Student Spotlight: Sara Prado

Sara Prado looking over the hillside of coffee plantations, in Maricao, Puerto Rico

Sara Prado looking over the hillside of coffee plantations, in Maricao, Puerto Rico


With tomorrow being Valentine’s Day, chocolate and sweet treats are on the minds of many.  This is very timely for graduate student Sara Prado’s research involving chocolate and coffee!  Sara Prado, a PhD Candidate on the Department of Applied Ecology is finishing up her PhD in Zoology under the co-advisement of Jaime Collazo and Rebecca Irwin.

Originally from Montreal, Canada, Sara started her university career at McGill University, where she earned her Bachelor’s degree in Agricultural and Environmental Sciences.  Sara then moved to Raleigh for her Masters of Science in Entomology from NC State.

Sun coffee plantation in Utuado, Puerto Rico
Sun coffee plantation in Utuado, Puerto Rico

Ever since she graduated with her Masters in 2012, Sara has been spending time in the U.S. Territory of Puerto Rico.

“I started working there because there was very little interest from local scientists to study native bees on the island.  So, I was brought on to work on a 1-year long project funded by NRCS (Natural Resources Conservation Service) and conducted pollinator and pollinator-plant surveys in agricultural fields in the southeast of the island.  It was very tiring work, but that’s when I really started developing my passion for working with growers and pollinators.  There’s just something so satisfying about being able to communicate directly with those who can benefit most from your work.”

After her funding through NRCS ended, Sara continued to work with native bees, but this time surveying them in coffee plantations.  “This was part of a large-scale project funded by the P.R. Department of Natural and Environmental Resources (DNER), who was interested in increasing the amount of protected land on the island from 8% to 15%.  So, I, along with three other graduate students in Jaime’s lab, went down to survey animals (bees for me, but birds and amphibians for the others).”

Swabbing a honeybee to determine what plant's pollen it's carrying.
Swabbing a honeybee to determine what plant’s pollen it’s carrying.

After working as a Research Assistant for a year, Sara was given the chance to turn this project into a PhD project.  For her PhD, Sara started looking at the effects of two different farm types (specialized shade plantations and sun coffee plantations) on pollination services.  Specifically looking at:

  1. how the different farm types might be affecting the floral traits,
  2. how these differences in floral traits and the different farm types affect bee visitation to the coffee plants, and
  3. how this ultimately affect fruit production and coffee bean and beverage quality.

Sara’s work in Puerto Rico is important because “very little work has been conducted in specialized shade plantations (most are in traditional or rustic shade), and as far as I know, there’s no study of the effects of these farm types on floral traits.  It’s important to know how the flowers are changing in response to agricultural practices, and how this can in turn affect pollinator attraction to the flowers, their visitation, and their services.”

Honeybee foraging on a blooming Coffea arabica flower
Honeybee foraging on a blooming Coffea arabica flower

Towards the end of her PhD program, Sara has been able to start working some in Peru, which she hopes to continue when she graduates!  “This past August (2017), I went to Peru to collect some preliminary data for an NSF (National Science Foundation) postdoctoral research fellowship grant that I applied for.  If I get the funding, I’d conduct similar work to that of my PhD, but study how plant domestication and agricultural practices are affecting floral traits, pollinator behavior and pollination services in cacao.  Peru is the second largest exporter and producer of fine quality cacao in the world, after Ecuador.  Cacao cultivation is continuing to grow around the country, but little to no research has been done on cacao pollination – a crucial ecological process for cacao production.  Since there are native varieties of cacao in the country, Peru provides an excellent opportunity to study pollinator-cacao interactions within their native range.”

Although Sara recently started work in Peru, her passion for Peru goes back further in time.  While an undergrad at McGill, Sara would volunteer over the summers at Ecolodges in Madre de Dios, Peru, as a Resident Naturalist.  “That’s when I really developed a passion for entomology (I fell in love with ants!) and the tropics.  So, I knew I’d want to study insects tropical regions.”  Sara also has family ties to the area.  “Peru is also where my father is from, and I think working in Peru allows me to learn more about where I’m from, while also contributing to science.”

Honeybee foraging on a blooming Coffea canpehora Flower
Honeybee foraging on a blooming Coffea canpehora flower

When asked to reflect on how international work has changed her viewpoint on her research and education efforts, Sara mentioned that “Working internationally gives you a greater appreciation of the amount of resources and knowledge we have available to us here in the U.S. and Canada.”  Sara made note of the farmers’ attitudes in Peru, “The few farmers I interacted with in Peru were extremely grateful to have someone visit their farm to study their plants and provide them with information.  Reading a scientific publication isn’t exactly a farmer’s priority, so being able to convey important information to them, in layman’s terms is much appreciated by them.”  All of the Latin Americans Sara crossed paths with, whether in Puerto Rico or in Peru, have been extremely accommodating and cooperative, making her work very pleasant.  “However, things are a bit more difficult to get going when you’re not there in person, and sometimes you don’t have all the resources you need available to you, so you also have to learn to think on your feet and not get discouraged when things don’t go exactly as planned.”

At the end of our interview with Sara we asked her what kind of advice she would give to students who are interested in pursuing research opportunities abroad.  “I would say go for it! But please go at it with an open mind. Things are not going to be the same as what you know here, and really, that’s part of the beauty of working abroad.  Some things might be harder to get done, while others are a lot easier or more pleasant.  It’s also an extremely rewarding experience.     Nothing beats being in the middle or a rainforest – it feel like home.”

The next couple of months will be very busy for Sara as she plans to defend her PhD in May!  After that she will be working on some final reports for her work in Puerto Rico and then will hopefully start a Postdoc in Peru in January!

We look forward to seeing all you accomplish in your career, future Dr. Sara Prado!