Luis Cueto – Ph.D. student, University of Oklahoma
Race/ethnicity that you identify with: Hispanic
Where were you born and where did you grow up? I was born in a small town in the south of Peru called Cuajone. I grew up in Arequipa, which is a city near the Atacama Desert in the south of Peru. I was so interested in living in the jungle that I moved to the Peruvian Amazon when I got my biology bachelor’s degree. So we can say that I grew up between the desert and the tropical forest.
Education: 2nd year of Ph.D. program in Ecology and Evolutionary Biology
Dream Job: An academic job in a university in the Amazon in my country.
How did you get interested in biology/ecology/conservation? As a child, I used to love climbing trees to look for bird nests. I think I climbed all the trees in my town to look for nests and count the chicks. Looking for lizards and catching spiders was another of my favorite activities. When I finished school, I was already totally convinced that I was going to study biology.
Do you have one person who was influential in your choice to study biology/ecology? I think I decided on my own, but there were many inspiring people along the way. I remember my animal physiology professor, he was a very eccentric person, and it was so much fun to attend his classes. He lent me scientific magazines and encouraged me to continue my biology studies at graduate school.
Do you feel that you see people like you in your future career? Did that impact your choice? I think that there are not so many Latin American Ph.D.s studying biodiversity, evolution, or conservation. The number is growing, and that is pretty hopeful. Definitely that was one of the main reasons I decided to attend grad school—the shortage of people trained in key positions for education and conservation.
What kind of research have you been involved in? I was part of a project that sought to analyze the speciation history of Bay-backed Antpitta (Grallaria hypoleuca) in the Andes. I traveled from Peru to the Field Museum in Chicago and was in charge of this project’s experimental part, DNA extraction – sample sequencing. It was a great experience!
Tell us about a memorable day in the field. I remember that the motor of the boat suddenly stopped working. We were on the Las Piedras River, a medium-sized river in the Amazon that grows a lot in the rainy season and has perilous rapids. I decided to jump into the river with a rope to tie the boat to some branch on the shore before we entered the rapids. I had a big scare after two failed attempts, but the third was lucky.
What is your favorite organism? My favorites are birds. I love their diversity, their colors, and how elusive and difficult to observe some can be.
What topic in biology/ecology fascinates you the most? The interdependence between species. How intricate the food chain can get. Army ants foraging through the forest, birds that follow army ants for the prey that ants flush, and butterflies following the birds to feed on the bird’s excretions.
What has been the most challenging about becoming a field biologist? In my case, the most challenging thing about being a field biologist was the long periods of time I spent away from my family.
What is on your biology/ecology “bucket list”? The place is Alaska. I want to see puffins and whales. I want to explore a boreal forest and the Arctic tundra. For the research, a study related to thermoregulation in Boreal organisms.
What is your favorite natural area in Oklahoma to visit? Wichita Mountains, the views are astonishing, the place is full of North American native wildlife, and was where I had my first encounter with much of that fauna.
Besides studying birds, what else do you love to do? I really like music. I was part of three bands when I was in college, and I’m hoping to have a little more time to practice guitar. I haven’t played for so long.