Dr. Adriana Aquino in her office in the Icthyology
Department at the American Museum of Natural History.
Adriana Aquino is a postdoctoral research fellow in the
Ichthyology Department at the American Museum of Natural
History. She also works with the
National Center for Science Literacy, Education, and
Technology to develop the online Seminars on Science
courses the Museum offers through Connected University.
As a child in Argentina, she was first drawn to science
by her love for the natural world, particularly the ocean.
In her teens, as she wrestled with questions about the
origin of the universe, Adriana was attracted to cosmology.
But it was ultimately biology, and trying to understand
the nature of life itself, that became her passion.
Amid the turmoil of adolescence and the political and
economic upheavals in Argentina, the logic and objectivity
of science offered Adriana a sense of stability and purpose.
She was questioning her religious faith at the time,
and encountering natural laws that could explain the
amazing variety of life on our planet and filled a
philosophical void. "Science seemed like something firm.
It had its own laws, its own weight, and you could do
something if you worked hard. And besides it's amazing!"
Adriana cared strongly about political issues related to
ecology and biodiversity, but her work required 19-hour
days alone in her lab. She was afraid that as she became
more focused on her professional career, she would lose
her passion and idealism. She found that her passion only
grew, but she couldn't figure out how to balance her
commitment to her research with her growing awareness
of conservation issues.
A turning point came in 1990, when she worked at a small
Argentinean zoo. "It was sad almost like a hospital,"
she said. "Many of the animals came from deforested
places and had no place to go." But the zoo had a good
education program, and Adriana took advantage of the
situation to talk to children about ecological problems.
The children came back with their parents, and Adriana
was amazed by what she saw. "After just 10 to 15 minutes
of speaking to them, they were able to teach their
parents. That's when I got the idea that if there's
hope, it's through education."
Adriana studied with the country's top ichthyologists in La
Plata, a city near Buenos Aires. She earned her Ph.D. in 1994,
studying the genus Hypoptopoma, a group of armored
catfish. Hypoptopoma are distinguished by a series of
spiny teeth called odontodes on their armor-like plates.
If you run a finger down the scales of an Hypoptopoma
from head to tail, you won't feel a thing, but slide your
finger the other way and the odontodes prickle like tiny pins.
A scanning electron micrograph of odontodes.
Adriana's specialty is systematics, the classification of
organisms into species. This is not a simple process. Most
species are not as easy to tell apart as, say, humans and
chimpanzees. When you consider that there are more than
2,000 species of catfish, and no two individuals in each
species are exactly alike, it can be quite difficult to
determine what constitutes natural variation within a
species, and what constitutes the boundary between one
species and another.
For anyone concerned about biodiversity issues, systematics
is crucial. "My work is to discover, describe, classify,
and revise previous classifications," Adriana explains.
"You can't just study 'fish.' If you're talking about a
coral reef, you need to know exactly what lives there.
If you're concerned about the Amazon, the politicians need
a list of what lives in each little stream. Systematics is
a pragmatic way of looking at biodiversity."
In 1997, Adriana received a postdoctorate position
at the American Museum of Natural History in New York.
There she set out to do a revision of the Hypoptopoma
genus. She started with
the Museum's extensive collection
of fish, then contacted other museums around the world to
send samples to New York. To study the full range of
variation in the genus, Adriana examined all the samples
collected in the last 100 years more than 2,000 specimens
one of the 2000 catfish specimens Adriana examined as
part of her systematics investigation.
When she started out, 15 species of Hypoptopoma
had been described. But Adriana found that the case for
differentiation between some of these species was not
sound. For instance, the defining characteristic of one
species was a lack of abdominal plates. Adriana concluded
that the observed samples were actually juveniles of
another species that grew plates later in life. By the
end of the year, Adriana had weeded the number of
Hypoptopoma species down to eight. But then she
found seven new species, returning the total number to 15.
One fun part of being a systematist is getting to name
newly defined species. Adriana named some after previous
researchers, some for the places the fish were found, and
some for the unique physical characteristics that defined
them. For instance, she named one long, slender species
elongata, and another, bianalis, because it
is the only Hypoptopoma with two plates anterior
to the anus, instead of just one.
Interest in Education|
Though her research was going well, Adriana still sometimes
felt isolated. She considers the Museum's collections
to be enormously important, "the inheritance of humanity
a true library of biodiversity." Yet few visitors know
the collection exists, or for that matter, that research
is an important part of what goes on at the Museum.
Adriana had always wished for a stronger connection between
the Museum's research and education programs, so when
she was asked to contribute to an online course on
ichthyology for teachers, she agreed.
Adriana found working with the students and the Museum's
team of educators to be incredibly stimulating. "It was
like opening a window," she says. One teacher wanted to
use the course for elementary education, and one was a
teacher of autistic kids. Others had degrees in biology.
She corresponded with all of them by email, trying to
tailor her approach for each individual. "They all came
from different backgrounds, but we shared a common goal,"
she recounts. "The course allowed us to connect, create
a community, find overlapping interests. I learned
something from every one of them."
When Maritza MacDonald, the Director of
Professional Development for the Museum's Education
Department, asked Adriana to help teach a summer
institute on biodiversity at the Museum, she agreed
again. Adriana taught the attending elementary and
high school teachers how to make species identification
keys and other activities for children, and
explained the connection between systematics and
Adriana with teachers.
Adriana with teachers in the Hall of Vertebrate Origins
at the American Museum of Natural History.
The summer institute went so well that Adriana was
asked to teach classes for visiting students from
Columbia University and the City University of
New York (CUNY) who were studying to become science
teachers. Adriana had taught university students
in Argentina, but this was the first time she really
enjoyed it. "I didn't like teaching, because I was
teaching from a textbook," she says. But now she could
share her own experiences and show how science really
works. "I talk about how I study my fish, and maybe
someone else can see the process of science," she says.
Adriana's teaching skills and enthusiasm caught the
attention of another member of the Education Department,
Jay Holmes, who asked Adriana to develop hands-on
activities that would introduce children to systematics.
Adriana's contributions will appear in the Museum's
new Discovery Room, which is scheduled to open in May 2001.
By putting so much energy into education, Adriana
realizes she is taking a chance, because it leaves
less time for her research. "Scientists are under
strong pressure to survive you need to publish and
write grants; and if you don't get money, you can't go
on working," she points out. But she believes scientists
have a responsibility to share their knowledge and
besides, she enjoys her new role tremendously. So now,
in addition to her weekly drawing classes and
twice-weekly trips to the opera ("Standing room
seats are just $10 that's hardly more than a movie!"),
Adriana is taking a course to become an online guide.
In the meantime, she has volunteered for regular "office
hours," during which her teacher/students call to
discuss the existential questions of life, religion,
and of course, systematics.
© 2001 American Museum of Natural History