Contrary to what one might expect from a renowned scientist whose specialty is frog biology, Eugenia del Pino Veintimilla 72G wasn’t an adventurous child who played in the woods and explored under rocks. Raised in the capital city of Quito, Ecuador, she preferred reading to tree climbing.
Even as she followed a path toward becoming a scientist
and professor, she shied away from rugged outdoor treks. “I was frightened by the idea of having to wear boots and going somewhere in the field, and I didn’t want to have to kill animals to do my research,” she says.
So she concentrated on developmental biology, more specifically the reproductive system of marsupial frogs—pregnancy hormones, pouches, eggs, and tadpoles. And to find subjects upon which to begin her research, she went no further than the gardens of her university.
“I found two frogs and called my thesis adviser at Emory, Dr. A. Alan Humphries Jr., and asked what was known about the reproductive and early developmental physiology of marsupial tree frogs, which are unique to Latin American countries,” she says. “He replied that nothing was known, and I could make a successful career by studying these frogs. So I took his advice.”
Del Pino, now a professor, researcher, and one of the world’s leading experts on the biology of marsupial tree frogs, was recently named a Foreign Associate of the National Academy of Sciences and an Honorary Foreign Member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. She returned to Emory in September to give a lecture on her professional journey.
“Every day you make choices, and you have to decide, what is the best choice?” she says of the philosophy that has guided her career. “I enjoyed many things—photography, mathematics, studying the German language. But ultimately, you must pick a path and follow it.”
Standing on the Quad during her visit, del Pino reminisced about coming to Emory in 1969 to pursue a doctorate after earning her master’s degree from Vassar College in New York. “My nicest recollection is our midmorning breaks at Cox Hall,” she says. “Not only our group but other biology students and students from other departments would discuss the latest papers and research ideas over coffee, orange juice, and doughnuts. I found these kinds of meetings very important in developing critical thinking.”
After gaining her PhD, Del Pino returned to her home country and her undergraduate alma mater, the Pontifical Catholic University of Ecuador, where she now heads the university’s research program in developmental biology. She has contributed to the training of more than three hundred biologists.
“I wanted to use my skills to advance science and the knowledge of Ecuador’s biodiversity,” she says. “Ecuador is one of seventeen mega-diverse countries in the world. We’ve got the mountains, the lowlands, and the ocean. There are 425 species of frogs.”
Not to mention the fact that Ecuador’s Galápagos National Park is one of the top ecotourist destinations in the world. Del Pino has served as a council member and vice president of the Charles Darwin Foundation for the Galápagos Islands, increasing awareness of the importance of conservation.
To understand the development of other species, like
the marsupial tree frog, is to understand our own development,
del Pino says. “And to understand how to save and protect them may, in turn, help us to save ourselves.”—M.J.L.