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Why I Do Science

I’m an aquatic ecologist, entomologist, and educator. Looking back, I suppose I was always interested in insects, but I didn’t always know my interest could become a career.

Growing up in San Antonio, I’d spend hot summer days swimming and then playing outside in the cooler evenings. There were many amazing insects to encounter—all the kids would capture fireflies (lightning bugs to us) and put them in jars to light our bedrooms. When I was about 10, there was a large emergence of cicadas, which are known as chicharras in Texas. The trees were covered in what looked like tiny, alien robots, and the earth and sky pulsed with sound.

Image of Patina K. Mendez
Photo by Mathew Burciaga.

In college, I took an entomology class because I heard the professor was fun. He was! He had us jumping into the bushes after insects, carrying nets around campus, and digging in the dirt. I loved capturing insects, identifying them under the microscope, and drawing them. I found it fascinating to observe these tiny organisms and their complex behaviors. Now, my scientific research focuses on aquatic insects, specifically caddisflies.

“Doing science” requires creativity and problem solving. You get to do all kinds of fun things, such as using art, design, drafting, construction, and electronics to make equipment to gather data. My students and I figure things out together and celebrate when we succeed—it’s electric when things work! Learning and doing isn't always perfect, and it's important for students to see that persistence and collaboration are critical.

I’ve been fortunate to develop programs to foster freshwater ecologists from historically underrepresented backgrounds. As a Latina in STEM from a family of two different cultural backgrounds, they're the programs I wish had existed when I was young. I also lead a program that mentors college faculty in bringing the science of human learning into their curriculum design. In both programs, we're learning how to support people as they develop identities as scientists and educators.

Patina K. Mendez is a continuing lecturer in the Department of Environmental Science, Policy, and Management and a specialist at the Essig Museum of Entomology. In 2022, she received the Leadership Career Award from the Society for Freshwater Science and the Rausser College Distinguished Teaching Award.