Dr Gyanpriya Maharaj – Entomologist and Behavioral Ecologist

Thanks to the amazing grant of £1000 given to us by the Royal Astronomical Society, we’ve been able to hire writers for our blog posts on scientists of colour. This incredible article was written by the wonderful Rebecca Rambarran!

“The Amazon has a lot to do with [everyone]. That is why when they talk about it, they say it is the lungs of the world, they do not talk about it being South America’s lungs. And there is a reason for that. This is a resource that we all need to protect. It is a resource that is important for every one of us.”

Name: Dr Gyanpriya “Priya” Maharaj

Born: 1984 in Georgetown, Guyana

Education:

B.Sc University of Guyana, Biology

M.Sc University of Warwick, Plant and Environmental Sciences

Ph.D. University of Missouri St. Louis, Biology

Occupation: Entomologist and Behavioral Ecologist

[1]

Who is Dr. Maharaj?

Dr. Maharaj is an entomologist currently teaching and researching at the University of Guyana. Her research focuses on bumblebee and tropical butterfly foraging behaviors. She is also the Director at the Centre for the Study of Biological Diversity where her goal is to study, educate others on, and conserve Guyana’s biodiversity.

[1] [2] [3]

Early Life & Education

Dr. Gyanpriya Maharaj was born and raised in Georgetown, Guyana. Recounting her upbringing, she notes the varying beauty of the country. Known for its extensive number of primary forests—covering about 70% of the land—Guyana also boasts geographical wonders such as mangrove forests, savannas, and plateaus. As her childhood curiosity already gravitated towards the natural world, experiencing the biological marvels within her home country as well as travelling on ecotourism trips with her family contributed to her enthusiasm. At times this would manifest itself in questions such as, “Why does a tadpole look like that?” or “Why does the head of the mosquito larva get so large?”, or even in simple acts such as observing little mosquito larvae swim. This innocent inquiry into what these organisms are doing began to lay the tracks for Priya to pursue her passions within the biological field.

After finishing secondary school at Queen’s College, she continued her education at the University of Guyana earning a degree in Biology. Following undergrad, she studied at the University of Warwick where she completed her Master’s in Plant and Environmental Sciences. It is during this time that she describes having a breakthrough moment.

On her first trip into the field, she and her team were doing work in central Guyana, in the Iwokrama forest and North Rupununi area. While travelling inland, everything that could have gone wrong did. However, when she got there and started her first day she recalls:

“The beauty, the phenomenal grandeur of what it is, it leaves you speechless…I saw the forest with trees that just towered over you in this deep green color and heard sounds of the birds. Just seeing the butterflies and the different colors—it was just…words fail me. To just be able to experience that purity …you cannot describe the beauty of what it is.”

From this point, it did not matter if she was being chased by a cow, nor was she concerned with what stung or bit her. Just looking across the flat savannas, seeing sparse groups of trees—the bush islands—and then the solitary trees dotting along a never-ending piece of land, all illuminated by the warm sunbeams she says, “there is no turning back when you think that this is something you get to be in, something you get to share with other people.” Her penchant for working with others is another important theme throughout Dr. Maharaj’s life. When speaking about the same trip, she recalls the camaraderie shared between her and her teammates, a group of indigenous people and another researcher from the coast. She recounts that her respect for the indigenous peoples was amplified, they had “so much knowledge about their land, how it works, why its there, and the purpose it serves” adding an invaluable relationship between people and their environment to the trip.

Finally, she finished her Ph.D. in Biology at the University of Missouri St. Louis. When speaking about this time in her life, she again mentions the importance of creating a support system, and what a positive experience her education and work has been because of it.

[1] [2]

Career and Beyond

Heading into her career Dr. Maharaj thought that she might predominantly study plants. However, while at the University of Warwick she had an opportunity to work with butterflies and so her work began to focus more on pollinators. It is in these unexpected events where she believes life happens. Though she recommends having a plan to make the day to day easier, she puts even heavier weight on having an open mind, “it is important for people to keep an open mind and try things. It is easy to say you don’t want to do something… but actually having an experience helps you so much more.” It is because of this mindset that she was able to not only decide what direction to focus her research on but also have some of her best life experiences.

