A Lifelong Passion for Science

Lisa Rodrigues, a 1999 BIOS Bermuda Program alum, is an assistant professor at Villanova University in Pennsylvania where she teaches courses in oceanography, research methods, and environmental science, policy, and management. In her research lab at Villanova, Rodrigues shows students a prepared coral core and slab from Guánica, Puerto Rico. Annual growth bands within the coral are used to study past land use change. (Photo credit: Gavin Kreitman)

In the summer of 1999, in the middle of working toward her master’s degree in zoology at the University of Toronto, Lisa Rodrigues—then 21—returned home to Bermuda. Having heard about BIOS from her advisor, and with an interest in focusing on the island’s marine organisms for her thesis, she applied to and was accepted into the Bermuda Program. Now, as then, the Bermuda Program offers intensive, hands-on summer internships in marine and atmospheric sciences to Bermudian students ages 18 and older.

“My entry into the program is probably a little unusual and definitely quite different from the current application process, but it was a great experience and I remember it fondly,” she said.

Rodrigues graduated from the University of Toronto in 2000 and went on to obtain a doctoral degree in earth and environmental sciences from the University of Pennsylvania in 2005. Today, she is an associate professor at Villanova University in Pennsylvania where she teaches courses in environmental science, environmental policy and management, research methods in environmental science, and oceanography.

We recently had the opportunity to chat with Rodrigues and she shared with us a bit about her background, her experience with the Bermuda Program, and her current job.

Rodrigues (far left), one of her collaborators, and students overlook some of their field study sites in Guánica Bay, Puerto Rico. Runoff from mountainous and agricultural regions enter the bay and affect nearshore reefs, which have been severely impacted in the last few decades. With funding from the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, Rodrigues and her team use trace metal analyses of coral cores to help identify when human activities on land first started to impact the local reef environment. (Photo credit: Sean Frangos)

What sparked your interest in science?
I always knew that I wanted to be a scientist. It’s the only thing I can ever remember wanting to do. Long before I started going to primary school, my mom used to take me regularly to the Bermuda Aquarium, Museum, and Zoo. I actually don’t know which came first—my interest or those aquarium trips—but the visits sparked a more specific interest in marine sciences that continues today. My parents were and continue to be very supportive of my career path and choices, even when it wasn’t a typical path to take in Bermuda at the time, they encouraged me to follow my passion.

Can you share a little about your experience with the Bermuda Program?
During my internship, I worked with Kathryn Coates, who was then a research scientist and marine invertebrate biologist at BIOS. She was gracious enough to let me join her group and work on my own project during the summer between the two years of my academic program, even though it was different from her own research area. 

My research, which I used for my master’s thesis, focused on the endemic Bermudian hermit crab (Calcinus verilli). It lives in shells, but it’s also quite unusual in that it can be found living in tubes that are attached to the reef. It was thought to mainly inhabit the boiler reefs on the south shore, but I found it everywhere I looked. My research found that mostly males are mobile and live in shells, while mostly females live in tubes. We published several scientific papers about some of their different behaviors. I haven’t made it back to studying those hermit crabs again, but I would love to – there are still lots of interesting things left to discover!

Do you feel your time at BIOS impacted your future career choice?
Most definitely, yes, the Bermuda Program helped guide my direction and path. I didn’t think I wanted to get a Ph.D. or become a professor when I was working on my summer research at BIOS, but I enjoyed the experience and realized fairly quickly afterwards that I wanted to continue doing marine science research. I’ve been fortunate to have great mentors, including during my time at the Bermuda Program. I try to guide my students in the way that I was mentored and hope I do as good a job! In addition, the unique experience of working at a field station is quite special. Some of my favorite memories are being at the field station, sharing interests with others and meeting scientists from all over. I’ve visited, worked, and lived at many other field stations around the world and I love the atmosphere and the sense of community.

What does your current job entail?
I teach undergraduate and graduate classes and also conduct research with students. My current research focuses on coral reefs and I’ve been studying coral bleaching in Hawaii and the impact of land use change in Puerto Rico, and we’ve even started studying a coral species from Rhode Island. I have students, both undergraduate and graduate, who work in my lab doing their own research and making their own discoveries. 

What are the most challenging and rewarding aspects of your job?
Well, it’s midterm season here and making up exams and grading them are two of the things I find to be the most challenging and least favorite parts about my job. Since being a professor I realize that I would much rather study and take an exam than make up questions and grade them! My students never believe me when I tell them that, but it’s 100% the truth. I really enjoy working with students, both in formal academic settings in classrooms and informally in the lab and field. It’s rewarding to spark an interest in a student who doesn’t think they like science when they start a class. Or to see that excitement grow when they graph their own data after weeks or months of lab and field work. There’s an “a-ha” moment that happens when students start making connections between what we talk about in the classroom and what they observe in the real world, that is really cool. It’s a privilege to witness and it makes my job a lot of fun.

Do you have any advice for undergraduate students who might be interested in following a similar career path?
Getting a graduate degree, whether it’s a master’s or a Ph.D. or both, in the sciences is a big commitment and shouldn’t be entered into lightly. If you like asking questions and are curious about the world around you and want to learn more after your undergraduate studies, a graduate program is a good place to start. When I realized that I enjoyed all the steps of the research process—from asking questions and designing experiments, to collecting data in the field and doing lab work, to analyzing data and writing about my findings—I realized that graduate school was for me. I continued that path toward becoming a professor because I really enjoy teaching and including students at each step of the research process. I encourage my own students to pursue their academic passion, to explore and try new things, as that type of exploration will lead them toward a career that is both enjoyable and fulfilling for them.