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Highlighted Young PPE Member of the Month

Dr. Eugenio Larios Cárdenas

“I loved the desert, and I am amazed by its diversity.”

By Nana Zhang, ESA Plant Population Ecology (PPE) section 12/19/2014


When thinking about the desert, the first impression to me involves sandy, arid, and endless space, but for Eugenio, it means vibrant, exciting, and fun to work with. Being amazed by the diverse life in the desert, Eugenio devoted himself to desert ecology on the border of Mexico and the United States. In December 2014, he was selected as the highlighted young scientist of the month by our PPE section!

Deserts cover about 20% of the land on earth. It takes special adaptation for species to survive in deserts. However, the study of desert ecology is not an easy task. Very little is known about the adaptive mechanisms of various selective forces in the desert. As a PhD student at the University of Arizona until May 2014, Eugenio worked with the desert annual plant species, Dithyrea californica/ Harvey (Brassicaceae), as a model to answer questions related to natural selection in deserts. Dithyrea californica, commonly called spectacle pod, is a widely distributed winter annual plant species residing in desert habitats.

In their newly published paper in Ecology, (95(11), 2014, pp. 3213–3220), Eugenio and his colleagues from Universidad Nacional Autonoma Mexico, Instituto de Ecologıa, Hermosillo, Sonora, Mexico and from the University of Arizona presented the first empirical evidence that larger seeds have higher fitness through the life cycle. This study emphasized the lifetime effects of natural selection on seed size, especially persisting benefits until adulthood. This study highlighted the adaptive significance of larger seed size in the desert environment. In his highlighted paper, Eugenio combined data from Sierra del Rosario, Sierra Blanca in Sonora, Mexico and Coahella Valley Preserve in California, USA.

After completing his bachelor’s degree in ecology, Eugenio worked in various positions in the ecology field before pursuing a PhD. His experience with an ecological monitoring program in the field was especially inspiring for his career. He said, “The natural reserve experience was the main reason for me to pursue a PhD”. When asked why he is interested in desert ecology, he mentioned that during the field work, he was “amazed by the diversity” of the plant species in the desert. During his PhD studies, Eugenio spent most of his time in the Sonoran desert on the border of Mexico and Arizona, and he was extremely excited about working there.

Eugenio studied in Dr. Lawrence Venable’s lab, and he highly valued his PhD training. He mentioned that, “PhD training taught me to make sacrifices, and made me a better person.” Obtaining a PhD is not just an enjoyable training for science, but also a necessary training for us to figure out our lifetime enthusiasm. You learn about the most important things for you to achieve, and for Eugenio, that is to study the diversity in the desert. He is very proud of being an ecologist. “ I am a scientist now, that feels so good.” He said he felt “very lucky to have Dr. Venable as his PhD advisor…I really liked that he reserved Fridays for his students only. He is a good friend. He is very knowledgeable…”.

His advisor, Dr. Venable, praised him as “a desert rat”. He said, “…My first thought was – this guy knows everything about the amazing Pinacate region and has all the connections and logistics to go anywhere and do great desert ecology in places few people could! That first impression proved true. He conducted an excellent project bringing together good science and a spectacular field system in a place few grad students could pull it off…”. The excitement for the desert is exactly what amazes us about Eugenio!

The biggest challenge for Eugenio to get a PhD was his long disconnection with academia. “I had been out of academia for a long time,” so his unfamiliarity with science, combined with the language and cultural shock, was very tough for Eugenio in his first three years of graduate school. Luckily, his PhD work was supported by the Mexican government, which comes with the condition of going back to serve his country for one to three years after completing his program. But he said, “I wanted to come back anyway, I feel like I could accomplish a lot here.” Meanwhile, the government scholarship has been “….very helpful. I can focus on science…”. This support was no doubt helpful and well-deserved during his hard work over the years.

When we interviewed him, Eugenio was still finishing up two other projects in collaboration with the National Park Services. He is starting his new career as a postdoctoral fellow at the Instituto de Ecología, UNAM in Hermosillo, Sonora, México this coming January. His area of interest would still be on desert ecology at the border of Mexico and the US.

Eugenio has been an ESA PPE member since 2009, and we feel lucky to have him as a colleague. We wish him all the best for a successful career as a desert ecologist, and we look forward to reading more about his work.

PS: At the end of the interview, when I asked Eugenio how he felt about being elected as the highlighted young scientist of the month from our section, he said “I feel like all the hard work over the years has been valued and that it has really paid off.” This is exactly the motivation for us to have the monthly selection and to recently start conducting interviews on the highlighted members. We would love to encourage and recognize all the hard work for many young scientists along their way to success.


Nana Zhang is a PhD candidate at the University of Pittsburgh, and she thanks for the help of Lynn Adler, Aldo Compagnoni and Janette Steets for polishing this interview.