Maria Isabel Castano

Graduate Student, The Uy Lab

You work in a laboratory.  What are you currently researching?

I'm a Colombian biologist, broadly interested in the role of behavior as a driver of population differentiation. I joined the TropBioLab (Uy Lab) in Fall 2020 aiming to explore the field of behavioral ecology using experimental and genomic approaches. I'm particularly keen on how visual and acoustic signals involved in mate choice are shaped by ecological pressures that ultimately result in reproductive isolation of neotropical birds. I recently obtained a grant to do my first field work season in Colombia exploring a unique hybrid zone between two subspecies of a colorful Neotropical Tanager system.

What was it that originally sparked your interest in biology?

The outstanding biodiversity of my home country, Colombia, is what made me an enthusiastic biologist and got me interested in ecology and conservation from a young age. Colombia is one of the top 5 most biodiverse countries, and the one with the most bird species in the world, with almost 2000 species registered to the present day.  I obtained my BS at Universidad de los Andes in Bogota, and since I started exploring the fascinating world of birds,  I became a devoted birder and ornithologist and founded my own birdwatching company in Colombia called Amazona Tropical Birding ( This gave me the possibility of traveling to remote areas of the country, always making sure that local guides and communities obtained from birding tourism an incentive to get involved in conservation. I believe that in a country like mine, biology and specifically conservation is one of the most critical aspects to focus on, because our true potential and value lies behind the exceptional biodiversity that we have the fortune to hold, as well as one of the main things that can bring people together in these times of social unrest.

What do you enjoy most about working here at the U of R?

Despite the challenges of starting a PhD in the middle of a pandemic, U of R and the Department of Biology have been amazing to me, and certainly a major influence in my professional development. The sense of community and supportive environment have been major factors in my success navigating this first year of graduate school and overcoming the difficult times that the world and my home country are currently experiencing. I can confidently say that I have found mentors and friends in almost everyone to whom I’ve reached out for help, not to leave aside the amazing and constructive research laboratory that I joined (TropBioLab - Uy Lab) which is a major highlight of my experience in the university. Additionally, I’m a big fan of the city and the people that I’ve met here have been always extremely kind. I’m sure I haven’t experienced most of the things that the city has to offer, but despite the pandemic, I’m grateful for all the experiences that I’ve had here.

What advice would you give to prospective students looking to study in our department?

My main advice is to never be afraid of asking for help. Everyone in the department has been extremely nice and collaborative, always willing to help even with the most basic questions and tasks. As a field biologist, I had not been previously exposed to many bioinformatic environments or projects in the past, therefore my abilities in that specific aspect were very limited before coming here. However, I can say now with no doubt that my bioinformatic abilities and knowledge has increased exponentially in a very short amount of time due to the high quality of the faculty, postdocs and graduate students that I’ve had the chance to interact with.

How do you unwind when you’re not in the lab?

I’m frequently at the rock gym climbing or doing yoga. I also enjoy going outside going for long walks in the river trail and I bike or walk from my house to campus almost every day. Also, as I guess is evident by now, I love to go birdwatching so I spend a lot of time in parks around the city.