A diplomatic person

Duchicela’s successful discussions with Galápagos stakeholders were just one example of her ability to bring diverse groups together. “Work in the Galápagos is very difficult because it’s a protected area,” says Bever. “Getting permits to do work there is very, very hard.” To obtain permission to carry out her research, Duchicela negotiated with the Galápagos National Park, the Charles Darwin Research Station, the Ecuadorian and U.S. governments, local landowners, and even local schools, which she recruited to participate in some of the experiments. “It was really an impressive feat,” says Bever. Her work in the Galápagos and subsequent research earned her Ecuador’s Matilde Hidalgo National Medal in 2016, an award honoring innovative Ecuadorian scientists.

Now, she’s bringing people together again as she expands a database of mycorrhizae studies to enhance scientists’ understanding of the enigmatic fungi. Mycorrhizal fungi are notoriously difficult to study because of their many influences on ecosystems. Besides their symbiosis with plants, mycorrhizae protect plants from disease, enhance plant biodiversity, and stabilize soils. But these effects are not the same everywhere, and scientists struggle to generalize patterns based on individual studies of the fungi.

To address this issue, the database (called MycoDB) compiles the results of more than 4,000 studies to provide scientists with a pool of knowledge that they can use to determine overall patterns in mycorrhizal influences. The database “will help us to understand basic questions of the fungi: how the fungi are distributed and how did they get there,” says Duchicela. She explains that this knowledge is essential for determining novel uses for the fungi in restoration and agriculture. The project represents a collaboration among scientists from all over the world, and Duchicela is committed to adding studies from South American scientists, an underrepresented demographic in the database.

Duchicela has also taken on a new role as a mentor for aspiring scientists through the Finding Ada Network, a program that connects mentors with women and advocates for gender equality in STEM seeking careers in science. Her current mentee, Afrasa Mulatu, from Uganda, is working on his Ph.D. in Applied Microbiology at Addis Ababa University in Ethiopia. Duchicela says that Mulatu trusts that she will be able to guide him in overcoming the challenges that scientists from poor countries face—no funding for basic research, heavy duties in teaching and administration, and little opportunity for academic growth. “Trying to overcome this,” says Duchicela, “has helped me a little bit to share my experience with others that are experiencing the same situation.”