In an effort to showcase and amplify the voices of early career researchers in ecology, evolution, and behavior, we are sharing their stories, in their own words.
Dr. Maria Rebolleda-Gomez
Assistant Professor, Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, UC Irvine
Tell us a little about your journey as an ECR, from when you decided you wanted to pursue science to your graduate study to your current appointment at UC Irvine? In particular, what first sparked your interest in studying the evolutionary ecology of microbial communities?
In Mexico, you choose the rough equivalent of a major from the start of your college education, and your major shapes all of the classes you will take (if you major in biology, all of your classes are related to biology). I wanted to be a historian, to work in art preservation, to study biology or chemistry. But I think nothing puzzled me more than the origin of life and the evolution of complexity. At the time, I wanted to do molecular biology because I was fascinated by the complexity of the eukaryotic cell. I have moved in multiple directions in biology ever since, but I think those questions are still motivating my research in different ways. I had a few classes in college that shaped my interests and the directions of my career. One of these classes was on prokaryotic biology – learning about all the cool things prokaryotes can do, and all of the environments they can survive in made me fall in love with bacteria!
I did my undergraduate thesis on the potential for adaptive diversification of different species of Pseudomonas. One species is found all over the world and in our houses, it has a big genome and it is quite a generalist. The other one (as far as we know) is endemic to seasonal ponds in Cuatrociénegas, Mexico that are dominated by different species of Pseudomonas. I came up with this project while talking to Michael Travisano, a long-time friend and collaborator of my undergraduate advisor, who was visiting Cuatrociénegas. Thus, as part of my thesis work, I got to do some experiments in Minnesota in the Travisano lab. While I was there, he and William Ratcliff (at the time a Ph.D. student in a nearby lab) had just evolved multicellular yeast! I thought that was the coolest thing ever and I applied to work with Mike on that project for my Ph.D.
I have always been interested in the philosophical implications of our science; I am interested in what the things we study and how we study them say about ourselves. In graduate school, I became intrigued by the question of what makes a group of cells a new individual, and how interactions between different cells affect their functions and evolution. In trying to answer some of these questions, I did a first postdoc with Tia-Lynn Ashman looking at the ecological dynamics of microbial communities in flowers, and then, after struggling with a couple of unsuccessful years in the job market, I started a second postdoc with Alvaro Sanchez. In Alvaro’s lab, I started looking at the role of microbial physiology and interactions in shaping the ecological and evolutionary dynamics of microbial communities. In retrospect, I needed this second postdoc to fully find who I was (or wanted to be) as a researcher and scholar.
After all of this, I finally get to start my own lab at the University of California, Irvine, where I hope to create a collaborative space to understand how microbes live in communities. In the lab, we are interested in understanding the predictability of community assembly, function, and evolution? How do ecological dynamics affect evolutionary outcomes? And how, in turn, does evolutionary change affect ecological interactions? What kind of ecological and evolutionary changes open novel trajectories and what kind of changes and interactions canalize future responses? I’m really excited to be doing this work here at UCI, which feels like a supportive community and where there is a group of us working on microbial ecology.
What question or project in your work are you really excited about right now?
Right now, we are mostly trying to understand the relationship between community structure and community function. This is a central question to understand the impact of changes in microbial communities in response to disturbances like antibiotics or increased temperatures, and it will help us in designing better strategies to construct or select for stable microbial communities that perform a function of interest (e.g. lignin degradation, avoiding corrosion).
In addition, we are trying to evaluate the ways in which cellular constraints of bacterial physiology might mediate their response to climate change, the ways in which community context might affect evolutionary dynamics, how microbes might affect plant phenology and why, and the conditions promoting the evolution of novelty in microbes.
What has been most challenging about your ECR journey?
I have a curious but extremely scattered brain. I have struggled with this all of my academic life: doing large experiments with the care required in microbial work takes up all of my energy; I often start writing one email and remember that I had to write someone else so I start that email as well, sometimes I have 5 or 6 emails half-written in my desktop. But the hardest thing is to keep track of time! I find this frustrating because it’s really important to me to be reliable and respectful of other people’s time. Being a new PI means that there are 100s of new tasks all the time, many of which require tracking a lot of different kinds of things (lab orders, a rough idea of finances, following up on different university systems to get the lab up and running – many of which I did not even know existed!). This new job often pushes my abilities to organize myself and keep my mind on track. My wife, past mentors, and Marissa (our department administrator) have been incredibly helpful in this regard.
I am trying to be kind to myself about these challenges, because I know the way my brain works is one of my greatest assets: it allows me to move easily between disciplines, synthesize disparate information, and think outside the box. But I work best as a generalist, and the truth is that in our system generalism is a risky strategy. In evaluations, people often want to have simple labels to describe your work, and for collaborations, it is often easier to know exactly how a specialist might contribute. It took me a while to figure out how to work well as a generalist (partially specialized), and I think this will be a struggle I might keep coming back to.
One of the hardest parts about outreach work is getting something started! How do you begin and maintain your outreach initiatives, e.g., the American Naturalist Nature, Data, and Power special issue, your Entangled Banks art collaboration, other community-facing projects?
I guess this is one of the talents of my generalist’s brain. I have this deep need to make connections, to work with different people and disciplines, to force myself to think differently. But outreach also helps me deal with different political tensions in my work. The truth is that I am absolutely fascinated by life’s puzzles, and sometimes these puzzles themselves do not map clearly to my other goals (like living in a more just and equitable world). I deal with this tension between work that is motivated by social justice and work that sometimes feels orthogonal to questions of justice by constantly thinking about the historical, ecological, and material context of my work. I am likely to maintain and stay motivated in outreach projects that keep me engaged with these questions and the community at large. I tend to be less generous to myself, so projects that are much more personal like my blog of science in Spanish (fenotípico) are much harder to keep going (every year I make it a goal to get back into it, and I haven’t updated it since 2016!).
What advice would you have for ECRs who, like you, care deeply about both the scientific and social justice aspects of their work?
My first advice is that to do it right you need to learn multiple languages (you do not have to be the expert, but you should be able to communicate well with activists, people in the humanities, social scientists, or whomever you want to engage with). Learning these new languages takes time and it is not initially rewarded (and it is never externally rewarded in a form that is commensurable with the time invested), but I find this kind of work incredibly rewarding personally: I have met great people, I feel stimulated, and I feel engaged and connected with the world. My other advice is to do it for you and your communities. It is work that at times can feel isolating from other scientists that do not share the same interests. Meet people across disciplines and get in touch with those of us trying to do this kind of work.
What’s a passion of yours outside of your research and outreach work?
In addition to my research, one of my side academic/non-academic interests is food! I love eating; cooking; learning about food production, the histories and ecology of different ingredients, and I am passionate about food justice and food labor activism. I am currently in the process of designing an undergraduate class on ecological and evolutionary perspectives on food and food systems (with hopefully a fair amount of smuggling from history and food justice).
Tell us about your new lab at UC Irvine!
I am starting a lab at the University of California, Irvine. The COMMONS lab (https://mrebolleda.github.io/). And as described on the website:
“The acronym stands for ‘Community Organization, Microbial Metabolism and the Origins of Natural Selection’. But the name stands for something bigger: A common space to work and create in community. In the lab, we are interested in understanding how predictable are community assembly, function, and evolution? How do ecological dynamics affect evolutionary outcomes? And how, in turn, does evolutionary change affect ecological interactions? What kind of ecological and evolutionary changes open novel trajectories and what kind of changes and interactions canalize future responses? The COMMONS lab is about understanding organisms in relationships. It is about understanding the historical nature of evolution–how microbes shape and are shaped by their ecologies.”