Diego Anjos: The journey of an early career researcher from the global south during the COVID-19 pandemic

For Black History Month, the British Ecological Society (BES) journals are celebrating the work of Black ecologists from around the world and sharing their stories. The theme for UK Black History Month this year is Time for Change: Action Not Words. Diego Anjos—a post-doc ecology researcher studying at Universidade Federal de Uberlândia, Brazil—shares his story below.

Since my last post during UK Black History Month 2020, a lot has changed in my life and especially in the world. At the time, I wrote my blogpost in lockdown at home, scared by the news from COVID-19. During this time, I did not know when things would return to normality and if people would be safe. Thanks to dedicated scientists, vaccines were developed and today I and all my friends and family are well and immunised. Unfortunately, many others have not been so lucky.

Online classes on Ecological Networks for Master’s and PhD students from all over Brazil, taught by Dr. Diego Anjos.

In Brazil, the poorest people (mostly black people) were the most affected demographic. The gap in the education—due to lockdowns—of these young people will have devastating consequences for many years. With the pandemic, all post-doc grants were cancelled. I saw many friends give up or migrate to other countries in search of opportunities. I was an exception because some months before the pandemic I had obtained my first post-doc fellowship. With this federal fellowship, which has not been readjusted for nine years, I was able to pay my bills and survive. On the other hand, my plans to get a permanent position as a lecturer were seriously affected—all of the positions that I applied for were suspended or cancelled. However, I was aware that there was nothing I could do to reverse the global situation. In fact, what I could do at that moment, in lockdown, was to try to maintain and look after my mental health, be productive, and improve my CV—this was my strategy. In a small flat with my wife, far from my family, I prepared classes and taught online courses for undergraduate and graduate students at the Federal University of Uberlândia, Brazil, where I am currently working as a post-doc researcher.

Dr. Diego Anjos sampling the insects’ functions during pandemic time.

During this time, I organized an international project with a standardised sampling protocol to study the interactions between ants and seeds. Even without funding, this project occurred thanks to the effort of more than 40 researchers in four countries who, having been fortunate to have access to immunisation, went into the field to collect data. In addition, I participated in two big international projects that are also in the final stages of preparation. I have participated in several examining committees of Master’s and PhD students and I’ve reviewed many papers and projects. I have also participated as a member in a team of Brazilian researchers (led by Dr. Kleber Del-Claro) that has been approved for national funding—an extremely competitive ordeal—for the next four years.

Sampling insect-plant interactions in the Brazilian Savanna. Dr. Diego Anjos (right) and José Pezzonia (left), MSc student in Entomology at the University of São Paulo.

This new funded project will research the effects of fire on insect-plant interactions in the Brazilian savanna. Even at a distance, I co-supervised graduate students; I not only taught, I also undertook classes and courses to learn. Through online classes (e.g., YouTube), I was able to hone my skills with synthesis and meta-analysis, resulting in me leading on two manuscripts which have already published Biological control and Proceedings B. In the most recent paper, we evaluated the benefits of ants in the control of agricultural pests. This was published in August 2022, and received great national and international attention.

International media coverage of the latest new paper led by the ecologist Dr. Diego Anjos.

Since my last blogpost, in spite of many difficulties, I have published more than 10 articles (e.g. Ecology, Basic and Applied Ecology, Ecological Indicators, Biological Control, Proceedings of the Royal Society B etc) in collaboration with several colleagues who also worked hard during the pandemic. However, like many researchers, I have received many rejectionsfrom manuscript submissions to respected journals to applications for lecturing positions. This is part of the trajectory of a scientist, especially for those who have always been a minority in academia.

Looking back on this challenging period, I have both taught and learned a lot. With immunisation increasingly covering the population, new positions and opportunities are likely to arise and my dream of getting a permanent position is still alive. I hope I am on the right track and, when I get there, I want to strive to ensure that other young black people also have the same opportunities that I have had. I hope that the universities can implement their diversity policies—taking into account that young black people (as well as other minorities), mainly from developing countries—face many more barriers than other peers, both to enter university and become a professor. More than that, I want to work hard so that Universities to really be a place of diversity because it is Time for Change: Action Not Words.

Enjoyed the blogpost and want to reach out to Diego? Contact him via Twitter or email!

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