In celebration of National Pollinator Month, USDA’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA) is highlighting NIFA-funded researcher Dr. Anahí Espíndola. Dr. Espíndola serves as an assistant professor in the Department of Entomology at University of Maryland (UMD).
Tell us your journey and how your interest in agriculture developed.
I am from Argentina, where I started my career in biology at the University of Córdoba. After moving to Switzerland, I obtained my biology degree, and later my master’s and Ph.D. at the University of Neuchâtel (Switzerland). After my postdoctoral work at the Universities of Lausanne (Switzerland) and Idaho, I am now an assistant professor in the Department of Entomology at the University of Maryland, College Park.
I have been working on pollination interactions for pretty much my whole career. My research seeks to understand the effect of the abiotic and biotic environment on the ecology and evolution of pollination interactions. (Biotic factors are living things within an ecosystem such as plants, animals and bacteria; abiotic are nonliving components such as water, soil and atmosphere.) Because pollination is also central to human-dominated environments such as the agroecosystem, I saw an opportunity to use my knowledge of the biology of pollination to better understand how changes in the agroecosystem can affect the ecology and evolution of their pollination interactions, and crop production.
Describe your involvement with NIFA and your role.
I am involved with NIFA through both my research and my Extension work. I am currently leading a Crop Protection and Pest Management (CPPM) Extension Implementation Program (EIP) project, which funds a large part of my Extension and outreach work. My lab and team are also currently funded through Northeast Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education and Hatch Act projects, and this is central to the advancing of our research on pollination interactions in agroecosystems.
Could you catch us up on one of your NIFA-funded projects? What is the goal of your project and what impact do you hope it has on your institution and trainees?
One of my NIFA-funded projects is the CPPM-EIP project “Multidisciplinary IPM Solutions for a Diverse State,” where, with a team of outstanding Extension specialists and researchers, we are providing quality Extension materials and training that target many of our Maryland stakeholders. Within this project, our lab is involved in promoting pollination and pollinator information, trainings and demonstration plots using our access to experimental farms, and interacting with youth, farmers, landscapers, city officials and homeowners to promote activities that make the habitats we live and work in more biodiverse and able to support a larger diversity of pollinators (and other beneficials). For instance, the project allows us to partner with 4-H to create lesson plans being used in several camps and events that 4-H hosts, with a reach of several thousands of kids across the state. This funding also allows us to publish blogs and other materials on UMD-managed newsletters and blogs, with a reach of dozens of thousands of people. Along the purely pollination-related aspect of this project, there is a section of it that I am very excited about because it fills a gap in our area. Through this project, we have now expanded an Extension Blog in Spanish that I had started with a fellow faculty member in early 2021, and that offers high-quality Extension materials for Spanish-speakers. Although I have been writing monthly posts on pollination topics in Spanish for a while, the support we are receiving from NIFA allows us to expand our content and reach. We can now better cover our work, translations and blog costs, and make materials originally written in English accessible to Spanish-speakers.
The different aspects of this project allow us to better serve the diverse communities of our very diverse state. The impact of this project on our institution, the communities we serve and our ability to train others is extremely high. In terms of my lab’s contributions to this project, this has allowed our institution to become a reference for pollination-related topics, and we are often reached to assist and train others on this, allowing lab members to gain training in Extension and outreach. The project has also provided the opportunity to fund and train students and post-docs on Extension-related activities beyond my own lab and is currently allowing our materials in Spanish to reach the populations that are needing them. On the latter, the ability for us to create materials in Spanish is also letting us train members of our institution in two rare ways: UMD students in linguistics get trained in translation of Extension materials, and native Spanish-speakers who are members of our institution now have the opportunity to write in their native language, allowing for that part of their identities to connect with their careers, and people from their communities to access the knowledge they are acquiring through their training.
How has the NIFA CPPM-EIP program shaped your professional development as a scientist?
My formal training is in biology, specifically pollination ecology and evolution. Although my training in Argentina put the social aspect of my career upfront (e.g., a central part of one’s training involves realizing our responsibility to serve society), most of my academic career outside of Argentina put research work as a priority over outreach/Extension. In my new role as leader and participant in our CPPM-EIP project, I have been able to expand on these activities and finally do the outreach/Extension activities that I had always been wanting to do as a part of my work. Being able to interact with our communities and serve them with my knowledge is, indeed, one of the aspects of my work that motivates me and helps my professional growth. From a more practical perspective, navigating federal reporting structures has given me a new insight into team management, and increased even more my appreciation and thankfulness for the wonderful work that our administrative staff does.
What advice do you have for current students who may be interested in pursuing a similar career path?
Understand what excites you and surround yourself of mentors and people who care about you. Academia and the research world are difficult at times, but doing something that rewards you as a person and member of society, and having mentors that will make you aware and prepare you for professional opportunities will allow you to succeed and, most importantly, be happy and feel fulfilled. And then, when you start progressing in your path, give back to those that come after you so they can succeed as well. We never get where we are only by ourselves!
Anything else you would like to add?
My work in biodiversity and species interactions cannot be disconnected from another diversity-related aspect of my career and academia: Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI). I want to use this space to invite all members of academia to learn about and commit to DEI actions. Once we start acquiring power, it is central that we identify and execute actions that we can take to make our spaces, institutions and academia first acknowledge the existence of racism/sexism/homophobia/transphobia/ableism/classism in them, and then push and act for change.
Photo: Dr. Espindola serves as an assistant professor in the Department of Entomology at University of Maryland. Image submitted by Dr. Espindola.