Gettin’ buggy with it – Nancy Miorelli joins Real Scientists!

20170302_073551This week we’re happy to welcome Nancy Miorelli (@SciBugs) to Real Scientists! Nancy is a Guide and Science Communicator at the Maquipucuna Reserve and Ecolodge in Quito, Ecuador. We asked Nancy our usual set of questions, and you can read her responses below:

I think science was very natural for me. I grew up on a one lane dirt road in the middle of nowhere Connecticut. I’m now living on a one lane dirt road in the middle of nowhere Nanegal, Ecuador. The natural world, especially insects, has always fascinated me. My dad majored in Aeronautical Engineering and whenever I asked, “how do my bike gears work?” or “why does sometimes the windshield fog on the inside and other times on the outside?” he would always have an answer for me. But when I asked biology questions, like, “How does your heart work?” or “why do butterflies have their colors?” he never had an answer. And I thought, at my young age of 10, if Dad doesn’t know, no one knows! And that’s how I got into biology. The second thing that got me into biology was Pokémon. Pokémon was my childhood and who doesn’t dream of traveling the world at age 10? In the first 5 minutes of the game, you go to Professor Oak’s house where he explains Pokémon – some people use them to battle, some people have them as pets, and that he studies Pokémon as profession. And 10-year-old-me thought, “I wish there were Pokémon in real life so I could study them!” Then I grew up and realized I can do that. It’s called “Ecology.”

The natural world was always fascinating to me. Sea slugs that duel with their penises, rams that bash their heads over females, creepy deep sea creatures that carry lanterns, worms that drive crickets like cars. How can you not love biology? I was always so interested in everything narrowing it down was hard but I think there were three things that got me into Entomology (bugs).

1) On my one lane dirt road in the middle of nowhere CT, my parents tossed me outside until dinner every day. People are hard to come by in the middle of the woods, I’m nearsighted and can’t see birds, so naturally I was fascinated by the bugs as they were one of the few things I could easily see and catch.

2) I worked at the Albany Pine Bush in college studying the Prairie Warbler and how edges affected its nesting behaviors. I found out that I quickly became frustrated by birds but would take every opportunity to sneak in on any of the entomology projects. The highlight was falling face-first into a swamp to catch a rare dragonfly. We got it.

3) I did a term abroad in Australia focusing mainly on marine and terrestrial ecology. When I got home I realized I had about 2 pictures of kangaroos and 150 billion pictures of random bugs I had found. When I asked what they were no one could tell me!

I’ve found that the more questions I asked about bugs and their biology, the more people threw their hands up. “Sorry, I don’t know.” or “I’m not expert in that.” or “Actually, it hasn’t been researched yet.” This complete lack of knowledge about things we see every day set me on my path to become an entomologist. I’m a guide and science communicator at the Maquipucuna Reserve and Ecolodge in Quito, Ecuador.

I have the best job. I run around the cloud forest, take pictures of bugs, guide tourists, give presentations about insect biology, design and run environmental education programs for Ecuadorian kids living in Quito. I also produce videos highlighting little bits of biology from here. You can find that here: www.youtube.com/SciBugs

I also help out with research projects! I’m working on one with Aaron Pomerantz studying the formation of butterfly scales. I’m in love with this project because my favorite topic in entomology is basically “why and how are bugs shiny?” I’m working on a project to identify one of the firefly larvae that live close to the lodge and sorting out their biology. We’re hoping that we can successfully rear them so we can identify the adults. Of the thousands or so firefly species only a handful we know the life history and larvae. We’re also working a on project about understanding the fruiting cycle of the Pacche Tree which is a little fruit that the Andean Spectacled Bear eats. Not only do we not know much about its phenology, but there’s a fungus attacking the fruits that we’re investigating.” “When you think of Ecuador, what do you think of? Probably the Galapagos or the Amazon. The whole chunk along the Andes is a somewhat forgotten hotspot for biodiversity. In fact, Ecuador is the most biodiverse country by landmass. All the mountains create little biological island pockets and what’s here to be discovered and researched is unfathomable. I know it’s cliche but there might be a cure for a disease out here. There’s a tree growing right here in the reserve that naturally produces Quinine – a chemical used to treat malaria.

As far as insects go, the reasons why the public should care are endless. Insects are the number one competitor for our food, our health, and our space. Understanding their biology can help us produce better crop yields, prevent diseases, and keep them out of our homes. However, we can learn so much from them as well. Glowsticks were invented after understanding how firefly butts glow. We are improving fiber optics and inventing more creative solutions for security encryption after studying butterfly wings. We’re studying spider webs to make windows that birds won’t bump into. We’re copying beetle shell structures for a mechanism that can collect water from fog. We’re studying flea joints to make more resilient rubber. And that’s just a few off the top of my head! Imagine what’s lurking out there – we just need more people studying it. The project I’ve invested the most in is a project I started with Carlos Cañizares, one of the guides at the Maquipucuna Reserve. His family was affected by the earthquakes in April of 2016. Many of their houses fell and were left homeless. Through a ton of fundraising we raised enough money to build 12 houses and sometime in March we’re returning to put bathrooms in all of the houses. You can check out that project here.

I also write for “Ask an Entomologist”, a blog where my friend Joe Ballenger and I literally answer questions from the public about bugs! No question is off limits. I love this project because I’ve learned so much about topics that I might not have otherwise learned about. I’ve read more scientific articles for this blog than I ever did during my Master’s program. Check it out here.

I started my own business on the side. Since I am a volunteer at the Maquipucuna lodge right now, I don’t have a source of income. They give me a place to live and free food but I’m not earning any money. So, I started selling jewelry using jewel beetle and butterfly wings in combination with a palm nut called Tagua that comes from Ecuador. If you’d like to help support me in the jungle, consider getting some jewelry from me! Thanks =)

I’m an artist at heart as well so I’ll do little art projects to improve the Maquipucuna Ecolodge like designing a vertical garden and building lamp shades featuring Maqui’s biodiversity. For my perfect day off: The beach! I love going to the beach. If I wasn’t studying insects, I’d be studying cuttlefish or nudibranchs or something. Most people walk along the beach and collect shells and sea glass. I do that stuff too, but I always come back with an eclectic assortment of what I think most other people would call “garbage.” Fish bones, cow teeth, broken bits of shells, interesting rocks, cuttlefish ‘bones’. Plus the wildlife on the beach here is incredible! Blue footed boobies, whales, and my favorite – the giant iguanas that climb trees.

Please welcome Nancy to Real Scientists!

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