by Rebecca Cazanave
As one of fifteen recipients in the world, Dr. Fernanda Werneck was chosen for a prestigious International Rising Talent Grant from the L’Oréal UNESCO For Women in Science program. Werneck, an alumna from the Department of Biology, was one of just three women to receive an award in the “Examining the past to shed light on the future – or vice versa” category, and she earned it for her work in “predicting how animal diversity will evolve.” Receiving the award was a great honor for Werneck, and she explains that because of it, “several important doors have been opened to [her] career.”
Originally from Brasília, Brazil, Werneck earned her B.S. and M.S. from the Universidade de Brasília in biological sciences and ecology, respectively. After her M.S. degree, Werneck and her husband both came to BYU for doctorate work. Werneck studied integrative biology, hoping to devote her career to identifying and conserving biodiversity in Brazil. Her Ph.D. advisor, Dr. Jack Sites (BIO), remarks that despite the already competitive nature of a doctorate degree at BYU, Werneck immediately set herself apart as exceptional.
Sites explains that she is not only motivated, but organized in managing a budget, efficient in publishing research, and talented in both field work and lab work. “She was just good at all of those things; that’s a rare combination,” says Sites. As a new student at BYU, Werneck was proactive about obtaining funding and was able to acquire thousands of dollars in research grants. While Sites worked with her on one grant proposal, Werneck sought out other opportunities to secure grant funding from other sources, such as National Geographic. “I’ve never seen anybody amass so much of their own resources that quickly,” says Sites. She is “super bright, super organized, and super focused,” Sites says with a laugh, “I just got out of her way.”
Much of Werneck’s research is centered on biogeography, conservation, and the evolutionary biology of reptiles and amphibians. Werneck has worked to identify different species, determine concentration levels of biodiversity, and ensure that areas of high biodiversity are preserved. Today, Werneck and her husband work for the Instituto Nacional de Pesquisas da Amazonia (INPA) or the National Institute of Amazonian Research in Manaus, Brazil, where they live with their daughter.
In the heart of the Amazon, Werneck investigates the processes that are responsible for genetic changes in reptiles and amphibians. By using these animals as model systems, she researches the evolution of animal diversity in Central and South America. Werneck is passionate about conserving the wildlife of Brazil, focusing on the preservation of South America’s two largest flagship biomes, the Amazon rain forest and the Cerrado savanna. Werneck explains that, by better understanding these regions with their diverse species and learning more about how climate change will impact the distribution of these species, she hopes to “preserve the world’s biodiversity for future generations.”
Through her work ethic, Werneck made the most of her time at BYU, utilizing the resources provided by the university. She explains, “It was only at BYU that I got in touch with important theory and practice to lay the groundwork for my studies.” Since graduation, Werneck has accepted a research position at INPA, been successful at getting funding to support her own students, developed her own research program, received the For Women in Science regional award for Brazil, and was invited to apply for the International Rising Talent award, which she received in March 2017. Her distinguished work and research has not only succeeded in setting herself apart in the scientific community, but it has created opportunities for professors like Sites and undergraduate students at BYU to do work in South America. Werneck says that she and Sites “always keep in touch and have plans to continue [their] very productive collaboration.”
When asked how he feels about the work that Werneck has done, Sites says, “I’m proud of everything. I couldn’t be happier.” Werneck’s impressive career promises to advance with unprecedented progress as she strives for her goal “to bring awareness to the importance of understanding and preserving biodiversity” and works to ensure a thriving future.