Estefania Fernandez Barrancos hopes studies at UMSL prepare her for work restoring Amazon rainforests

Estefania Fernandez Barrancos

Estefania Fernandez Barrancos, a native of Bolivia, is pursuing her PhD in biology and focusing on restoration ecology with support from the Whitney R. Harris World Ecology Center at UMSL. (Photo by August Jennewein)

Estefania Fernandez Barrancos found her purpose on a plane flight in her native Bolivia.

Fernandez Barrancos was raised in La Paz, considered the highest capital in the world and located more than 11,000 feet above sea level on the Antiplano in the Andes Mountains.

But it was on that flight to the department of Pando, a more remote and less populous lowland region in the northern part of the country along the border with Brazil, that Fernandez Barrancos first laid eyes on the deforestation of the Amazon rainforest.

“The view from the airplane was horrifying,” she said. “The view was like a spider web a little bit. The webs were like the remains of the forest, and you could see that for a really long extension.

“When I visited the city, you could see a lot of deforestation. They were not taking care or managing the lands very well, and then I also did some bus trips where I could see more horror.”

As she processed those scenes, she was overcome with a feeling that she wanted to do something to rebuild those forests, which are of such immense ecological significance because of the diversity of plant and animal species that live in them.

She wouldn’t start to learn how until a few years later while pursuing a master’s degree at the University of Montpellier in France. She had an assignment in one of her early courses to choose a topic for further study.

“I decided to investigate to recover forests,” she said. “I discovered restoration ecology, the discipline, so I was like, ‘OK, this is what I want to do.’ Hopefully, reconstruct those forests or bring them back to some state of what they used to be.”

Fernandez Barrancos’ quest to achieve that goal has brought her to the University of Missouri–St. Louis, where she’s now pursuing a PhD in biology with financial support from the Whitney R. Harris World Ecology Center.

She is the latest student to receive a Christensen Fund Graduate Fellowship in Plant Conservation and began working toward her PhD in August.

Patty Parker, the E. Desmond Lee Professor of Zoological Studies and Harris Center’s interim director, said it was an easy decision to bring Fernandez Barrancos into the program after an interview they conducted with her via Skype last year.

“She just leapt off that screen,” Parker said, and added, “I think it was the maturity of her thinking. We have a fairly standard set of questions that we go into these interviews with: What made you think about coming to UMSL? What are your career goals? What is your background? What do you hope to be able to add to that here to accomplish those career goals? Etc., etc.

“Obvious questions, but it’s important to be fairly standard, and she just had very mature answers to those questions. She was thinking at that level.”

She also came with good references. As with many students selected for fellowships through the Harris Center, Fernandez Barrancos had done work with one of the scientists at its partner institutions, the Missouri Botanical Garden and Saint Louis Zoo.

In her case it was with Leighton Reid, assistant scientist at the Garden’s Center for Conservation and Sustainable Development, as she worked on her master’s in tropical forest restoration. He served as one of her advisers while she conducted research in Costa Rica doing transplants of epiphytic plants during her master’s studies. She even spent two months in St. Louis, beginning in February 2016, finishing some data analysis and drafting a paper for publication with a fellowship from the Garden.

Fernandez Barrancos went back to Montpelier and defended her master’s thesis in 2016, then began looking into doctoral programs.

Because she wasn’t residing in Bolivia at the time, she wasn’t eligible to receive a Fulbright scholarship. That made it more difficult to find a program that was financially within her means.

But her connections in St. Louis alerted her to funding opportunities through the Harris Center.

“I’m able to do this PhD mostly because of the Harris Center because most of the programs that I was applying to had no funding,” she said.

Fernandez Barrancos also welcomed the opportunity to do more work with Reid along with UMSL Professor Robert Marquis, whose lab researches evolutionary ecology as well as plant-herbivore interactions.

She spent six months in Panama gaining field research experience while working on a project at the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute before enrolling at UMSL last fall.

Her first semester in an American university setting was no small change as she’d always studied in the French system, beginning with her earliest schooling in Bolivia and later as she earned her bachelor’s and master’s degrees in France.

She quickly came to appreciate the more interactive structure of her courses, with less emphasis on note-taking and memorization and more focus on class discussions, essay writing and group presentations.

Fernandez Barrancos is just beginning to contemplate a topic for her dissertation. She would like to use foundation species to help restore biodiversity and trigger facilitation cascades.

“The problem with restoration right now is that young forests sometimes regenerate pretty slowly, and it’s hard to attract species from older forests to a young forest,” she said. “So I’m thinking if maybe for example I transplant a bromeliad – which they are known for having a lot of insects in them – maybe the insects will in turn attract birds. And birds usually eat large fruits, so maybe that’s going to attract more large seeds to the sites that are going to grow into trees …

“That’s my idea. I don’t know if it’s really doable.”

Her time at UMSL is going to give her the opportunity to find out.

Parker believes it will also leave her well prepared to make an ecological mark afterward.

“What I hope it does is give her a really strong science background in the modern science of conservation, knowing what it is you’re looking at and being able to identify it with the most modern techniques available,” Parker said. “We’ve been very good at doing the science of conservation biology. What we hope to become better at is to help our graduates be able to take that science and the data that comes from those scientific studies and convert them into an economics argument that convinces policymakers that they should protect these areas.”

The Whitney R. Harris World Ecology Center will present the World Ecology Award to American biologist, researcher, theorist, naturalist and author E.O. Wilson at the 22nd World Ecology Gala on April 20 at the Saint Louis Zoo. For more information, click here.

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