Two incoming Ph.D. students share a love for South America and for the intricate ecosystems and wildlife that support it. Isabel Silva Romero and Diego Urquía are joining the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill as international students thanks to a longstanding connection between UNC Center for Galapagos Studies and Universidad San Francisco de Quito, where the pair completed their undergraduate studies.
Both Silva Romero and Urquía grew up exploring nature and saw the effect of tourism on ecosystems. Silva Romero, who is from Salinas, Ecuador, which draws thousands of tourists each year, grew up going to the beach and exploring tidal pools every chance she had. Her parents—who work in the fields of marine biology and geology—cultivated a sense of respect for the environment and its complexities in their children.
“My parents took us all over the coast of Ecuador: to the Amazon rainforests, to the cloud forests, to the highlands,” Silva Romero said. “That was really nourishing for me.”
Silva Romero attended USFQ and graduated in 2019. As an undergraduate student, a semester in the Galapagos sparked an interest in pursuing coursework in marine biology, coral reef ecology, and coastal management.
UNC Center for Galapagos Studies coordinates UNC-Chapel Hill’s Galápagos-related research, teaching, and outreach activities, and through a partnership with USFQ, jointly created the Galapagos Science Center (GSC) located on San Cristóbal Island in the Galápagos Archipelago.
At the GSC, Silva Romero said she connected with Margarita Brandt, a professor at USFQ, who taught a course that she took on marine ecology. In 2018, Brandt introduced Silva Romero to Department of Biology Professor John Bruno, with whom she was working on a research project. Bruno was soliciting undergraduates to join their team, and on Silvia Romero’s first day, he asked her about an interest in pursuing graduate school.
“In my first years of college, I didn’t even consider grad school,” Silva Romero said. “Now I’m really thrilled and excited to go to UNC-Chapel Hill. I’m so grateful that I have the opportunity to challenge myself.”
As a Ph.D. student in the Department of Biology’s Evolution, Ecology & Organismal Biology program, she’s continuing to work with Bruno in the Galapagos to measure how environmental factors, such as temperature, nutrient availability, and other factors affect macroalgae communities. They hope to continue to understand how subtidal communities are affected during the cold and warm seasons. Specifically, they hope to understand how algae, a mainstay in marine ecosystems, best flourish under changing conditions, because algae are an essential food source in the aquatic food chain.
“By knowing this, we can have an insight of what ocean warming might do here in the Galapagos,” Silva Romero said. “We want to know how these communities might be structured in the years ahead.”
Following graduate school, Silva Romero hopes to return to Ecuador to continue research in her home country, with a goal of influencing environmental policies over time.
“As John told me: There are all of these opportunities around the world. Get started,” she said.
Diego Urquía, also an alum of USFQ, came to Carolina thanks to the encouragement of Corbin Jones, who is also a professor in the Department of Biology and faculty director of Genomic Technologies and GSC Advisory Board member. From Quito, Ecuador, Urquía also spent his childhood exploring the outdoors.
“I’ve always loved animals, plants, and being in nature. Since I can remember, I’ve always had this fascination,” Urquía said.
Spending time as an undergraduate at the Galapagos Science Center triggered an interest in molecular biology and genetics, which aligns with Jones’ area of research. Urquía hopes to continue to use genetic tools to study the diet of sea lions. In doing so, he hopes to learn ways to best conserve species of fish that sea lions consume, all in an effort to ultimately conserve the sea lions themselves.
In areas that are heavily fished, Urquía hopes to balance tourist’s desire to see sea lions, with the need to ensure they live in sustainable habitats.
“They deserve to be conserved and protected because they’re part of our world,” Urquía said.