When Ciara Sánchez Paredes first joined an expedition to study venomous snakes in the Peruvian Amazon, she was nervous. “I was kind of scared of the snakes,” says Sánchez Paredes, a native of Peru who had finished her bachelor’s degree in biology less than a year earlier.
But that all changed when she spotted her first coral snake. She saw that, although their bite can kill a human within an hour, they were “humble” and would only strike at her if she really provoked them. They weren’t as scary as she had feared.
It also helped that the expedition leader—Talia Moore, a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor—was extremely safety-conscious. “Most venomous snake biologists are these really high-testosterone men who want to brag about how many times they’ve been bitten by some sort of viper and survived,” Moore says. “What we’re trying to do is increase the safety” so that the work is accessible to more people, she adds.
Moore’s efforts to make venomous snake research more inclusive are part of the reason that she, along with nine other postdocs, is receiving an outstanding postdoctoral fellow award at her university today in celebration of this year’s National Postdoc Appreciation Week. In its ninth year, the annual event, which kicks off today, showcases the contributions of postdocs at events in the United States, Canada, and the United Kingdom.
“I’m actually terrified of snakes,” Moore admits. “But the science is so cool and so amazing that … I still feel compelled to do this research.”
She studies how the behavior of coral snakes compares with coral snake mimics, a group of snakes that look similar to coral snakes but lack their venomous punch. She wants to figure out whether the mimics have not only evolved to look like coral snakes, but have also evolved to act in the same way when they’re threatened. (Coral snakes thrash around and “coil up their tails like a cinnamon bun,” she says.)
She sends field crews deep into the Amazon to catch snakes and videotape their movements. Safety is key: Fieldworkers don tall rubber boots and impenetrable “venom-defender” gloves and follow strict safety protocols—especially when they’re catching venomous snakes. As Sánchez Paredes puts it, “even though we want to get as much data as possible, we are not supposed to put our life at risk.” Moore thinks that her own “healthy fear of snakes,” as she describes it, may help put others at ease: If she wouldn’t put herself in danger, then they can trust that she wouldn’t put them in danger either.
Back in the United States, Moore enlists an army of undergraduate and graduate students to help analyze the many thousands of video recordings. “It’s actually making it very accessible because not everyone can take a month off of school to go down to the jungle,” Moore says. “By bringing the videos to them, we’re immersing them in a field-like experience and getting them a firsthand view of behavior.”
Her passion for making science more inclusive is fueled partly by her own background: Her mother is Japanese and father is Caucasian, and she has “always been a part of multiple cultures at the same time,” she says. That’s made her particularly sensitive to diversity issues. “When I see a field … that’s generally pretty homogeneous, it makes me wonder why that is and what is discouraging different types of people from going into that field.”
Moore’s efforts to provide access to field projects that are normally out of reach for undergraduate trainees go “above and beyond,” says Moore’s adviser Alison Davis Rabosky, an assistant professor at the University of Michigan. “We do pretty hardcore field expeditions to remote places,” Davis Rabosky says. “If wrangling snakes in the field is not what you want to do, there’s still plenty of room in our lab for other skills you may have.” Moore’s videotapes, in particular, provide a visceral way for students to get involved in biodiversity research on another continent, she says.
Moore is “super engaged” in training undergraduates, says Erin Westeen, who worked with Moore as an undergraduate and wrote a letter recommending her for the award. Moore taught a few first-year students how to write computer code, which takes “an insane amount of patience” and can really change student trajectories, says Westeen, who is now a Ph.D. student at the University of California, Berkeley. “I want to aspire to be like her as a mentor.”
Working with Moore was also inspirational for Sánchez Paredes, who currently works as a freelance environmental consultant in Lima. Sánchez Paredes didn’t have any female role models in science until she met Moore and Davis Rabosky. “In Peru we have a lot of machismo,” she says. “So sometimes women aren’t considered as intelligent or as able.” Seeing the female snake researchers as confident, capable biologists was empowering for her. “When you see that, you feel like you are able to do that; you have a role model to follow.”
In the 2 years since Sánchez Paredes first joined Moore’s expedition, Moore has become a valuable mentor for the budding scientist, helping her with graduate school applications, working with her on a publication, and even housing her for a month during a trip to Michigan. Sánchez Paredes wasn’t accepted into a Ph.D. program on her first try—but Moore pushed her to keep working toward her goal, noting that science is filled with moments when you feel like a failure. “That’s how science works,” Moore told her. “But you have to keep going.”
One day, Sánchez Paredes hopes to study how snakes could be used to detect environmental impacts. She may even study the “humble” coral snake—an animal she’s grown to love.