curiosity to grown, a place where people from very different backgrounds could come together and be heard. SEEDS also fostered in me a strong interest for social justice, equality, and outreach activities. I was also able to explore different career options available within and outside academia through diverse opportunities offered by SEEDS. Some of my best friends are all from SEEDS and I know this bond that we have forged will carry on through our personal and professional lives.

SEEDS has been instrumental in my development as a young woman scientist. Thanks to SEEDS, I have become an advocate for promoting diversity within academia. I intend to continue my mission of encouraging underrepresented groups at all levels to pursue higher education and engage in research experiences. In my classrooms and research endeavors, I intend to foster a welcoming environment for students that come from diverse backgrounds (underrepresented or not), to feel that their voices and diverse perspectives on life can be heard. I look forward to mentoring and inspiring students to consider science as a fulfilling profession.