Name: Nicole Valenzuela
Website / Twitter Handle / Instagram:
Where do you work?
Department of Ecology, Evolution and Organismal Biology
Iowa State University
How did you get there?
I started my Bachelor’s in Biology at the University of Los Andes in Colombia, thinking that I wanted to become a plant geneticist. I soon discovered that plants were not my calling after taking Botany the first semester. In my junior year I studied the behavior of newborn brown capuchin monkeys at the International Primatological Center at La Macarena, and that semester of fieldwork in the jungle changed my life, but I learned that behavior was not my calling either. After graduation I worked for two years for the Puerto Rastrojo Foundation that did conservation biology in the Amazonian jungle, and I was assigned to develop a project to study temperature-dependent sex determination (TSD) in the endangered giant Amazonian river turtle (Podocnemis expansa). It was then that I found my passion and became a budding herpetologist. I went to SUNY at Stony Brook with a Fulbright scholarship where I completed my Master’s and PhD working on TSD and ecological genetics of P. expansa, in the lab of Charlie Janson (who studies evolutionary ecology of primates!). During my PhD I married another budding herpetologist and we came to Iowa State University as postdocs in 1999, where I did a teaching postdoc for a living while working with Fred Janzen on his long-term study of turtle reproductive behavior. I became Affiliate Assistant Professor a year after (2000) so that I could apply for funding as an independent researcher, and became an Adjunct Assistant Professor and Associate Scientist (2001-2004) as a spousal accommodation when my husband got a tenure-track job. During that time, I retrained myself in developmental biology to follow my love for genetics and sex determination so that I could study the evo-devo of TSD and GSD (genotypic sex determination) in painted and spiny softshell turtles. I finally started my tenure-track job in 2004 (assistant 2004-2010, associate 2010-2017, full 2017-present). And through those years I followed parallel questions that opened up from our research first on evo-devo, plasticity, macroevolution, and later on the evolution of sex chromosomes, genomes, and most recently, dosage compensation in turtles.
Was there any particular hardship that you had to overcome to work in your position?
I faced multiple challenges during my career. Some were financial, such as working to pay my tuition as an undergraduate, and obtaining grants to fund my very expensive doctoral dissertation because my advisor could not provide funding for my research. And coming from a primatology lab made me somewhat of an ‘outsider’ herpetologist at the beginning since I had no turtle biology mentors in my academic pedigree, although I was also free of prejudice against any one particular school of thought and thus open to good ideas whichever their provenance, which turned out to be much more important. While there is always a risk of getting scooped of your ideas if you share unpublished projects at seminars or conversations (particularly early in your career) and I learned to be more cautious, I did not let this risk derail my research trajectory and I continue to collaborate with a variety of people openly, as I believe this is more fruitful for science. Motherhood was also a challenge professionally because it slowed down my academic productivity for a few years, and while I later realized that the level of productivity I thought was needed to obtain a tenure-track job was in part self-imposed, the change was stressful at the time even though I was splitting all parental duties equally with my spouse. Today, we have some mechanisms to better deal with this transition, such as extending the tenure-clock for new mothers and fathers.
What advice do you give to someone interested in your profession? What advice might you have for someone from an underrepresented group who is interested in entering your field?
Work on something you are passionate about. If you are starting as a graduate student and chose herpetology because you love it, you will excel at your job and will be able to navigate the challenges and dull moments that any PhD and research career has. Find good peers and mentors to create a support group that will help you through the rough times and challenge you to become a better scientist by being critical of your work in a friendly and constructive manner. And ask for help from that support group within your program, institution, or elsewhere if you cannot solve things by yourself. Read, read, read, constantly and broadly. Be critical of established dogma: put all ideas to the test, no matter where they come from or how long they have been held as established. If they are good ideas, they will stand your test, but if they are not, you may contribute to changing a paradigm. Learn the natural history of your creature even if your work does not have a field component directly. Do not divorce ecology from evolution or evolution from ecology, they are inseparable in nature and should be to you too. Attend scientific meetings where you will get to see where the state-of-the-art of the field is, to be energized by the sharing of ideas, and to meet people that may be future collaborators, mentors, reviewers of your grants or publications, or them of yours. And thus, treat everyone with respect, no matter if they are first year students or retired. Do not let your career kill your personal life, nor your personal life kill your career: you are allowed to find a balance between both, and it is ok if this requires relying on your support group. And if you are from any underrepresented group and are contemplating turning your fascination for herpetology into a career, please do, we need you! The more diverse scientists are the stronger science is.
What’s your favorite herp?
Turtles in general, and of all the turtles I work with there is still a special place in my heart for my first herp love, Podocnemis expansa.
Why are you an HL member?
I wanted to support all the herp societies that participate in JMIH, and HL is an important member.
Is there anything else you would like to add?
I would like to see the young generations help steering the HL and sister societies in a direction of inclusivity, attracting diverse members who can help strengthen the research excellence that we strive for but who felt discouraged to become or remain members. The energy, open mindedness, and creativity of the younger generations is also needed to translate all the wonderful research into the effective conservation of herps.
Is there a good caption for your attached photograph?
Getting the next generations excited about herpetology.