Laura Ospina Rozo: Humans of BioSciences

Meet Laura Ospina Rozo, PhD student in the Stuart-Fox lab. Originally from Colombia, Laura wants to understand why beetles have such incredibly striking patterns and colours. An active participant in many School committees and events, Laura loves the performing arts and particularly dancing the tango.

Who are you? What do you do in the School?

Who am I? This might just be the hardest question we humans ask ourselves!

I am a lover of challenges, an overthinker of all things, with a curiosity for the wonders of life. I am a non-planner, an antiracist and a trans-feminist. I am also the silliness of my jokes, the story of my ancestors, the love of my family, the rhythms of my country and… a scientist.

Laura with budgie sitting on her head

I came from Colombia to Australia to learn how to be a scientist by doing my PhD in the Stuart-Fox lab. I have been part of the BioSciences People and Culture committee for 3 years. It has been transforming: I have learnt so much about how very simple, daily actions can shape a more diverse, inclusive and engaging culture, where people with different skills, preferences and talents can thrive. I have also been treasurer of the BioPS committee, I co-chair the BioSciences student’s representation working group and sit on the Diversity and Inclusion student’s committee in the Faculty of Science. I am very passionate about building community and providing service to the School and our students. Finally, I also demonstrate in the subjects Microscopy and Statistics for Biology. I am amazed by how much I learn by trying to teach!

What problem are you trying to solve with your research?

Did you know that one in four eukaryotes is a beetle? That always blows my mind! We humans are sometimes blinded by our pride, thinking that we have “conquered” the earth. But we are just creatures with our biased way of perceiving the world. My passion is to understand the world through the lives of other organisms. For example, how they interact with the physical forces of nature such as sound, gravity and magnetism.

Colourful beetle specimens laid out in a frame with a filter hovering over one

My PhD is about light. Light is one of the most mysterious things, a dualism between waves and particles. But beetles are great masters at manipulating light. Millions of years of evolution have shaped a magnificent exoskeleton with a complex array of nano-mirrors that can filter, alter and twist light. It’s astonishing! They can create a huge variety of colours, iridescence, mirror-like effects, metallic gold and pearlescent appearances as well as reflecting different levels of infrared light. Why have they evolved this way? Why is this so important in the daily life of the beetle? Is it for camouflage? Thermoregulation? I don’t know yet, but I’m working on it!

What do you enjoy doing outside of science?

I enjoy being in the middle of the forest listening to the sounds and feeling the magic of nature. I also enjoy being the support animal for my baby budgie Sherlock. She is the Duchess of the house and flies anywhere she wants. We play, chat and sing together every day. I absolutely adore traveling, stargazing and sometimes listening to philosophy or history podcasts. I enjoy going to the movies, theatre, concerts… anything related to performing arts. Finally, I dance every way I can: ballet, Bollywood, Afro, aerial silks, salsa and cumbia. But one of the most special disciplines I have ever tried is tango. Unlike most people’s assumptions, dancing the tango is both empowering and hard. The tango is about communication, not about remembering steps. My dream is that when I grow old, I keep dancing the tango to embrace life and continue feeling strong and empowered.

Laura in purple dress doing the tango with partner

Have your run into any challenges or faced any setbacks during your research? How did you overcome them?

I once read that we experience the peak of creativity when something is not going according to plan. For me, creativity is arguably the most valuable but underrated skill a scientist needs. I’ve often had the experience of my experiments not working, even after trying with all my passion and dedication. Whenever this happens, I try to remind myself that there is no way to know the right approach a priori. I don’t believe in destiny or a deity, but sometimes I like to imagine the universe telling me “If it’s not working, maybe it is not meant to be, so let’s get creative…” It seems to help.
Sometimes there are bigger setbacks, like being far away from your loved ones, feeling lonely and depressed or on the verge of surrendering to impostor syndrome. But in those cases, and citing the beetles, excuse me… The Beatles, “I get by with a little help from my friends”. I feel like having meaningful and supportive relationships is key to overcoming the biggest setbacks and challenges.

Do you have any advice for other students?

I want to share my four most treasured pieces of advice. These are things I am still learning myself.

1) Do not try to be the smartest person in the room. As students, we feel a constant pressure to have great ideas and make huge discoveries. But there is more wisdom in choosing a project that allows every member of the team to shine in their own unique and wonderful way.

2) Better done than perfect. I used to obsess over reducing the confounding variables to zero. Bit that is impossible and overwhelming. Sometimes is better to produce a very imperfect and chaotic sketch and start sculpting from there, rather than staying forever trapped in the planning phase.

3) For new students (particularly international students): do not focus only on your research. A graduate student’s life is much more than that. Embrace your passions and try new things. Join BioPs and other clubs that match your interests. Have fun at the online and in-person events such as the student symposium: it isn’t a test; it is a way to share our knowledge and make new friends. Also, why not try some teaching or volunteer to be a student representative in the School committees? The benefits are gigantic, because training in science is not only about publishing papers or memorising concepts, but also about networking, leadership, mentoring, communication, time management, and getting to know your own skills and talents. In order to work on those aspects, we must think outside the box of our research project.

4) Finally, this quote from I. Asimov: "Your assumptions are your windows on the world. Scrub them off every once in a while, or the light won't come in." These words apply to people, habits, even career paths. When I was doing my undergrad, I hated physics and statistics… but life turns unexpectedly, and here I am… changing the plan, and loving it :)

Laura in the forest standing in the hollow of a giant tree