Dr. Lauren Ponisio is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Biology at the University of Oregon. She received her B.S. degree in biology with honors in ecology and evolution, as well as her M.S. degree in biology, from Stanford University. Lauren was awarded her Ph.D. from the Department of Environmental Science Policy and Management at the University of California, Berkeley. She conducted postdoctoral research at UC, Berkeley afterwards, and she served on the faculty University of California, Riverside before recently accepting her current position at the University of Oregon. Lauren received graduate fellowships from the National Science Foundation and the National Institute for Food and Agriculture, as well as a Postdoctoral Fellowship from the Berkeley Institute for Data Science. She was also named among the Global Food Initiative’s “30 Under 30” in Food Systems in 2016. In our interview, Lauren shares more about her life and science.
People Behind the Science Podcast Show Notes
Life Outside of Science (2:25)
When she’s not working, you can often find Lauren in her garden. She has been an avid gardener since childhood, and she currently has a thriving garden with lots of vegetables and plants to attract bees and other pollinators.
The Scientific Side (4:01)
The United States is home to thousands of different species of native bees that are important for agriculture and natural ecosystems. Lauren’s research revolves around preserving and restoring bee populations in agricultural areas and other natural habitats. She is interested in understanding the distribution and health of different populations of native bees.
A Dose of Motivation (5:44)
Lauren is motivated by her passion for biodiversity and living creatures. She is fascinated by agriculture, the natural world, and the amazing diversity of species on our planet.
What Got You Hooked on Science? (6:41)
Agriculture is very important in Buenos Aires, Argentina where Lauren’s mother originally lived. She helped Lauren cultivate an appreciation of the importance of agriculture. Also, growing up in Fresno, California, Lauren was surrounded by agriculture, and she realized that some agricultural practices may harm human health and biodiversity. Lauren decided she wanted to work to improve agriculture, and bees are a key component. However, she didn’t know what career could help her achieve this dream. It wasn’t until college that Lauren realized that she could make a career out of being a professor and doing research. During her freshman year, Lauren took a seminar course with a renowned conservation biologist. She approached the professor later to ask if she could work with him to do research on pollinators. The professor told her that he didn’t have time to mentor her, but he introduced her to a graduate student in his lab who turned out to be a fantastic mentor. Partway through her undergraduate studies, Lauren changed her major from pre-med to focus on ecology and evolution. She didn’t tell her parents because they had really wanted her to become a medical doctor. However, Lauren found that she was most excited about her ecology classes and doing field research. This got her started on the path to an academic research career.
The Low Points: Failures and Challenges (20:48)
Field work is full of challenges and unexpected setbacks. One of Lauren’s most difficult field work experiences occurred in Yosemite National Park. Their study on the effects of fires on pollinators required them to backpack out to remote sites where there had been natural fires. Lauren started working months ahead of time to get ready for the trip and prepare dehydrated meals for the lab to eat. One day, they opened the large canister where they had been storing their food to protect it from bears, and they discovered the food was gone. All that was left was a handwritten note from someone thanking them for leaving out food. The next day, the lab’s field assistant tripped over a log and sprained her ankle. Then they accidentally left their sampling gear at a site and had to hike all the way back to retrieve it. Later, a bear came into their campsite and destroyed many of the traps they needed to collect pollinators for their study. At this point, Lauren and her colleagues were exhausted, surviving on snacks, their field assistant could barely walk, and much of the equipment they needed had been destroyed. In the face of all of these challenges, Lauren stayed calm. These kinds of things happen in field research, and everyone made it back to share the story.
Beyond the challenges with field research, it can be difficult to be part of an underrepresented group in science. As a woman whose mother’s family is from Argentina, it can be hard when you don’t see other people in science who look like you. Science can also seem very competitive, extremely time-consuming, or too difficult to be successful and happy. There can be moments when you may wonder if perhaps science isn’t for you. However, Lauren decided to give it a try. She went into the process of applying for faculty positions telling herself that it would be okay if it didn’t work out. It can be tough to find the right fit in the right department. If it doesn’t work out, you can always change directions and try something new.
A Shining Success! (25:46)
Getting her first large grant as a faculty member was a huge success. She submitted a grant to the Foundation for Food and Agricultural Research, and it was so validating to have the grant reviewers acknowledge that her project was a good idea and provide funding to support it. Lauren will never forget when she got the phone call to notify her of the grant award. Having the funds to hire postdocs and graduate students to work with her on this project investigating the health of bees was so important for her career. Recently, they had a virtual meeting where a postdoc revealed preliminary results on the parasites they found in different bee species. Lauren is so excited for the data to be entered so they can complete the analysis and better understand which bee species are most vulnerable to parasites and what factors may contribute to bee health in the areas they studied.
Book Recommendations (28:42)
The Bees in Your Backyard: A Guide to North America’s Bees by Joseph S. Wilson and Olivia J. Messinger Carril
Most Treasured Travel (30:46)
Visiting South America has been particularly meaningful for Lauren. There are interesting similarities between the ecosystems in North and South America, and Lauren has met many excellent pollinator researchers there. Recently, Lauren traveled to Buenos Aires, Argentina, and this was an amazing adventure. Since her mother is from Buenos Aires, it was wonderful for Lauren to see this part of the world that is connected with her own family. She also had a chance to meet outstanding colleagues and visit cool places, including the pampas and the hilltops with thriving communities of pollinators.
Another memorable trip for Lauren was visiting Sweden to attend a conference on species interactions. As part of the conference, the attendees stood up on the tables and participated in Swedish folk songs. She also had a chance to visit the tomb and garden of Carl Linnaeus, the creator of the modern scientific naming system.
Quirky Traditions and Funny Memories (33:48)
Lauren and her lab members don’t often wear white lab coats, but they have made those rare occasions more fun by decorating their lab coats. The group got together at one point to bedazzle everyone’s lab coats with rhinestones and fun decorations. Lauren acknowledges that as a young woman with purple hair and a bedazzled lab coat with embroidered butterflies, she doesn’t necessarily fit the image that most people have of a biologist. However, Lauren has found that in the departments where she has worked, there are many young women and diverse people working together and doing great science.
Advice For Us All (39:56)
You just have to forgive yourself sometimes, particularly considering the challenges we are facing in the world today. Take a moment to notice and appreciate all of the diversity around you and reflect on the fact that you are part of this wonderful and complex ecosystem. Despite the global pandemic, it is comforting to know that the bees are still pollinating our flowers and there is a level of stability in our ecosystem.
Lauren’s research focuses on understanding the mechanisms by which species interactions maintain species diversity, and how we can harness these processes to manage and restore diversity in human-modified systems. She focuses on pollinators because they are critical for our food supply and the maintenance of natural plant communities. Her aim is to discover new insights into how communities form, evolve and persist through time and space. In addition, her personal connection to issues concerning agriculture sustainability as a native of the Central Valley and Latina woman has motivated her to study how to design agricultural systems to better support humans and wildlife. Beyond promoting biological diversity, her second mission in life is to increase human diversity in the sciences.