Welcome to the Ecologist Spotlight column!
We seek out ecologists with diverse backgrounds and perspectives to highlight their work and share their stories and experiences. Thank you to Dr. Bala Chaudhary for participating in our column this week! If you would like to be featured, or would like to nominate someone, please contact us today.
Please state your current affiliation:
Bala: Assistant Professor of Environmental Science and Studies at DePaul University.
Tell us about yourself and your current area of research.
Bala: I am a mycorrhizal ecologist. My work employs field studies, greenhouse experiments, and data synthesis to elucidate mycorrhizal biodiversity and function from local to global scales. I am interested in how intrinsic properties of species (e.g. dispersal capabilities) as well as environmental filtering can influence species distributions and fungal biogeographical patterns across spatial scales. I aim to link fungal traits to dispersal in an effort to build predictive frameworks for variation in dispersal capability among fungal taxa.
What are mycorrhizas?
Bala: Mycorrhizas are belowground associations between certain fungi and most plants, and likely the most common terrestrial symbioses on Earth. The fungi deliver soil resources to plants in exchange for photosynthetically derived carbon. Mycorrhizal fungi are part of the plant microbiome and have been shown to impact ecological interactions from individual to ecosystem scales.
Your research locations vary from urban roof-tops to rainforests. What is one of your most favorite places to do research?
Bala: It feels almost like a dirty secret to admit it, but I really do love cities. There is definitely a culture in ecology that values wilderness over urban spaces, but I’ve always found cities unbelievably thrilling – the people and crowds, energy and noise, different foods, different languages – to this day, the view of a big city skyline puts a smile on my face. Realizing that there is important ecology that needs doing in the city has been a coming home of sorts and a fulfilling union of my work and identity.
What first interested you in ecology?
Bala: In college, I was a biology major and my parents (like the parents of so many Asian immigrants) expected me to go to medical school. I was under tremendous pressure from them, but still secretly fulfilled all of my electives with ecology courses. I first learned about mycorrhizas in a course called Mutualisms and Symbioses, taught by Greg Mueller at the Field Museum of Natural History. The following summer I got a full-time RA position working on mycorrhizal ecology in prairies with Jim Bever and Peggy Schultz. I told my parents it was just a job and promised to spend evenings and weekends studying for the MCAT and even took 2 MCAT prep courses (so painful). But my “day job” was glorious – I loved the combination of field work, lab work, and microscopy, and working with such a supportive and encouraging group was really transformative.
What has inspired you in your career?
Bala: I have been fortunate to be mentored by several strong female ecologists over the course of my career. They shared their knowledge about ecological systems, being a scientist, motherhood, and environmental stewardship. My mother, who has had 4 major career changes in her life, also continually inspires me; it’s never too late to reinvent yourself if/when your goals and interests shift over time.
Tell us about one of your favorite research moments.
Bala: My favorite part of science is collaboration, so I love being a part of these large data synthesis working groups. Five days of total immersion, holed up in a room working through problems, coding, talking through figures, writing, ideas flying over evening beers – it’s such a rush!
Who is someone that you have never met but whose research you have always admired?
What is a challenge that you faced as a student, young professional, or early faculty member and how did you work through it?
Bala: The most challenging part of my career thus far has been learning to reconcile my desire to excel at science with my desire to excel at parenting. I took two years off from science when my kids were babies and made my way back into academia VERY slowly from adjunct to instructor to lecturer to assistant professor. Sometimes I feel 10 years behind the men in my PhD cohort, but I also really cherish the time I had with my kids. I try not to second-guess past decisions too much and remind myself this is a marathon not a sprint.
When you become discouraged by a challenging research problem or unexpected issue, how do you stay motivated?
Bala: I am a believer in maintaining an “attitude of gratitude”. I actually have this written on a post it on my wall. Other positive affirmations I turn to when I’m feeling down:
- I have the incredible honor of being able to participate in the knowledge production process.
- I have the privilege of being paid to learn, write, and use my brain for my work.
- My work is improved by the constructive criticism of others (particularly useful for reviewer #2).
What do you do in your “off” time?
Bala: I play ultimate Frisbee, ski, go to museums, and try new restaurants in the city – Chicago is an amazing food town!
If you met a 10 year old who was interested in ecology, what would you say to encourage them?
Bala: Well, 10 is pretty young! I’d hope they didn’t feel pressure to get going on a career. It’s good to explore, have fun, and keep your options open. Beyond that, use your summers wisely. Find and apply for programs that expose you to different types of jobs and environments.
Scene: *You walk into a local coffee shop* What do you order?
Bala: Hot water. As a tea snob, I carry my own tea bags with me always (Tea India Orange Pekoe Black Tea).