Postdoctoral researcher mentors future scientists from underrepresented communities

"Stephen Baca"

Stephen Baca | Postdoctoral Researcher | KU Biodiversity Institute & Natural History Museum

Stephen Baca’s interest in biology was clear from an early age, even if his career path was not.

“I remember catching my first snake when I was 6 or 7 years old and was just absolutely captivated,” he said.

By middle school, Baca thought he would become a herpetologist after reading about the field in library books. His fascination with the natural world was also fostered by a teacher who helped him start his first insect collection.

“I ended up losing that vision in high school,” he said. “Besides the turmoil of high school, the town I grew up in just wasn’t exactly conducive to those sorts of plans.”

Baca started his higher education journey at the University of New Mexico as a business student. He withdrew and took time off to work, but soon realized that his passion remained in insect biology. He returned to UNM, where a professor told him about Andrew Short, then-KU professor of ecology & evolutionary biology, who was researching aquatic beetles. After earning his bachelor’s degree in biology, he came to KU to study under Short.

Baca was a co-founder and president of the KU chapter of the Society for the Advancement of Chicanos & Native Americans in Science, commonly known as SACNAS. He is now a KU/Haskell University Institutional Research & Academic Career Development Award postdoctoral fellow, a program offered through KU’s Office of Diversity in Science Training. The three-year fellowship involves a year of research, a year of teaching and a final year of research. Baca said teaching and mentoring Haskell students is an excellent opportunity to help increase representation in academia.

“During my graduate studies here, underrepresented advocacy was a major part of what I did, and coming from Gallup, New Mexico — a community that abutted the Navajo Nation — made me think I would be a good fit for doing some teaching training through IRACDA,” he said.

Effectively teaching with a research component requires thinking about how best to structure holistic projects that further students’ understanding of a subject area within the space of a single semester. Baca says the IRACDA program has helped him practice structuring projects this way.

“It’s training me in terms of how to think of those aspects,” he said. “How do you best give students at different levels beneficial and interesting research projects that get them not only interested in the science, but actually train them for whatever niche that they happen to be in?”

Baca hopes to lead his own lab in the future to research the evolution of aquatic beetles. For now, his postdoctoral position is in the lab of Robert Moyle, senior curator of ornithology at KU’s Biodiversity Institute & Natural History Museum and professor of ecology & evolutionary biology, where he gets to apply advanced genetic techniques to the insects he’s interested in studying.  

“I was getting to a level where I had to start using some more advanced methods and techniques to look at population genetics,” he said. “That was not something that my previous lab did, so this gives me a very unique opportunity.”