MDCC Big Question Series: Professor Catherine Cardelús and Her Passion for the Rainforest

Robert “Jerry” Pfeifer, Staff Writer

On Sept. 7, Professors of Biology Catherine Cardelús and Engda Hagos contributed to the MDCC Big Question Series in Jane Pinchin Hall with a PowerPoint presentation and a tear-jerking personal talk. Cardelús was brought to a point of deep insight into her life — she advised students with the decisions she has made that she sees as the most fruitful and cautionary advice about what students may encounter in their scholarly lives.

Cardelús began her presentation by explaining that each person’s life is different, and despite what our expectations may tell us, life never ends up as planned. She told us that each of our lives was unique in some way, as was hers. In her senior year of high school, Cardelús took a high school equivalency exam and skipped straight to Barnard College.

As Cardelús presented her slideshow, she glanced at the photo of her former Barnard biology professor. It brought her to tears. 

“I’m sorry… I’m a crybaby. Actually, I’m not sorry because this is who I am, and Dr. Helen Young was a very, very important person to me, a botanist […] I wanted to be like this woman. She successfully balanced a research career, teaching and children […] She told me go to the Organization for Tropical Studies in Costa Rica with my research fellowship to experience rainforests before I committed to studying them in graduate school. It turned out to be the best thing in the world. I went and haven’t stopped going.”

Cardelús expected to go on a pre-med track when she entered college but fell in love with botany instead. She reflected on her trip abroad to study rainforest canopy ecology in Costa Rica, which became a lifelong passion. Reflecting on these moments, she offered advice to the audience of students. 

“The critical piece to all of this is to have a huge amount of fun. Don’t go by doing things without having fun. You can get so much out of this institution. Do what takes you out of your comfort zone because you don’t know what you enjoy. Allow yourself not to do your typical. Play with it a little bit. That’s what my advice would be.” 

She also told the audience about difficulties she encountered in her field as a woman, recalling a time when a tree climbing instructor in South America would not teach her because they believed it was not a task a woman could handle. 

However, to her, the long and arduous journey was worth it for the experiences and opportunities she gained, particularly at Colgate. She spoke about specific campus research projects and the students she has worked with, referring to them by name. She recalled a particular example in her work that had a direct and positive impact on the environment— when her team worked with the town of Hamilton to build a system to cull the vast local invasive deer population.

Sophomores Anna Miksis and Zilin Zhou attended the dinner.

“My favorite part of Colgate is [its] professors, and it was a beautiful and inspiring thing to hear Professor Cardelús’ story. While I have limited enthusiasm for science, I do have passions for the humanities. I saw in Professor Cardelus’s story the kind of life I could build if I am dedicated to nurturing the curious, academic, passionate side of myself.”

“Professor Cardelous really inspires me as a female student who wants to major in biology. As in my sophomore year, I am still exploring further among all the divisions in biology, seeking more holistic experience and understanding from specialists in the ecology and zoology areas. This sharing provides me with a rather versatile view of my career exploration and more possible attempts that I can take.”

Professor Cardelús spoke openly, breaking down her experiences to the fundamental psychological decision-making that got her to where she is today. She also gave the audience an overarching perspective of what her passion for natural sciences concerning different courses of study means to her, providing an outlook on education, nature and individual growth that was both authentic and invaluable to listeners.