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Women in Ecology Spotlight – Alex Harmon-Threatt

As much of the United States and countries around the world shelter in place this year, the ability to be out in nature is even more precious. Access to clean open spaces should be a right for all; unfortunately, this is not always the case. Even among scientists who study the environment, there is an inequality of access to nature, especially for women, and even more so for women of color. We discussed this issue and what can be done about it with Dr. Alex Harmon-Threatt, associate professor of entomology at the University of Illinois School of Integrative Biology.

In addition to detailing her fascinating work with bees and insects, including a phenomenon challenging this research she calls 'honey handcuffs,' Dr. Harmon-Threatt discussed how her mentors first opened her eyes to the possibility of pursuing a career in ecology and how she hopes to provide the same opportunities to her female students, especially those of color, to increase the representation of women of color in academia and the natural sciences. As we've seen throughout our Women in Ecology series, representation and inclusion are necessary to make the field more accurately reflect the world around it. Find out more in the full interview:

Q: How did you get into your current field?

As an undergrad I loved biology, but I was unhappy as a pre-med student. One day I walked by a sign on the wall in the hallway of the biology building that said "Do you want to do ecology research?" and I thought, "That sounds like fun!" I went to meet with the faculty member that was hosting the summer program and against all odds, given I had no research experience, they accepted me.

I spent that summer exploring what intrigued me, and it was really the first time someone asked me what I was interested in. I was also very fortunate that Washington University in St. Louis had its own field station, so I got to live on campus which, as an undergrad from an underrepresented background, was important as a safe space for me. One of the challenges of programs that invite undergrads is the students have to go far away from everything they've known, so having the research center close by really facilitated my thinking that I could do this.


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Publication Date: 01/28/2021