Instructor Spotlight – Leticia Avilés


Hi! I am a faculty member at the Department of Zoology and the Biodiversity Research Centre at UBC. I have a PhD from Harvard University and was a postdoctoral fellow and young Assistant Professor at the University of Arizona before arriving to UBC in 2002.

I have an active research lab, with undergrad and grad students working in tropical (Ecuador) and temperate (BC) ecosystems. We study why organisms live in groups (in spiders and other arthropods), but are also interested in how biotic interactions change along gradients of temperature (elevation) and precipitation.

I teach courses on animal behaviour (BIOL 310) and on how evolution shapes human health and disease (ISCI 350). I also have taught a field ecology course in Ecuador (BIOL 409), which is where I am originally from.

What do you most enjoy about being an Instructor?

I love engaging students in activities that get them to think about general concepts in ecology and evolution. When involved in a highly interactive activity in the classroom, I feel like an orchestra conductor helping the students uncover the beauty that nature holds within. I believe that chipping away at the mysteries of nature is as much science as it is art.

How would you describe your teaching style?

In my teaching I focus on concepts and general principles, which can then be applied to various areas in biology, not just to those discussed in class. To get students intrigued and engaged with a particular topic, I often start a unit with a group activity, drawing on the students’ questions and answers to construct the lecture afterwards.

How has your unique background influenced your teaching experience?

I got my biology undergraduate degree in Ecuador, somewhat removed from some of the paradigms that dominated evolutionary thinking in Europe and North America at the time. This allowed me to approach some of the work I did as a graduate student with a relatively open mind about explanations that were not always viewed favourably by mainstream science.

What is something that you are currently doing in your courses that you are excited about?

I love the semester-long projects students work on for my courses. A project in ISCI 350 involves students preparing an annotated bibliography and giving an oral presentation to the class. They are asked to choose a fairly specific topic related to human health and disease (e.g., flu evolution, a fairly specific genetic disorder, etc.), which adds depth to the more general areas covered in lectures and group activities. In BIOL 310, students present in a poster session a proposal for research they could carry out to address an interesting question in animal behaviour. They also get to practice hands-on data collection by documenting the behaviour of a local animal, which they report in a format of their choosing. From TikTok videos to PowerPoint presentations, I am always blown away by the students’ creativity in producing their work.

What is a memorable anecdote from your own undergraduate experience?

As a kid I dreamed of becoming an explorer as those I watched in science documentaries, such as Jacques Cousteau or explorers that traversed the jungles in dugout canoes. The latter is a dream that became a reality during my undergraduate years, when I had the fortune of working on an undergrad thesis project in the lowland tropical rainforest. There (see photos below), I had the support of the most wonderful First Nations people who knew the area like the palm of their hand. This is a fortune I have been able to share over the years with various generations of students from the USA, Canada, and Ecuador who have taken part in the wonderful adventure of solving nature’s puzzles one piece at a time.

Photos from the time I was studying social spiders in the lowland tropical rainforest for my PhD dissertation at the Cuyabeno Nature Reserve, in Amazonian Ecuador. The First Nations person painting my face is Don Vitoriano, who was the chief of the Siona, native inhabitants of that area.

What do you like to do in your spare time?

I love dancing (swing, in particular), rock climbing (bouldering), and cycling. If you are into bouldering, we may run into each other at one of the local bouldering gyms.

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