Rayna Bell

Evolutionary Biologist

Young Explorers Grantee

Photo: Golden-eyed reed frog

Photograph by Rayna Bell

Photo: Rayna Bell

Photograph by Kelly Zamuido  

Birthplace: California

Current City: Ithaca, New York

What did you want to be when you were growing up?

Some of my favorite television programs when I was growing up were the David Attenborough nature series, and I definitely thought he had the world's best job. I was a fairly practical child though, and assumed I would need to have a "real" job in something like architecture or international business.

How did you get started in your field of work?

My amazing high school biology teacher and her stories about fieldwork in Africa definitely inspired my interest in biological research. As an undergraduate biology major at UC Berkeley I had the opportunity to conduct evolutionary research in the lab and in the field, and that is what really solidified my passion! I spent two years in the molecular lab reconstructing the evolutionary history of Australian frogs and lizards by analyzing their DNA, and loved every moment of it. When I finally earned a trip to the rainforest and started to find the frogs and lizards along streams and forest clearings, all the genetic patterns I had reconstructed in the lab finally made sense, and I was sold!

What inspires you to dedicate your life to biology?

Sometimes it surprises me how little people know about the amazing natural history of the organisms they see every day. Once you know more about how an organism makes its living, you never look at it the same way. Making new discoveries about poorly studied organisms and sharing these discoveries with others can be extremely rewarding!

What's a normal day like for you?

All the fieldwork for my dissertation project is in Central Africa, so I spend lots of time writing grants to fund my research and planning field expeditions. I usually spend about four weeks in the field for each trip and go out into the forest after dark to look for frogs, lizards, turtles, and snakes. Technically I'm also looking for limbless amphibians called caecilians, but I haven't found any yet! When I'm not in the field or planning my next expedition, I'm collecting genetic data in the lab, teaching Cornell undergraduates, and writing papers. Every day is different!

Do you have a hero and, if so, why is this person your hero?

I've always been inspired by Rachel Carson, an incredibly influential biologist, writer, and environmentalist who had the rare ability of effectively communicating science to the general public.

What's been your favorite experience in the field? Most challenging?

I recently experienced one of the best and worst nights in the field on a trip to Bioko Island in Equatorial Guinea with my collaborator Pat McLaughlin, a graduate student at Drexel University. After two weeks on Bioko we still hadn't found one of the species I study, the golden-eyed reed frog. We were finding a species that looks very similar but with slightly different calls from the ones I typically find in neighboring Gabon. I was trying to remain positive and think of new projects I could design with these frogs and their aberrant calls but was hopeful that we would eventually find the "normal" golden-eyed reed frog too. One night, Pat and I ended up walking through what appeared to be an abandoned plantation with few prospects for frogs when we came upon a few cement water tanks covered in breeding frogs, including golden-eyed reed frogs singing the "correct" call. I was incredibly relieved! Of course, on the drive back to the field station, just as Pat was commenting on how lucky it was that we had chosen that exact place along the road to wander through the plantation, we heard a loud crunch and then the sound of rushing air. We ended up with two flat tires and had already replaced one of the rear tires with the spare a couple days earlier so there was no way we'd be able to drive the 15 miles back to the field station. In the end, we were extremely lucky to have a friend who lives near the station come pick us up in the middle of the night. While we waited for our ride on the side of the road in the pouring rain, I ended up finding two more frogs that neither Pat nor I had ever seen on Bioko before. That night perfectly sums up how unpredictably wonderful fieldwork can be!

What are your other passions?

I love travelling, trying out new recipes with friends, and savoring root beer floats. Even though my research is based in tropical forests, I'm particularly fond of desert landscapes and organisms.

What do you do in your free time?

I don't think I know what that is anymore. Luckily, I love being a graduate student!

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In Their Words

Once you know more about how an organism makes its living, you never look at it the same way.

—Rayna Bell

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