Under the Lens: Valentina Gomez
Valentina Gomez is currently a second-year PhD student in the Ecology and Evolution program. She has previously conducted research on the evolutionary development and consequences of partial migration in New World flycatchers for her Master’s degree at the University of Los Andes in Colombia. Now, she studies the influence of ecological factors on the evolution of feather morphology for her PhD.
I think many people who have encountered Valentina would say they felt a strong connection with her. She has a way of making you feel comfortable and challenged at the same time. My connection with her stems from belonging to the same cohort in the E & E program, as we started and are going through the stages of a PhD together. Valentina’s story is a unique one that should be shared, especially among female graduate students, because the challenges she faces in graduate school are tri-fold: she is an international student who moved to Chicago from Colombia, she is a new mother, and I’m counting being a graduate student as a third challenge in and of itself. However, Valentina doesn’t see these as challenges worth contemplating, and she is clearly grateful to be exactly where she is doing exactly what she loves.
This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.
How and when did you realize that you were interested in science?
I remember finding frogs and putting them in glass jars when I was a little girl. One frog got a little bit sick. My mom saw it and said it needs to breathe, so I made holes in the lid. I started understanding that things needs to breathe. Also, I loved doing experiments when I was really little with food coloring and flowers. The flower, through its tissues, absorbs water with food coloring and then becomes that color. That was my first science project.
I would say my brother was more scientific than me when he was a little boy. He would explain things to me like how hurricanes and tornadoes form. I think he had an influence on me, but he was more on the physics side of science (he’s a mechanical engineer now) and I was always more on the biological side of science. I was very interested in animals and I would love to go to the forest with my mom, those were some of my happiest memories.
How did you get interested in your field of research?
In my first semester as an undergrad, I took a course called “Organisms.” I think since then, I started getting interested in the origination of species, or the process of speciation. I think it was by the end of my undergrad that I took a graduate level course in speciation, and it was fascinating. There were a lot of things that I didn’t understand but a lot of things that I did understand. That’s when I knew that I was learning about what I wanted to do.
I graduated and worked as a high school teacher for a year, then I decided to go to the field because I didn’t have field experience. I took courses in bird banding, and following those courses I got an internship and then a job as a field technician. I went to many different places. I spent two years in the field collecting data for NGOs and PhD students. It was fantastic. But there were always moments when I would talk to the people in charge of the projects and get interested in the questions, in the actual science. So I did my Masters with Daniel Cadena at the University of Los Andes, and it was a dream to work with him.
Why did you decide to do a PhD?
I’ve always known that I wanted to do a PhD from my undergrad. I never had a doubt about that. I did a Masters first because I thought it would be a good way for me to get into a PhD program somewhere else outside of Colombia. I considered staying at Los Andes with Daniel because he was a wonderful advisor. I really had doubts if I wanted to apply somewhere else because I was in a good place. But I did my undergrad and my Masters at Los Andes and it was time to move somewhere else.
During my Masters I met my husband. He got accepted to the University of Chicago when we started dating. At the end of my Masters I got pregnant. But when I got pregnant I thought that I might take a little bit of time before applying to a PhD program because it was my first child and I didn’t know what was coming.
Later, someone from UIC wrote a letter to my advisor at Los Andes asking if he knew any students interested in working with him. I contacted this person, who was Boris Igic. I visited his lab and I loved everybody. I visited when I was pregnant, and I remember there was a sign for a lactation station near Boris’ lab. It made a lot of sense. I got an offer, and that’s how I decided to do my PhD at UIC.
Describe your research as you would to your grandma.
I’m interested in how there are so many different groups of animals and plants and microorganisms on Earth and how they are produced. And I have focused on studying birds because there are many different forms of birds that I like, and I have questions about how they came to be. How is that we have hummingbirds and toucans and parrots, and how is it that you can find some birds in temperate areas and others in the tropics? One aspect of birds that I love is that some of them can travel thousands of kilometers every year. They can cross oceans, and they can fly without stopping for very long distances. I have a fascination with how that’s possible and how that evolved, and if that has any relation to the origination of other forms.
Why is your research necessary?
I think research in general is very important because it helps us to understand the world. I sort of have an artistic passion for science. It’s part of that big book of human knowledge that we acquire to understand the world we live in, our home. Why it is the way it is and how it changes.
Do you have a favorite fieldwork story?
One of the field stations that I worked at is in the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta in Colombia. The station is hidden in the forest but there is a trail nearby used by indigenous people, farmers and people going from the top to the bottom of the sierra. One of my favorite things is that people didn’t notice I was there on the trail. Just blending in like an animal is a very amazing feeling. And being part of the forest is one of my favorite things in the world.
What do you love most about being a PhD student?
Learning new, cool stuff every day about other people’s research is one of the things I like the most. And talking to people who are so passionate about their research. Talking to John Bates — it’s amazing how much he knows about birds. Talking to other PhD students and trying to understand how their brain sees their world. You learn a lot from having conversations with people doing research. Not only PhD students. At the Field museum you talk to people who are very interested in nature and they have interesting ideas, even kids. They have wonderful questions. Interacting with people in science, that’s what I love most.
What is the biggest challenge you feel that you face as a PhD student?
My self-criticism. Not feeling that my research is interesting or going the way it should be. I think that’s just part of my personality, but I’m learning to deal with it. A PhD involves a lot of self-finding. You’re guided by people, but in the end it’s your work and your responsibility. You have to do a lot of introspection and sometimes that takes you to places in your mind that you don’t like. Like, why can’t I understand this mathematical model?
As an international student, did you find it difficult to move to Chicago?
It was a very difficult time for me because my family and friends were in Colombia. When you move to a new country you have to build new friendships and learn about the culture of that place. Also, when you’re having a baby you realize that your center of attention shifts to another person. It was just too many things at the same time. I think living in Chicago made it easier because Chicago is wonderful. People were really helpful. Looking back, the community I found here was good. I miss many things about Colombia, but I really like the scientific community in Chicago.
What advice do you have for other PhD students, especially those feeling discouraged?
Go back to whatever made you interested in the questions you’re interested in. Remember you’re not doing this for the grades. It’s your own thing. No one is really testing you, it’s about what really moves you. So go back to that.
What do you plan to do after your PhD?
A post-doc would be nice. And I would like to someday have my own lab and students. I want to do many projects. Maybe in South America.
What would be your alternative career path if you weren’t doing a PhD?
I would be a dancer. I started doing ballet and contemporary dancing when I was in my undergrad.
What do you do when you’re not doing research?
Play with Luchi (my daughter). I love talking with my husband. I like going to ballet classes whenever I can. I’m really enjoying biking this summer. Another piece of advice for PhD students is to make time for exercise.
Favourite place in Chicago?
It’s the Field Museum! It’s my favorite place in Chicago, for sure.