Diego Anjos: Researching ant seed dispersal in Brazil

Diego Anjos is an early career ecologist from Brazil, who’s research focuses on plant-insect interactions and multilayer networks in the Brazilian savanna.
This post by Diego is part of the BES journal’s Black History Month blog series, which will be taking place throughout October 2020. We want to acknowledge and celebrate the work of Black ecologists and ecological practitioners, as well as share their experiences. You can read all of the blogs in this series here: Black History Month 2020.

I am Diego Anjos, an early career postdoctoral in Ecology at Federal University of Uberlândia, Brazil. My story is similar to that of most young black students in Brazil – it has required serious effort to overcome adversity in order to accomplish this academic achievement. I came from a poor family in a small town in southeastern Brazil. My parents have always believed, as do I, that a good education is the only way to improve a person’s life and consequently reduce the great social inequality that exists in Brazil. Despite financial difficulties, my parents worked very hard to provide me with the opportunity to study at the best schools. As is typical in Brazil my whole family helped – one of my Uncles even paid for my English classes at a private school. Since I was a young child, I loved animals and plants. As a teenager, I had already decided that I would study Biology.

In my last year at high school I worked part time to help my family pay school bills. When I graduated high school, I tried to get into a federal university but, unfortunately, I was not accepted at any universities as the competition is very high and at that time there were no racial quotas stipulated by the government. However, I did not give up. I studied even harder and after six months, I was accepted in three public federal universities. I decided to study Biological Science at the Federal University of Ouro Preto. From 2007 – 2012 I received support from the Brazilian government, such as scholarships, food assistance and other support available for low-income students like myself.

After graduating, I was immediately accepted into master’s program in Ecology. At that time, part of my studies investigated the effects of fire on ants (Anjos, Campos, Campos & Ribeiro, 2017) and on arthropod communities (Anjos, Alves-Silva & Ribeiro, 2016) under the supervision of Dr. Sérvio Ribeiro, my first great mentor.

Once I had my bachelors degree, my dream was to became a professor at a public university. However, to accomplish this goal I knew that there would be a long road ahead of me.  I followed my dreams and applied to a PhD Program at University of São Paulo, one of the largest universities in Latin America. The competition was unbelievable, but with hard work and support from my wife, teachers and family – I placed as the number one candidate into the program.

Outreach activities with children from public schools in the Brazilian Savanna, teaching the importance of conservation of natural areas.

My PhD studies have focused on plant-insect interactions, which is one of my oldest passions. This study was under the supervision of Dr. Kleber Del-Claro, another great mentor with whom I had the opportunity to learn. Specifically, I studied the role of ants as seed dispersers. We described the network structure between ants and seeds in the Brazilian savanna (Anjos, Dáttilo & Del-Claro, 2018). More than that, we showed the outcomes of these interactions and found a mutualistic relationship between harvester ants and a native Brazilian plant (Anjos et al., 2020). During my PhD, I was awarded a fellowship that gave me the opportunity to visit Dr. Pedro Jordano’s lab in Seville, Spain. I have also been fortunate enough to visit Dr. Wesley Dáttilo’s Lab in Mexico and Dr. Alan Andersen in Australia. All of these great professors believed in me and my capacity, and they have been my inspiration as ecologists. In 2019, I finished my PhD and I was nominated to compete for the prestigious “USP Outstanding Thesis” award. A few months before finishing the PhD, I had already secured a postdoctoral position.

My PhD defense in 2019, from left to right: Dr. Thiago Izzo, Dr. Estevao Alves-Silva, Dr. Denise Lange (on the screen), me and one of my supervisor Dr. Kleber Del-Claro.

This year, I published my last PhD chapter, in which we showed through a global review the importance of ants in the dispersal of fresh fruits (Anjos, Leal, Jordano & Del‐Claro, 2020). To my surprise this paper was also selected as the Editor’s Choice article. Currently, I study multilayer networks, meaning the main positive and negative interactions of animals with the Brazilian savanna plants.

My PhD study system in Brazilian savanna, ant-seed interactions. (Photo: Jonas Aguiar).

Looking back I understand that I have overcome many barriers in my life and I’m so grateful for everything and everyone that crossed my path and offered their knowledge and support.  I know for sure that one day I will be reaching my final goal of becoming a professor. I hope to inspire young black students, both in Brazil and abroad, to defend a prosperous and sustainable world.

Diego Anjos

You can read all the posts in our Black History Month collection here. Please check back throughout October 2020, as we will be publishing more posts throughout the rest of this month!

If you would like to contribute a post yourself, please get in touch.

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