Pietro Longo Hollanda de Mello
Summer 2022 Mentor Spotlight
2022 Undergraduate Research Mentor Award
Department: Ecology and Evolutionary Biology
Describe your work in a few sentences that we can all understand: Life is so intrinsically related to diversity that we often take it for granted. Look outside your window in Lawrence and you'll most likely find cardinals (the bird, not the priest), oaks (the plant, not the professor) and humans. A fundamental question in my field and that upon which my research program is focused is how these differences have arisen and how are they maintained? How come we have differences between species (e.g., you vs cardinal), within species (e.g., you vs your room mate), and even within individuals (e.g., the cells that make up the skin in the palm of your hand vs those that make up the neurons that are helping you read this text). My research is focused on using a myriad tools from fancy-named science fields like 'genomics,' 'transcriptomics,' and 'functional biology,' along with field expeditions and lab experiments to figure out how genes and cells interact to create and maintain different traits within and across species
Q: What does your research look like on a day-to-day basis? What do you spend most of your time doing?
A: Ah, yes, the ordinary day of an evolutionary biologist / geneticist. To be honest, our field is so broad and diverse that my day-to-day is only a small picture of what is possible. For context, I think it is worth mentioning what I like to do. First off, I was a gamer. I always enjoyed solving problems and was somewhat interested in computers. Second, I liked playing sports and being out and about in trails and doing many outdoorsy things. Third, I'm competitive, but I mostly compete against myself, trying to improve day to day. Fourth, I like to cook. I enjoy baking, but I mostly like cooking, which means that I appreciate following recipes, but I like to have some freedom in the process. Now, this might sound like I'm giving you too much information, but hopefully it'll make sense in a second. My dissertation at KU can be divided in four moments. First, I was a bookworm, trying to learn everything I could after moving to the US. Being from Brazil I didn't have access to many methods that were standard in the US, so I had a lot of reading to do. Thus, early on I'd spend many hours every day reading manuscripts and books. Next, it was fieldwork time. During that stretch I'd spend three months every year in the Dominican Republic, collecting specimens and establishing collaborations. During the other 9 months of the year I'd be taking classes, as well as learning new coding skills and statistical methods that I'd need to analyze my data. Third, it was lab work time. This meant performing previously established 'recipes' to extract / sequence DNA and RNA, as well as tinker these protocols to optimize them to my own system. Lastly, I've been spending most of my day doing one of four things: 1. Writing my dissertation; 2. Finalizing computational analyzes; 3. Reading; 4. Mentoring. How much time I spent on each of these depends, but I try to spend around 2.5 to 3 hours a day at each of these, since it is crunch time and I'm about to defend. Remember, work-life balance is key, you have to find your own. I exercise and hang out with people I love every day. Academia can be treacherous. Finding time to take care of yourself and those around you is key to stay healthy.
Q: How did you first get interested in doing research or creative work?
A: Many biologists have what some refer to the 'Butterfly on the shoulder moment.' That one moment where a 'butterfly landed on my shoulder, and I knew I wanted to be a biologist!' I never had that. Honestly, not having a 'moment' in which I felt 'special' or connected with nature made me feel like an outcast in biology for the longest time. What drove me to biology was mostly curiosity. I'm interested in understanding how life works, and I wanted to be able to work in a field in which I could contribute to human understanding. That said, I did not want to be a medical doctor. I always hated the medical environment, and found that focusing exclusively in humans was underwhelming. Understanding that this meant being a biologist was not straightforward, as those in my family that managed to get a degree chose to be either a lawyer or engineer. Eventually, by trying different classes as an undergraduate in Brazil, participating in different labs, and eventually getting a masters and starting a PhD I figured out that I enjoyed solving problems, and mentoring and collaborating with others in the process.
Q: What do students in your discipline learn by doing research that they wouldn’t learn by just taking classes?
A: So much. I'd say that most of my learning came from getting outside my comfort zone when doing field work. Don't get me wrong, I learned a lot about discipline and commitment by leading my own research project. I also learned a bunch when reading and writing to publish a manuscript. However, going out and doing field work, be it in the US or abroad, is such and enriching experience. If you got lucky enough to be born privileged, this might be your first chance to really see how the world looks like. How diverse it is, how different people are, what they like, what they believe in (or chose not to believe in), what their perspectives are. Importantly, going out in the field isn't a tamed 'study abroad' program. You're most definitely out there, facing the world as it is. Plus, on top of all of those anthropologic and sociologic experiences, you get the joy of being out in the field and connecting to nature. There is no class that can get even close to that.
Q: What do you find to be the most exciting part of doing research or creative work? What makes this line of work meaningful and interesting to you?
A: Two things are equally important for me: 1. Feeling like I'm the first one to see / realize something; 2. Helping my mentees feel like they've figured something out. Both of these fill me up with joy. For me the academic path isn't made up of big accomplishments, like publishing a manuscript, or even finishing up my PhD. What really makes it worth for me is the small weekly victories that we get, and how much they mean after the sometimes big losses we might just have been through.
Q: For many students, doing research or a larger creative project is the first time they have done work that routinely involves setbacks and the need to troubleshoot problems. Can you tell us about a time that your research didn’t go as expected? Or about any tricks or habits that you’ve developed to help you stay resilient in the face of obstacles?
I'd say that troubleshooting is 85% of the process. Almost nothing goes as expected. Honestly, in my field I'm most surprise when things do go as expected. Usually when that happens I tend to say: 'Huh, look at that, it didn't glitch / break / die.' Be it when I'm out in the field when I don't find what I'm looking for, or even when I was planning on running an analysis and then learning that my data wasn't adequate for it, dealing with obstacles is a major part of research life. To some extent we're in the forefront of knowledge. This means that very often we have to make the tools we'll need to solve the problems we're interested in. Now, this is not straightforward. In my opinion there are a few different ways to surpass obstacles. Some of which include collaborating with others, which is a key and underrated skill in science. Another option is to call it a day, coming back to a problem one or a few days later, fresh. And a third and always valuable option is to step back and relax. Sometimes we get caught up in the problem and this might make it look worse than it actually is. Stepping back and trying to see the broad picture might help make the problem more tractable.
Q: How do you spend your time outside of work?
A: Talking to and hanging with family and friends, exercising (yoga, climbing, football - not the US one, - volleyball, running, you name it), learning new languages, playing music, cooking.