Both of Gabriela Nuñez-Mir’s parents are ecologists — her father oversees projects in the Caribbean for The Nature Conservancy — and growing up in Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic, she accompanied them into the mountains to conduct research. “We would camp and hike, or stay in villages, ever since I was very young,” she says. “I’ve always been surrounded by nature and the researchers who study it, so my interest is very organic.” The Caribbean nation offers limited academic programs related to ecology, so the counselor at the American bilingual high school Nuñez-Mir attended encouraged her to consider studying abroad at an American university. She chose Worcester Polytechnic Institute in Massachusetts, where she majored in two programs, environmental studies and biology and biotechnology, and completed an internship at the NOAA Great Lakes Environmental Research Laboratory in Michigan. It was her Michigan colleagues who contacted her about an opening in the Natural Resources Spatial Analysis Lab of Songlin Fei, associate professor of Forestry and Natural Resources at Purdue. Nuñez-Mir began her doctoral work under Fei’s guidance in 2013.
“The focus of my research is determining the reasons some places have more exotic species than others,” Nuñez-Mir says. While a larger population of native species might predict an area’s resistance to exotic species, researchers actually see contradictory patterns in biological invasion, especially as the scale of study increases. Exotic species — those living outside of their native areas — can have devastating environmental and economic impact, Nuñez-Mir explains. Pinpointing the areas that are more vulnerable to invasive exotics can help scientists mitigate or prevent these effects.
Nuñez-Mir credits her advisor with finding unexpected opportunities for all of his graduate students. “I’ve done so many things that my peers at other lab groups and universities haven’t had the chance to do,” she says. Fei has invited his students to publish, attend and present at conferences, and network with colleagues “He constantly pushes to us to expand our comfort zone, even to try something out of our field,” Nuñez-Mir says.
Among the five journal articles Nuñez-Mir has published or has in press (with another under review), is a July 2016 article in Methods in Ecology and Evolution on the “big literature” phenomenon in ecology and evolution. After spending years on the article, “it’s very exciting to see it published,” she says. The article is being considered for the journal’s 2016 Robert May Prize. And because it has attracted some attention, the journal also highlighted it in a blog post (https://methodsblog.wordpress.com/2017/01/12/big-literature-aca/).
With another year-and-a-half to go to complete her five-year PhD, Nuñez-Mir is keeping her career options open, although she plans to remain in research, whether in academia or with an organization. In her spare time, she tries to balance spending her days “indoors, hunched over a computer,” with physical activity, such as Pilates and circuit training. In addition to fitness, Nuñez-Mir says she is passionate about healthy eating and enjoys cooking plant-based dishes.