Swimming Against the Tide

a woman works on a ship in a hard hat and vest
Roa-Varon works on a ship's deck in 2007. (Courtesy Roa-Varon)

You might have noticed that fish come in all different shapes and sizes, as they’ve evolved into thousands of species that exist in different habitats across the globe. What you may not know is that humans, along with all other vertebrates, evolved from fish! Perhaps this explains why we share their resilience, adaptability, and individuality– traits that Smithsonian postdoctoral scientist Dr. Adela Roa-Varón embodies to the maximum. 

Born and raised in Colombia, Dr. Roa-Varón’s fascination with our slippery ancestors began in her first year of her undergraduate degree. “I was the fishiest person at my university,” she jokes. While taking an introductory course on the scientific method, she became interested in the morphological changes in fish as they migrated between freshwater and marine environments. What initially started off as a simple experiment on gill tissues across different concentrations of saltwater unexpectedly ended up sparking a lifetime of curiosity for Dr. Roa-Varón. She remembers fondly, “Since then, everything has been fish… I just fell in love with these guys.” 

Dr. Roa-Varon’s official title is “evolutionary ichthyologist”—a professional way of saying that she studies how the process of evolution works and how that process has generated the extraordinary fish diversity that we have today. Some of the questions that fascinate her include: how both past and present fishes have diversified, persisted in diverse habitats, and developed a wide array of life history strategies through time.  She approaches these questions using tools such as taxonomy (naming and describing species), morphology (studying species’ physical features), and genomics (looking at the DNA of different species). Specifically, she works with a group of fish called gadiform fishes, primarily because of their economic importance and because they are found in a diversity of habitats ranging from the poles to the tropics and from shallow waters to the deep sea. Fishermen and chefs around the world might recognize these species as cousins of the Atlantic Cod, but the average consumer may not know that many of the species that you cook at home, and eat in restaurants are Gadiformes!. Where most might see a meal, however, Dr. Roa-Varon sees them as an excellent model system for illuminating patterns in marine diversity, while also providing critical information for fish management and conservation. It’s this scientific curiosity and imagination that propelled her to her status today as a NOAA-sponsored Smithsonian researcher. 

a young scientist with long black hair sits at her desk
A young Roa-Varon work at her desk at the Academy of Sciences. (Courtesy Adela Roa-Varon)

However, Dr. Roa-Varón’s path to her successful career in the marine sciences was anything but streamlined. As a first-generation Latina college student, she faced numerous systemic barriers to securing her place in the academic community in the U.S.— one of the most intimidating being the language barrier, which was made even more difficult by her hearing impairment. She recounts her experience studying for the TOEFL, a standardized test that measures non-native speakers’ ability to understand and speak English, as extremely challenging. “I was translating the GRE questions with my English-Spanish dictionary just to understand the mechanics of how to answer them,” Dr. Roa-Varon recalls in frustration. 

For many who have immigrated to the United States, this experience rings painfully familiar. Dr. Roa-Varón feels that it highlights the unique problem that non-native speakers face when attempting to obtain an education in this country, and according to her, it begins at the earliest levels of schooling. When teaching marine science at local Spanish-immersion elementary schools— a form of outreach Dr. Roa-Varón takes great satisfaction in— she is able to see firsthand the gaps in education left by the intersection of a language barrier, disabilities, and lack of diverse representation in higher education. “I go and do my science in Spanish,” she says, “and those that are struggling to learn in English because they came from Hispanic communities see that there’s a person with an accent teaching them— and that person has a lab coat and works with really cool fish. Maybe, I will inspire them.”

Dr. Roa-Varón also feels that she learns just as much from her students as they learn from her. A particularly enlightening activity for her was the virtual workshop she led with professional dancer Silvia Burstein Hendi: “Océanos en Movimiento,” or “Oceans in Motion.” In this event, Roa-Varón taught the young participants how fish swim differently in different habitats, and Hendi created choreography inspired by these movements. They then asked the children to imagine they were fish, and move their bodies as fish might. When Roa-Varón did the same, what she experienced next surprised and delighted her. “It was freedom, what I was feeling. I was swimming like a fish with my eyes closed, and this gave me a totally different perspective— combining my science with feeling was priceless.”

a young mother in colorful hiking attire sits on a bench with her young daughter
Adela with her daughter on a mother's day hike in 2015. (Courtesy Adela Roa-Varon)

While Dr. Roa-Varon’s commitment to education has much to do with her passion for her field and her natural talent for communication, it began in a much more personal place: it started, in fact, with her daughter. She recounts one of the most difficult periods in her life, her PhD, with tears in her eyes.

