Mariana Bonfim, a PhD candidate in Biology at Temple University and Research Assistant with the recently established Temple Ambler Field Station, has been thinking a lot lately about relationships. But not in the way you might think.
"Nature has a lot of different patterns, but why is an organism exactly the way it is? Why do sea anemones, for example, attach to hermit crabs? What is that relationship bringing to each of them?" asked Bonfim, 29, who arrived at Temple and Field Station Director Dr. Amy Freestone's Freestone Lab in 2015 having already amassed years of diverse research and teaching experience in Brazil. "For me, what I think is the most interesting thing about ecology as an aspect of biology is that it doesn't just look at how things are but at why they are the way they are. That's the beauty in ecology; it tries to understand the system and how everything is connected."
It's a "beautiful way of looking at biology," she said.
"It's not just the different aspects of the organisms, but how the organisms are interacting with their environment and with each other. That's fascinating to me," she said. "I've been very fortunate in that I've had so many opportunities to explore the things that I'm truly passionate about, and the diversity of experiences I was able to accumulate. During my undergraduate years, my passion for all aspects of science and biology guided my experiences. I had the opportunity to broaden my views by working with ballast water and biological invasions; ecology of sand dunes; Amazonian biota; hyperendemic diseases in the Tropics; informal marine science education strategies and more."
Growing up on Sao Luis Island in northeastern Brazil, where she completed her bachelor's and teaching degrees in Biological Sciences at Federal University of Maranhao, Bonfim developed a deep affinity for the sea, seeking to understand it and working towards ways to ensure that the ecosystems below those waters thrive.
"I grew up surrounded by the ocean and by nature. I was raised by my mom, grandmother and my godmother. My grandmother was a very hands-on person who loved to take care of her gardens — my passion in science and biology started with her, taking care of her plants," she said. "As I moved to higher education that's when I started really enjoying studying the oceans where I realized 'Oh, it's been around me this whole time' and we really don't know much about it. My interest in the ocean started in a different way, I think, than most traditional stories of marine scientists — 'Oh, I watched documentaries and fell in love with it.' It was always part of my life, part of my understanding of the world. It was only when I went far away from it, that I truly understood the impacts it had in my life."
Regardless of where her career path ultimately took her, Bonfim said she always knew that "teaching would be a part of it."
"I have been teaching since I was 13 years old, when I first started as a ballet instructor. Because of my deep interest in biology and educating people, I decided to pursue a PhD degree in the U.S. and leave everything behind," she said. "My hopes were that coming to a foreign country for such a journey, would expand my experiences in both research and teaching, fostering exponential growth in my career — I wanted to feel challenged to get outside the box and be able to bring all I learned back to my country at some point."
Bonfim initially came to the United States as part of the Brazilian Scientific Mobility Undergraduate Program and studied at Rutgers University.
"About 10 years ago, the Brazilian government started investing strongly in higher education and they started this program of fellowships to send students abroad, that also included an academic training component — an internship, research experience, summer courses — whatever would be of most benefit to you and what you wanted to get out of the experience," she said. "It was the first time I left my house and my hometown — I was by myself in another country speaking another language in another educational system very different from my home country. It definitely broadened my perspective in terms of education and career prospects."
Once that year wrapped up, Bonfim interned with the MOTE Marine Laboratory in Florida for four months, then returned to Brazil to "invest in my training" before returning to the U.S. to continue her educational journey.
Now in her fifth year as a PhD Biology student and researcher in Field Station Director Dr. Amy Freestone's Freestone Lab, Bonfim's research is currently focused on understanding geographical patterns of coastal marine diversity, "more specifically how marine communities assemble through time, how they recover from disturbances and the implications of interaction between organisms for risk of ship-borne biological invasions nearshore."
"I've been looking at different aspects contributing to geographical patterns of diversity, more specifically across latitudinal gradients. For that we use marine communities to try to understand those relationships — that can tell us how different systems will recover over time at different places," she said. "I'm also interested in the aspects of those organisms that influence their assembly and the fact that they are going to colonize and form a community. What are the different environmental and evolutionary aspects informing the reason why an organism is going to stay where they 'choose' to stay?"
At Temple University Ambler, Bonfim said, the Field Station "is going to be great for the Temple community as a whole because it will allow us to perform different activities and engage in research that students and faculty might not be able to do at other locations."
"I love the idea of the Field Station and I think the direction that (Dr. Freestone) is taking it is just beautiful. In general, field stations are a great resource for the community. It provides you with a platform to have hands-on experience for the students, for faculty, for staff and the surrounding community," she said. "You can host several activities and projects to try to make people feel closer to nature. Having those spaces is really important because that allows you to disseminate an essential idea — nature is good, it's part of you, it's all around you so it's important for you to take care of it."
"It builds a strong foundation for providing those services to our Temple community and the community at large. Those pillars working together can really help Temple Ambler to build a strong foundation for educational and research activities — it will create targeted projects that are important and useful to a broad range of people," she said. "I think the most important thing that we can do is empower people, to give them a sense of ownership in the world around them — this place is yours to take care of," she said. "I think sometimes people tend to feel like science is too far away from them and it shouldn't be. These activities are a way to show them that they are part of it and that they are contributing to it — they are citizen scientists."
Bonfim said she wants people to feel that "the Field Station is a resource for everyone."
"They can reach out; it can help their research or their classes. It can be a place for students and scientists to try different things and discover the world around them," she said. "My main goal is for people to know the Field Station is available and it's being used to their benefit. I want to make sure they have the platform to develop whatever type of research and education."
While she studies ecological diversity and shares that knowledge and passion for science with others, Bonfim said one of the things she most enjoys about Temple and the Philadelphia region "is this idea of diversity."
"The Philadelphia area has such a diverse community; I've met people from so many different countries and cultures here. At Temple, there is a very strong international community," she said. "One thing that is foundational at the Field Station is this idea of providing opportunities that foster and promote diversity in the sciences — providing opportunities for underserved populations in the region and in science in general. I consider myself an example of that kind of outreach, despite all privileges I acknowledge I hold — I don't know many people within my home country that have had the opportunity to have the experiences that I'm having, unfortunately."
Her fellowships experience, Bonfim said, were "a one in a million opportunity and I had to take it." Besides being awarded an international fellowship as an undergrad, she initially started her PhD program with a four-year funding sponsored by the National Council for Scientific and Technological Development of Brazil.
"I believe we need to work to provide those opportunities to others so that they can do the same and have the same chances to succeed, especially those underrepresented in the sciences," she said. "Even here, I try to continue to collaborate with people in Brazil. Every time I am able to go there, I do something like a short-term course or a talk at the university — things designed to create a bridge between countries, cultures and institutions."
At Temple, the Field Station is a unique platform "for informal education, providing research training to early career scientists and students, and connecting people to nature and reducing this gap that sometimes feels so distant between humans and other forms of life," Bonfim said.
"My students often say that one of their favorite things about my teaching is that I just feel excited about anything in the classroom. How amazing is to be able to transmit that to people and inspire them?" she said. "My ultimate goal is to use my research and teaching as connecting bridges between people and nature, and inspire future scientists to do the same."