Face of the LIB: Dagmara Żyła

“My happiest moment at work is definitely to look through my microscope and see my beetles.”

Here, Dagmara Żyła collects insects from the net with the suction tube. © LIB, Żyła

 

As the head of the coleopteran section, beetles professionally fascinate Dr Dagmara Żyła. For her dream, working as a scientist, she had to focus on her goal and moved to Hamburg for that very reason. In out interview, she tells us how hard it is to become a fulltime scientist and what young biologist should expect. 

When was it clear for you that you want to become a scientist?

It was really late for me, because that was in high school. As a kid, I was always interested in different scientific topics. When I was eight or nine years old, my favourite books were encyclopaedias. However, unfortunately I had only those ones from the letter D to S – so I was missing all things starting from A and all those beginning with a letter of the end of the alphabet. Moreover, of course as a kid I loved dinosaurs, which carried on. Because when I started doing my bachelor, master and PHD thesis, I started with palaeontology and with insects.

Was there any plan B, if becoming a scientist would not work out?

At that time, my plan B was to become a teacher. Most likely a high school teacher. My first plan was to end up in science, but I was really naïve at the time. I did not know how difficult it would be and how much we have to sacrifice on our way. I have no regrets, but I do wish I had the knowledge I have today, to be better prepared of what to expect.

What would you expect then and what are you telling your own students at the beginning of their scientific career?

I usually tell them as well as what I try to do is to try different aspects of biology. Trying out different things helps to find the profession, you are really passionate about in the end. When we talk about the career path , I tell them openly that this path is not an easy one to pursuit. When I look at my own choices and the path I was going, I warn them to be very persistent and to have very strong nerves to make it to the end.

What kind thing are in the way making it so hard to be a scientist?

Poland, where I am from, is a rather good country to start, because there are some good institutions doing good science. On the other hand, a country was a little behind on some of the trends in academic career when I was a student. I was not prepare for example to really fight for a post-doc position. I think until halve way though my PHD-studies I was not even aware, that there is something like a post-doc position. Since I was the first one in my family to study at an university. I did not have a scientific role model in my family, so I did not know how a “perfect” career in science should look like. As almost every woman in academia, I had a more difficult start then some of my male colleagues. I was not really aware of it at the time, but looking back, I realize that it was not how it should be. The major problem is anyway, before you land a tenure-track position, you have to be prepared for a lot of disappointments, for moving around the world, for doing something you don’t really want to do. In addition, sometimes it is difficult to start a family. You need to have a very understanding partner. I am fortunate to have one of those, and this is really one of the reasons I am here today. Because my partner had a lot of empathy for my career path and understands that I need to go where my profession is needed and not necessarily, where we want to stay the most.

Now that you made it here: what is the part of your job, you are looking most forward to?

The happiest part of my day is when I can look at my beetles (Staphylinidae) and study them. To get in touch with my students with who I can share what I see, what I think and what I´ve discovered. I really love my job, despite all those barriers I was talking about earlier. All was worth it in the end for me. I did not give up and that lead me here, where I am very happy to be. I love being at work and I love the collection here at the Museum of Nature Hamburg. I would love to have more students, because I really enjoy working with them and we surely have enough beetles for everyone! My happiest moment at work is definitely to look through my microscope and see my beetles.

Is there any place where you feel deeply connected to nature?

There is! I´ve been there twice and it really had a deep impact on myself. The first time I fell in love completely and the second time I confirmed that the Amazon Rainforest is absolutely my favourite spot. The diversity in species and everything around is totally stunning. My beetles of course, but other organisms as well. Both of my visits were expeditions. The first time I went as a participant and I was a bit afraid at first. I am arachnophobic and I was really expecting to see horrifying spiders in the Amazon Rainforest. There are all kinds of really dangerous animals and plants we normally don’t come across in Europe. It was stressful for that reason, but it was my childhood dream to see it in person. Like a bookworm I was reading all kind of literature about the tropical regions. However, during my first time there I learned how to behave in that ecosystem and how to be aware of all those dangerous lifeforms – so I became much more comfortable staying there. The second time I was less afraid, but still full of respect for the nature. I went there this time as an organizer of the trip, which was different. All of the participants enjoyed the trip a lot and we were able to collect great material for our collections.

What is your favourite animals apart from beetle – which would be your obvious choice – and why?

I am definitely interested in insects the most. They are amazing in their evolutionary success and they are absolutely everywhere in the world. You can study a lot of patterns and processes with them. They are also pretty in my opinion – and I am not solely talking about the colourful butterflies. I am fascinated about their lifestyles and how they interact with their surroundings. I am also a bit captivated by spiders – I just can´t look at them too closely.

How would you describe the term “biodiversity” to a group of children?

The most convincing evidence of biodiversity is to show it to the people – it does not matter how old they are. Going with them into the field and showing them what lives in the parks and forests here in Hamburg for example. They are not cleaned in a good way: there is still a good environment for lots of species living under branches or in bushes. If I move leaf litter around on guided tours, I can always see how amazed the people are. If you enter a park by yourself, you most likely not recognize the diversity surrounding you. So instead of explaining them the term in words, I would much rather show them how diverse are common places in their daily lives.

What should people associate with LIB in ten years?

That we are a worldwide operating biodiversity hub with a rich and visible collection. With a leading expertise in documenting and analysing the biodiversity. That´s what I wish for. The collections in general are the biggest strength of the LIB. Especially the beetle collection of course, because it is closed to my profession. I think we as house have a great potential to make it more visible for the public in the future with the upcoming new museum.

What are you working on right now?

I have different projects right now, on which the joining point are beetles of course. And I mean my specific kind of beetles, because nobody is really able to work on all 400.000 species, which we assume are out there in total. Probably that is only one third of all biodiversity in beetles. In general, we are interested in their relationships and their evolution. I am also working as taxonomist and systematist and I focussing on the tropical region, which is poorly known so far. Therefore, we try to lay a foundation the future research to close the huge gap in what we know for sure and what is just assumed now. I try to work with local scientist for example in Brazil and form cooperative projects to study the tropic biodiversity. I also have two students working in protected areas here in Hamburg to monitor the different species living around us. Recently we started a project related to forensic entomology, because my beetles can help to solves crimes as well.

What do you think is the biggest challenge to overcome for a better environmental protection?

We know already our surrounding biodiversity quiet well in some parts of the world, but – as I said before – we are lacking knowledge about certain groups in subtropical and tropical areas. And we can just protect, what we know. We are constantly loosing animal and plant species, but do not even know what we are losing. Therefore, we need to work hard, to get to know all the species around the world for a better protection.

 

Dr. Dagmara Żyła did her PhD at the University of Silesia in Poland and defended in 2013. She then worked as a research assistant at the Upper Silesian Museum, also in Poland, before moving as a postdoc to the Natural History Museum of Denmark in Copenhagen in 2015. From 2018 to 2020, Dagmara was a Marie Skłodowska-Curie Fellow doing her research at Iowa State University in the USA and the University of Gdańsk in Poland. Later on, she moved to the Museum and Institute of Zoology in Warsaw as a PI of her project funded by the National Science Centre. Finally, in 2021, Dagmara moved to the LIB at the Museum of Nature Hamburg.

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