“I found out that I was pregnant 2 days before my [PhD] interview. My legs were shaking that day, and even when I was accepted, I couldn't start until the next year because my daughter was going to be born. When I finally started, she was 8 months old. And there was this tradition at William & Mary when you’re a new student, that you cross the Wren portico, a gate, from the public street onto the campus, and it’s like you’re entering the graduate school. It’s entering that new stage of life. And I did it with my daughter. She was in my arms. And I was scared. Because I was becoming a PhD student and becoming a mom– and I didn’t have a manual for either one, you know? But at the same time as I was feeling scared, I thought to myself, I will do it. I am not a quitter; I will do it. I took this decision to heart. And at the end of my PhD, after the commencement ceremony, you cross the opposite direction through the same portico. And I crossed in my cap and gown with her again– she was 7 years old. I did it.”

Since the day her daughter was born, Dr. Roa-Varón made a definitive commitment to educating the younger generation. Her journey through motherhood is undeniably intertwined with her journey through science, instilling in her a deep appreciation for the support system that she leaned on along the way. Most emphatically, she voices her gratitude for her husband, or as she calls him, her “anchor”, for keeping the household afloat as she worked. “He always helped me— by making dinner, washing and folding clothes, taking care of our daughter— while I stayed up late to study, you know, things like that.” But Dr. Roa-Varon’s husband’s support ran deeper than pitching in with chores; it was his positive attitude and belief in her that truly kept her going. “He always just believed I could do it— today, sometimes my husband says to my daughter, ‘Look at your mother. She has been persevering and kept going and kept battling… and she won't give up.’”

For many members of minority communities, the ability to persevere in the face of systemic barriers to professional success is only made possible through the support of others, whether that support is tangible or not. Without community support, scientists from historically underrepresented backgrounds are statistically more likely to leave the research community. As Dr. Roa-Varón attests, it’s not just about becoming a scientist, but staying one– because when competing with other people that have always been ahead of you just because of their hometown, their network, or their resources, you’re already at a disadvantage. “We came alone, you know, and tried to navigate these waters… so the probability that we get to the goal and cross the finish line, getting your dream job, is not in your favor. It’s the reality.” 

a young family of three celebrate the mother's graduation

Roa-Varon celebrates her graduation with her family.

(Courtesy Adela Roa-Varon)

For this reason, Dr. Roa-Varón, like many scientists of color, are calling for an updated standard for success in academia. After all, she says, you cannot measure everybody with the same ruler, because we all came from such different backgrounds and challenges. A hypothetical scenario— one not far from today’s reality— that Dr. Roa-Varon presents when explaining the concept of equity in research is the following: compare two candidates for a position, where one published ten papers and the other has published only three. Roa-Varon comments, “This is where equity comes into play… how do you measure success? If that person who published 10 papers came from a minority background and had no networking, would they still have published those 10 papers? That makes a difference.”

Even today, as an accomplished postdoctoral scientist, Dr. Roa-Varón is aware that her achievements are often overlooked or dismissed due to bias. “I felt that when people didn’t think I was a scientist, but a person who works in the kitchen at the Smithsonian, or a cashier. They don’t think I’m a scientist because I don’t look like what they have in their mind a scientist should look like.” As STEM becomes increasingly diverse and dynamic, preconceived biases or notions about what science should look like and who is allowed to access it must be thrown out. This is the driving principle behind the committee Dr. Roa-Varón joined at the Smithsonian: the committee for Diversity, Antiracism and Belonging. And that last word— belonging— was her idea. “At first it was not in the name. But for me, that is the key; when you have that feeling of belonging, you do better, you excel.” Recalling some particularly offensive incidents during which she felt singled out due to her identity, she reflects: “I try to spread, wherever I go, the feeling that everyone belongs… because I felt like I didn't belong so many times.” 

However, Dr. Roa-Varón has never been one to let bias stop her. Instead, she handles adversity like her beloved fish, with resilience and flexibility. 

“By studying the evolution of fish, I have been evolving myself. As a person I have evolved. And I have been evolving in my career. With all the struggles, I have become me.”

a female scientist with orange glasses holds a preserved fish

Adela Roa-Varon holds a specimen from the Smithsonian's collection.

(Courtesy Adela Roa-Varon)
September 2022