Centennial Story 82: Mariana Tamayo (MS, 1998; PhD, 2003)

When I think of SAFS, the first words that come to mind are friendship, resilience, and collaboration— all of which I was very lucky to gain as a graduate student in SAFS, and still carry with me. The journey to SAFS was one of many detours, a few dead ends, persistence (or perhaps stubbornness?), and serendipity. My love for aquatic systems, invertebrates, plants, and the outdoors in general began as a kid visiting lakes outside Bogotá (Colombia) with my family. This continued as an adult while spending time in Florida learning about estuaries, hanging out at the beach, and meeting a Viking from Iceland. After a couple of visits to the Aleutian Islands for environmental education and to conduct wildlife surveys, and checking out Iceland (quite similar to the Aleutians), I ended up in Seattle wanting to go to graduate school.

My office in SAFS; a place of thinking, problem solving, and incubating ideas over coffee with fellow students
My office in SAFS; a place of thinking, problem solving, and incubating ideas over coffee with fellow students

I was very interested in doing applied research in aquatic systems, which involved fieldwork and collaborating with different stakeholders. After checking out several graduate programs and taking some classes in SAFS, it was clear that SAFS was the place to be. The comradery in SAFS is like no other, always fostering creativity and collaboration. I was very fortunate to work, both as a volunteer and as a paid lab and field assistant, with several research groups in SAFS, including the Wetland Ecosystem Team (with copepod guru Jeff Cordell [MS, 1986]) and the Washington Cooperative Fish and Wildlife Research Unit (with wildlife toxicology extraordinaire Chris Grue and his lab). Ultimately, I joined Chris Grue’s lab and began my lifelong career studying native insects and invasive plants.

My graduate research examined the herbivory of a native aquatic insect, the milfoil weevil (not to be confused with the Fisher Price Weebles), on the invasive plant Eurasian milfoil. This was a wonderful project! I spent the summers snorkeling in lakes around Washington; interacting with other students, resource managers, and local anglers; and building up resilience. Some highlights related to resilience include saying out loud, “what a perfect day of fieldwork, not a single problem” and then realizing you just locked yourself out of the truck (keys sitting nicely on the driver’s seat), while standing in a bikini and a towel in the middle of the Potholes Reservoir Area. Similarly, designing a weevil rearing experiment that involved growing Eurasian milfoil (which is spreading throughout lakes and rivers in North America) in the lab and not being able to implement it. I thought I was a good gardener, but apparently, I cannot seem to grow invasive plants…. In the end, it all worked out and these lessons in resilience still come in handy today. Just last summer, after having a challenging day in the field in southern Iceland yet managing to collect some promising data and savoring the accomplishment for 30 seconds, a gust of Arctic wind took hold of my data sheets and made them disappear to who knows where. After a moment of panic and swearing, followed by calmness, thinking “It’s not the end of the world” and then, taking a walk downwind I found my data sheets wrapped around a wire fence 70 meters from my study area. So thank you SAFS for helping me build up my resilience!

My summer office in southern Iceland, where I study native insect herbivores on Nootka lupine (background), an invasive plant spreading throughout Iceland
My summer office in southern Iceland, where I study native insect herbivores on Nootka lupine (background), an invasive plant spreading throughout Iceland

Now, I am with the Environment and Natural Resources Program at the University of Iceland and try to encourage friendship, resilience, and collaboration in my students, as SAFS did with me. Together we look at invasive species, plant-insect interactions, and biodiversity, and overall enjoy what we do. If you happen to be in southern Iceland during the summer and see a person, walking in the Nootka lupine fields and maybe carrying a bottle of olive oil, some duct tape, and a hammer that looks like Thor’s hammer, it is probably me. Stop by and I will gladly chat with you about my insect herbivory work, which started in SAFS as a graduate student.

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