“What happens to nature at one point on Earth affects people’s lives elsewhere.”
Karina Lucas da Silva-Brandão (pictured here in Peru) focuses her research on the interactions between host plant and butterfly. Copyright: Brandão
Searching for the „why“ has led Karina Lucas da Silva-Brandão into science. The Brazilian-born scientist sets a focus on the question why and how plants and butterflies interact and what affects the evolution of these species. Since the beginning of this year, Karina Lucas da Silva-Brandão has been head of the Lepidoptera & Trichoptera section and curator of the relating collection.
What drives you as a researcher? Why do you dedicate your life to nature?
I have always been interested in the „why“ of how nature works: why people have blue or brown eyes, why insects exist and in such large numbers. I always wanted to be a scientist because I wanted to know how processes work in nature and why it changes.
What led you to biology? Was there a key experience?
When I was a schoolgirl, I went fishing with my father. Even then, I was interested in the variety of fishes. I also wanted to know why some fishes were present in some rivers but not in others.
What is an everyday highlight of your work, what do you like most?
Actually I like to work with people. I love the theorethical discussion of my work. And I really like to teach, to transmit my knowledge and to supervise.
Why have butterflies been their personal affection?
My current field of research, butterflies, came into my focus later in life. At first, I was interested in the interaction between plants and these insects: how, for example, butterflies use the chemicals of plants they eat against their enemies. Today, I do taxonomic work with a focus on Lepidoptera in Brazil. In a network with international scientists, I would like to find out how butterflies and plants interact and where the reasons for possible evolutionary changes lie.
Where is your favorite place in nature?
I love the forests of the Atlantic Mountain Forests in Brazil – there the temperature drops a lot during the night and I can see the butterflies flying during the day. Also, very close to my home in Campinas, Sao Paulo, is one of the largest urban forest fragments in Brazil – I usually take a walk there every day.
How do you explain the term biodiversity to children?
First, I can show them how beautiful, colorful and „different“ nature (including butterflies!) is. And mention that in nature, everything is connected. Everything that happens to nature at one point on earth affects the lives of people in another place – even economically. The moisture produced in the Amazon rainforest arrives as precipitation in completely different regions of Brazil. That is, if this rain fails to arrive due to deforestation, all of Brazil suffers, also the economy.
What do you want people to associate with the LIB in ten years?
I would like the collections to be better known. The LIB should be a well-known institution for biodiversity research where scientists go to when they want to do taxonomic work and learn more about the many levels of biodiversity studies.
What do you see as the biggest challenge in the field of environmental protection?
I believe that it is to convince the population about how important environmental protection is.
What would you have become if biology had not worked out?
Probably I would have worked in a bank – many of my relatives have been working there. But actually this was never an option.
What advice do you have for young biologists starting their careers?
As a biologist today, I am required to master many other areas, for example computer programming. In this respect, I recommend that students deal with this and also learn how to present themselves and their scientific fields to the public.
Karina L. Silva-Brandão was born in São José do Rio Preto, São Paulo, Brazil, in 1974. She obtained a degree in Biological Sciences from Universidade Estadual Paulista (IBILCE- UNESP), Brazil, in 1996 and a M.Sc. degree in Ecology from Universidade Estadual de Campinas (UNICAMP) in 2000. During that time, she studied the response of Trichonephila clavipes spiders to different types of pyrrolizidine alkaloids found in butterflies after host plant sequestration, and became dedicated to the field of chemical ecology and host plant-butterflies’ interactions. For her Ph.D. thesis in ecology (2001–2005), also at the UNICAMP and with a period at Oregon State University, in Corvallis, OR, USA, she worked on the evolution of host plant use in Troidini butterflies. Since then, after a maternity leave, she has been investigating the molecular diversity of butterflies and moths of economic interest at different taxonomic levels. Only more recently did she go back to plant secondary compounds studing transcriptome patterns in a collaborative research. Currently she has been investigating adaptive responses of butterflies and moths toward their host plants and environments.