Her first research paper looks at how two species of Heliconiid pollinators, the Postman butterfly, and the Julia butterfly, respond to trichromatic color changing sweet sage. In it she seeks to better understand if and how the inflorescences of sweet sage communicate messages to these pollinating butterflies. The findings of the paper did corroborate that many pollinator taxa are able to associate nectar rewards with the varying color signals. Following this, she published an article looking into the influence of inherited information regarding color on bumble bee sampling and tracking behavior. Through this she found that while there are preexisting biases which govern these behaviors and though they may remain constant so long as rewards are consistent, new information and environmental changes could potentially influence bumble bee preexisting biases.

Currently she is wrapping up research where she looks at restoration within various mined areas in Guyana. Aside from research and teaching at the university, Dr. Maharaj is also the Director at the University of Guyana’s Centre for the Study of Biological Diversity (CSBD). As the Director her time is spent in administrative activities, though she hopes to eventually focus more on her research, she knows that this is what currently needs her attention. The centre has a mandate which is comprised of three main ideas:

  1. Monitoring and recording biodiversity data. Research done is recorded and kept in a database. There is also a reference collection, the largest in the country, split between a wet and dry museum and herbarium.
  2. Supporting biodiversity education. To do so they conduct training session which cover how to collect and analyze biodiversity information as well as how to meaningfully communicate their data to wider audiences.
  3. Supporting conservation, which is done through faculty and student research.

The work being done at CSBD is something that she feels very strongly about and intends to see it become an entity which garners sufficient support and funding, ensuring its health and continuation of biodiversity conservation.

Dr. Maharaj also aims to stress the importance of representation in science. A big motivator for her was having female professors who she admired because she saw “the strength and the brilliance” in their approach. She continues, “I looked at that and I thought this is what I want to do and be, not necessarily what they do for research but just the people they had become.” For her it is not just about seeing women like herself do the work but seeing people from every nationality and every ethnicity too. By seeing someone like yourself doing the work you dream of, it is easier to believe you can too.

It is clear the importance that relationship dynamics plays throughout her work and life. Much like she could not have gotten to where she is without the network of support from other people “ensuring that [her] career goes forward, ensuring that [she] is okay, that everything is going well”, the earth which we all inhabit cannot continue to be a vast network of enchanting biodiversity without considerable environmental efforts. These such efforts are contingent in understanding how all life interacts with its environment. When reflecting on her work, with strong fervor, she elaborates that:

“Not only is it important to study population dynamics—so how populations are increasing and decreasing—but it is also important to study behavior of insects…when you decide you are going to restore a piece of land it is not enough to just replant some plants, what is necessary is for you to look at the interactions of those insects with their natural environment and their functional roles because this is what you have to replicate when you are doing restoration.”

In the current time of Anthropocene this information will be vital in maintenance of our ecosystems as climate change continues to persevere. To holistically look at the environmental issues brought about by Anthropocene she says:

“You cannot think about conservation of your own country. You need to think about how conservation works around the world and ensure that you are all working together for it. The Amazon has a lot to do with you. That is why when they talk about it, they say it is the lungs of the world, they do not talk about it [only] being South America’s lungs. And there is a reason for that. This is a resource that we all need to protect. It is a resource that is important for every one of us.”

In these statements she perfectly summarizes the sentiment that science is not far away from any of us, that we are not separate from it at all. Conservation is something we can all contribute to. From planting an extra mango tree to turning off the light when leaving a room, Dr. Maharaj stresses that citizens play a big role when it comes to the environment and that scientists cannot do it alone.

[1] [5] [6] [7] [8]

References:

[1]: 🗣️ Priya Maharaj, personal communication, February 2021

[2]: 💻 Gyanpriya Maharaj studies Guyana’s biodiversity ecology and butterflies By Karen Holman

[3]: 💻 Passionflower butterflies, love for Guyana fuel UMSL grad’s research, new job back home by Marisol Ramirez

[4] 📹 “Biodiversity and Guyana’s future” – speech at Turkeyen and Tain Talks (video)

[5] 💻 Women in science appreciation – interviewed by the University of Guyana’s Biology club

[6] 💻 Honest Signalling and the Billboard Effect: How Heliconiid Pollinators Respond to the Trichromatic Colour Changing Latana camara

[7] 💻 Influence of preexisting preference for color on sampling and tracking behavior in bumble bees

[8]📹 Biodiversity and Single use plastics – Facebook video session hosted by Guyana Environmental Protection Agency

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