César Nufio's Path to Science

It's a common idea that only a certain type of person becomes a scientist— someone introverted, obsessive, born to wear a lab coat. But the truth is, all sorts of people are drawn to science, and the paths they follow aren't always straight.

The grasshoppers and climate change case study you can explore on this website wouldn't exist without César Nufio, for instance. César was a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Colorado's Museum of Natural History when he realized that several dusty boxes, covered in black tarp and half-forgotten at the top of a shelf, would allow him to uncover part of the story of climate change and life on earth over the past 100 years. (Inside the boxes was Gordon Alexander's collection of grasshopper specimens and notebooks—read more about how they were collected back on the data visualization page!)

César Nufio holding a grasshopper from the Gordon Alexander collection at the University of Colorado, Boulder. Image: Stephanie Paige Ogburn, KUNC

This wasn't the first time the hand of serendipity had seemed to tap César on the shoulder and point him in the direction of his next step. The roots of his Ph.D in insect science at the University of Arizona can be traced back to, among other things, the fact that an undergraduate marine invertebrate class he'd hoped to take was full and there were still spaces in entomology. Before that, it was far from set in stone that he'd become a scientist at all. When he first arrived at the University of California, Santa Cruz (UCSC), he had a different plan: to major in art and become an illustrator. But like most artists, he had a yearning to understand the deeper patterns of the world. It was reading Richard Dawkin's "The Selfish Gene", a book in which an evolutionary biologist attempts to explain the most inexplicable phenomenon of all—human behavior—that made Cesar understand science was another way to approach the answers he sought. And if you go back further still, to his time at community college, there was yet another turning point that shaped journey—a visit from a recruiter that resulted in his decision to apply to UCSC.

César's pathway as a scientist has expanded to include additional ways to shape and share science. César recently served as a Program Director at the National Science Foundation (NSF), where his job was to help shape the choices the NSF makes about what kinds of scientific research to fund. It was a big responsibility, and quite far from what he imagined he'd be doing many years ago. César is currently developing educational content at the HHMI BioInteractive. We wanted to share his story because the shape of it is much more common than you might think. People become interested in science at many different ages, for all kinds of reasons. We hope that for some of you, exploring this website might feel like a little tap on the shoulder.