This year for International Women’s Day, Galapagos Science Center (GSC) Maria de Lourdes Torres shares her work on an emerging project at the GSC: the Biobank Initiative.
Maria de Lourdes is the Head of the Biotechnology Department at Universidad San Francisco de Quito (USFQ) and the Director of the Plant Biotechnology Lab. She describes herself as a researcher with interests in many different aspects of the Galapagos Islands. “You have people and biodiversity, and thus the importance of conservation. You have to build a bridge for conservation with respect for human needs and the social environment,” said Maria de Lourdes.
Maria de Lourdes has been traveling to the Galapagos for 18 years. “At the beginning there was no GSC, and I wasn’t involved in the programs with international and exchange students. I worked within the GAIAS-USFQ programs for local students, who I loved to teach, get to know, and connect with. It is hard not to love living in such a beautiful environment.”
“When the GSC was first created, I didn’t know anyone from UNC. It is a challenge to find people with whom you can collaborate. Over the last ten years, we have reached so many of our goals in science, but also in building friendships and relationships with UNC people. It is like a community now, and we try to achieve different goals together. Currently, one of our main goals is the Biobank.”
The GSC Biobank is an initiative to build what will be one of seven biological centers (Biocenters) in Ecuador, to guard the genetic resources of existing biodiversity. The center will be made up of laboratories to store valuable genetic and biological information, ranging from samples from sharks to endemic plant species at -80 degrees Celsius. This repository of samples will allow preservation of natural resources and opportunities to study different aspects of evolutionary biology, population and ecosystem health, and analysis of environmental contaminants.
“Ecuador is a mega-diverse country, and the Galapagos Islands are unique ecosystems of biological interest for all humanity,” said Maria de Lourdes, “Genetic resources are a country’s wealth, yet unfortunately, many are lost because ecosystems are altered due to overexploitation generated by human activities such as fishing or agriculture. That is why biobanks are so important – they house and preserve samples of living beings, in favor of the conservation of biodiversity.”
Now there is a whole team of people working on the Biobank Initiative, but it started with Maria de Lourdes and Jill Stewart, CGS Faculty Research Director and UNC Singer Distinguished Professor of Environmental Sciences and Engineering. “We thought, why not?” said Maria de Lourdes. “The goal of the Biobank is to store samples and offer a service to collect the history of life from the Galapagos. Research in general is challenging in the Galapagos, because having a well equipped lab is only the first step. You have to wait months for materials even in Quito, so shipping things to the islands takes even more time. It has been challenging but I think we are succeeding. There is still a lot to do but we are beginning with strength. We have been working through the challenges step by step,” said Maria de Lourdes.
Maria de Lourdes said the original idea of the Biobank was not obvious to most of the scientists in the Galapagos. “There are a lot of marine ecologists and biologists in the Galapagos. When I spoke about genetics, they used to look at me funny. One goes to the Galapagos to study birds or iguanas, not to talk about genes. But now people are understanding the importance of samples if you want to tell a complete story of the life and the state of a species and if you want to contribute to its conservation. You need a place to store this info as a contribution to the Galapagos and to the social community,” said Maria de Lourdes.
Maria de Lourdes and Jill began their partnership as friends. “We are both researchers with different focuses, but we share the interest of creating the Biobank for the Galapagos. Jill is an incredible woman and has always been supportive. She has this energy, and is always moving forward. She gets done what needs to be done,” said Maria de Lourdes.
Jill expresses equal admiration for Maria de Lourdes and their partnership.“Maria de Lourdes is a leader at the Galápagos Science Center who works tirelessly to support research, education, and conservation across the islands. Her work on endemic species and the biobank is helping to protect the Galápagos Islands for the future. It is a privilege to work with her, and to call her a friend,” said Jill.
The Biobank will also provide opportunities for locals to engage in science at home. “I think the main contribution of the Biobank will be a place to store all of this important information, but it is also a place for education,” said Maria de Lourdes, “The human population of the islands is growing, and the Biobank will add to the opportunities for those interested in pursuing science. Many scientists that grow up in the Galapagos move away and don’t return. They need more opportunities to engage in science locally.”
Together, UNC and USFQ have expanded educational opportunities at the GSC for international students and locals as well. “I think the Galapagos needs more opportunities for education in general, but especially for women,” said Maria de Lourdes, “When I first arrived in the Galapagos, I saw a lot of young women already with three or four children. With more educational opportunities, the role of women can change. It used to be that only men could be fishermen and tour guides, but things are changing. I think now is the time for more women to explore opportunities in science – physics, math, biology, chemistry.”
Maria de Lourdes hopes the Biobank will be another step in educating and empowering women in science. “There have been so many powerful women in the history of science because we have this mind and this strength to do our work and obtain our goals,” said Maria de Lourdes, “Women in the Galapagos and worldwide should take a chance and explore the scientific world.”
Written by Molly Herring ’23, UNC Global Studies and Biology.