Under the Lens: Crystal Guzman

"As you climb, you’re trying to figure out how to position your body and which is the best path to the top. It’s very exhilarating when you make it to the top or when you are able to do a very difficult route without breaks."

"As you climb, you’re trying to figure out how to position your body and which is the best path to the top. It’s very exhilarating when you make it to the top or when you are able to do a very difficult route without breaks."


Crystal Guzman is a PhD student in Ecology and Evolution, studying early tree response and recruitment in degraded pasture habitat within tropical landscapes. About to defend her dissertation, she has had time to reflect on her graduate experience and has much wisdom to offer the students. This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.

 How would you describe your research to a generalist audience?

In the tropics, there has been vast conversion of forest into agricultural land for the benefit of humans. A lot of the time this land is degraded and not as productive after some years and has trouble recovering and returning to a tropical forest system. Some agricultural practices create more disturbances than others; one of these is pastures. It creates a very different community with very different conditions. Recovery to a tropical forest can take 100 years or more, so there is this effort to facilitate the recovery of degraded habitats like pastures. My research focuses on how trees in younger stages – when they are most vulnerable – survive and grow in pastures looking at which barriers inhibit early tree survival.

What drew you to study restoration in the tropics instead of the temperate?

I was interested in tropical areas for multiple reasons. My primary reason is that tropical forests have higher concentrations of diversity meaning that the consequences of removing them is a higher percentage of extinctions including species we don’t even know. The stakes are higher! My secondary reason is that there are a lot of people who are working in temperate areas; what we know within the tropics is limited.

Why did you get interested in ecology?

From a very young age, I was interested in plant and animal life. I can remember my very first pet which was a goldfish I got when I was four. I also grew up in Southern Texas which was a really nice place to grow up; it had a really diverse ecosystem where I could collect insects, spiders, lizards, and frogs and play in the mud year round! Still, I didn’t know what ecology was, but I watched a lot of nature shows and thought I could be a photographer or cameraman filming all these animals. Once I went to high school, we were given a list of potential careers and ecology was one of them. I though “Yeah, this is what I’d like!” I also had this great teacher who in one of the lessons presented some statistics about the deforestation in the tropics which really hit me. From that moment, as a sophomore, I decided to pursue this career.

So you’re coming up to the end of your PhD now. Was it worth it?

Yes, I definitely think it’s worth it. It was definitely hard, it definitely is hard still. There were many sacrifices that had to be made along the way. You have to dedicate yourself to your research and sometimes that takes over other priorities: social time, family time, me time. I have also been around long enough to see how going through a PhD can really negatively impact a student. You can become isolated and slip into a depression or worse. I’ve had friends who have needed to be hospitalized. But at least for me, the PhD is definitely worth it. I’ve definitely grown as a person and gained much from it.

What was the best thing about doing a PhD? What are ways it could have gone better?

The best moment was realizing my newly found skill set. In comparison to when I first began, I am now very comfortable with designing an experiments, managing and analyzing data – which is an important skill set for many PhD students – and synthesizing the results to contribute to the scientific community. I think that’s the best part of doing a PhD.

Getting there could have been easier. The PhD requires you to have very strong writing, statistical, and time- and self-management skills. I would have loved a focus on those very important skills such as a class on how to write in the scientific way. Also, it wasn’t until my last years as a PhD that there was a course that coupled the statistics for the data that most ecologists deal with (non-parametric) and the software that most ecologists use (R). I learned a lot in a course by Dr. David Wise which would have been a lot more helpful if it had been available earlier.

What do you want to do when you finish your PhD?

For now, I’m going to take a year to teach around Chicago and get my work published. I do feel a little burnt out, and it’ll still take work and time to get things published and teach. Eventually, I’d like to apply for a post-doc, acquire more skills, and end up in academia. Or perhaps even an NGO where I could contribute my skills as a scientist towards forest recovery and conservation. I still have so much to learn. I see this in my (former) lab mate Jenny Zambrano. She’s doing a post-doc in SESYNC, and the things she has learned has made her a better and more capable scientist. So I’d like to pursue becoming more skilled as a researcher.

When not doing PhD work, what do you do for fun?

Hang out with friends, get together, have a potluck, have a couple drinks. The best thing to do when the PhD gets demanding is hanging out with friends. I used to dance flamenco, and I really want to get back into that once I’m done. I’m also open to any of the many forms of entertainment that Chicago has available. I like to rock-climb. It’s nice to be able to do something like that because then you completely forget about the PhD for a second. Or camping! That’s also a really fun thing.

Tell me more about rock-climbing!

Climbing is amazing, I recommend it to everyone! It’s scary at first and you might not feel very strong at first, but it’s a problem solving exercise. As you climb, you’re trying to figure out how to position your body and which is the best path to the top. It’s very exhilarating when you make it to the top or when you are able to do a very difficult route without breaks. It’s a great way to destress without having to do an exercise that’s repetitive and boring. In addition, it’s amazing when you do it outdoors because you’re…outdoors! You’re outdoors in some natural reserve and then when you’re done, you hang out by a fireplace. It’s really fun, I highly recommend it!

Have you climbed anywhere interesting?

I rock climbed in Red River Gorge in Kentucky. That was a lot of fun! At first, it’s a little scary – I guess it’s still a little scary – but it’s exhilarating. I climbed in Italy once near the Tuscany area and Devil’s Lake. But I think the best place I climbed was the Red River Gorge.

What’s the favorite place you’ve been?

My friend and I went to Puerto Rico where there’s an island called Culebra. And within that island, there’s this beautiful beach called Playa Flamenco. Its sand is white, and the ocean water is clear blue. It is beautiful! We camped, we hiked every day, we had breakfast with Pelicans, we swam with turtles and fish, we snorkeled everywhere. It was the best place ever!

Any advice for incoming graduate students?

I would recommend that incoming students focus on the three different pillars that make up a PhD: focus on gaining skills, take care of yourself, and make sure you are doing the PhD for yourself.

Be okay with making mistakes. You’re going to be making mistakes but that is the process of growing and learning. The more you grapple with a certain skill, the better you become.

Learn to forgive yourself. You come into the PhD with a fondness for what you are going studying, but you make a lot of mistakes or you quickly realize that there is so much that you don’t know. This can definitely affect your self-esteem, and sometimes PhD students have to deal with feeling less. Making mistakes is a process in which you are growing and learning how to deal with obstacles.

Be persistent. You have to be your biggest cheerleader. Make sure when you enter a PhD that you feel very strongly about the area of research that you are working in because you’re going to have to propel yourself throughout the PhD. Be passionate about fulfilling that curiosity or your ability to solve a problem.

How about just life in general?

My approach is to really take in all the colors, really take in all the scenery, and live my life as if I may not be here tomorrow but would be satisfied with what I’ve done. We are being told we should or should not do certain things, how we can express ourselves. I saw this clearly when I went to the National Gallery Art Museum in London. They had all these paintings depicting life during the 18th Century. All the people in those paintings were constrained by what the social norms were. And I realized that this is still happening now. As humans, we are able to take a step back and find leisure in living. And I have this life for another 50 to 70 years. So what do I want to do with it? What makes me feel alive? I make a list of these things and try to move along that list.