Colibrí Sanfiorenzo-Barnhard

From a “Focus on Ecologists” maintained by the ESA Education Office about 2009-2011.

Full NameColibrí Sanfiorenzo-Barnhard
Job PositionGraduate Research Assistant
OrganizationNorthern Arizona University/University of Puerto Rico- Rio Piedras
Professional AffiliationAcademic
Research DisciplinePlant-Animal Interactions
Research HabitatBarrier islands
Research OrganismPlants in general
Describe what you do and briefly describe the activities that your job encompassesI have been working in the Tropical Plant Ecology and Evolution Laboratory for the past 4 years under the direction of Dr. Elvia Melendez-Ackerman. This laboratory works mainly with plant-animal interaction at Mona Island Reserve which is located about 50miles west of Puerto Rico. My job has had multiple parts through out the years, I started out entering data from the annual and monthly plant census that is done at Mona Island. I have visited Mona and done plant collection of the most common plants in the Island. I have cataloged these plants into the UPR herbarium and have created a reference collection using micromorphological characteristics of the epidermal tissue of each plant. This reference collection has been used to analyze the diet of feral goats that are present at Mona Island. I have been working with this analysys for the past year and we have been getting very interesting results. Today we have started working in a new project that is looking at the interaction between Megathyrsus maximus, an invasive grass, and Harrisia portoricensis, an endemic cactus. This will be a very exiting project that we hope to monitor for the next 5 years.
What do you love most about your job?I just got back from a week of field work at Mona Island with 20 students from the AKKA SEEDS Ecology Chapter of the University of Puerto Rico and I have to say that working in Mona is the most exiting aspect of my job. The 12 hour work days in the 115F temperature with sun beating down on you, walking on karts rock and getting scraped by cactus thorns is such an incredible experience that I wouldn’t change it for the world. I truly love my job!!!
For each degree you’ve obtained, list the degree, field, and institution.B.S. in General Science at the University of Puerto Rico- Rio Piedras Campus.
I’m starting my graduate master program in August 2007 at the UPR-Rio Piedras campus.
Briefly describe your job path.I started out studying physics and math at the University and even do I love to understand how the world works I realized that I needed to be outdoor more often, and that my job needed to include field work. I went during the fall 2003 semester to Sweden for a semester abroad experience and there I took my first ecology course. The focus was Landscape ecology and I was able to do a small project that looked at the effect of open agriculture area reduction on the distribution of native birds in the area through GIS analysis. After getting back from this semester abroad I new that I needed to make great changes in my academic path, I needed and wanted to study and learn about ecology. As soon as I got back to Puerto Rico I went in search of faculty members that were doing research in ecology. I went door to door asking about their research experiences and the currrent research they were doing in Puerto Rico. When I got to the office of Dr. Elvia Melendez-Ackerman I new I was in the right place. I told her my academic path as an astrophysicist and that I had only taken one biology course in Sweden but that I was very much interested in working at Mona Island Reserve. She immediately said yes and put me right to work. It has been four years since that day and Elvia has been my inspiration and mentor in my academic, professional and personal life. I owe her many things in life because without her confidence in me I would not be where I am now.
What challenges did you need to overcome?I think the most difficult challenge I have had to overcome is learning how to work in groups and being able to participate in such a big project without getting lost in the process. I have worked with approximately 20 people at he same time and it is sometimes difficult to see how important your grain of salt is to the whole project.
What’s one thing you hope to do in the future?I hope to do many things in my life but this last year has really opened my eyes and mind to a whole new world of ecology. Hopefully I will be able to do my doctoral work in conservation, development, environmental justice and policy change. Working at Mona Island has shown me how important policy is to conservation. I would also like to work in educational outreach with kids so as to show them this wonderful world of ecology and the importance of conservation. I am not sure what my future hold for me but I am sure that I will love it and be as happy as I am right now!!
How do you describe your job when you meet people at a party?When I speak with people who are not part of the scientific community I try and explain my job as a two part process. One is field work, the best part, and the second is data analysis. I try and explain that ecology is all around us and try and explain it in terms of their everyday life. Many people don’t know that ecology explains how things interact. That ecology is part of their everyday life that it is not necessarily just out in “natural landscapes” that you find interactions.
What is your family background and what did they think of your career choice?My father worked for 30 years creating theater set production and is currently finishing his masters in literature. He has an incredible interest in nature and worked for two years at Mona Island when he graduated high school. He is very exited that i got to work at Mona Island for these past four years and has always supported me in my career choice. My mother was a chemistry educator at the University level for about 20 years. Her last years at the University were concentrated in chemical education, she was able to set forth a Web CT program for the undergraduate curriculum which is still in effect and has helped students increase their grade point average and understanding in general chemistry. She passed away two years ago and was not able to see me grown in the field of ecology as I would have wanted to but she has always been proud of me and new that I would do great things in life. She was the one that taught me that you have to LOVE your job and if you don’t then you need to change career paths. I have to add that my friends, who are not academics at all, have been extremely supportive of my choices and have suffered through all the days and sleepless nights that my job and academic career includes. I would not be here without the support of my family and friends, my achievements are also theirs.
Who or what inspired you to become a scientist (or other profession)?My mom has been my inspiration, she was such an incredible human being. To this day I have not meet such an amazing person as my mom. She was not only a scientist but also an educator and traveler. She did not start her academic career until she was 37 years old and that was the same year she had me. She was a full time student and a mom all in one. She always taught me the importance of knowing how things work and of questioning yourself and others. I have always loved nature and science, it might me genetic!!! I cannot remember a day in my life where science was not part of it. My mom was diagnosed with cancer and was given 3 months to live but the scientist in her decided that she wasn’t ready yet that she still had to much to do, she lived for three more years. She was able to complete her post-doctoral work and start her educatioanl research. This strength that she showed me has giving me the inspiration to achieve incredible things in life and become a scientist. She taught me the importance of science.
Who currently inspires you?My inspiration comes in many ways and forms. I get inspiration from my advisers Elvia and Luis who support my decicions and make me think and ask questions about my work and my life. I also have gotten allot of inspiration the last two years from Julissa, a doctoral student from Costa Rica that has shown me the life of a graduate student. My father has shown me that hard work pays of and that life is full of surprises you just need to learn from them and move on. I think that currently my main inspiration comes from younger undergraduate students that I have come to meet at the University. They have shown me how far I have come and the importance of having a great mentor by your side. I try to help them realize and achieve their dreams giving them the knowledge that I have gained throughout the years as an undergrad. They motivate me with their energy and enthusiasm to do great things. They are always saying thank you and letting me know how important my words are to them. Knowing that a younger generation is looking up to you is a great feeling of inspiration and happiness.
What is the most valuable advice a mentor gave you or that you would offer to someone who’d like to do the same job as you?Love what you do. If you wake up in the morning saying “do I have to go to work today?” then that job is not for you. Your career will take up most of your time and if you don’t love it then it will not make you happy. Find a career that makes you happy because at the end of the day, your happiness is the most important thing.
What would you like people to remember about your life as a scientist (or other profession)?Wow! hard question. I think that I would like for people to always remember that my life as a scientist has and will always be full of smiles and happiness. I love being a scientist I cannot imagine myself doing anything else.