Adriana Briscoe, PhD, might be called a “butterfly whisperer” for her special way with these insects. Briscoe, a professor of ecology & evolutionary biology with UCI’s School of Biological Sciences, was actually able to train a butterfly to show her what color they saw.
Although butterflies cannot tell humans directly what colors they recognize, Briscoe trained them to show her what colors they saw by rewarding them with sugar water. It was no small feat in the science world and for this along with her tremendous body of published work, she was awarded the 2020 University Faculty Award from the American Association of Hispanics in Higher Education.
She said she hopes the honor will help encourage more young Latinas to pursue the life sciences since only six percent of the bachelor’s degrees in life sciences are earned by Hispanic women, according to the National Science Foundation. “I wanted to be a scientist since I was very small,” Briscoe told her audience when receiving the award. “Seven years old in fact. But growing up I didn’t know any scientists in my family or in my community. Just on television, like Jacques Cousteau. And it wasn´t until I went to university that I met a woman scientist.”
Briscoe received a B.A. in philosophy, a B.S. in biological sciences, and a M.A. in philosophy at Stanford University. She received her graduate studies at Harvard University, where she studied evolutionary biology. She credits the women in her family for inspiring her to pursue higher education, and her mother was the first Spanish-named woman from San Bernardino County to graduate from the University of California, Riverside in 1965.
A descendant of Mexican immigrants who fled the Mexican Revolution at the turn of the century and settled in California, Briscoe is currently turning her life´s passions for butterflies into a memoir. In an interview with The Conversation she said: “I am fascinated by the sensory world of animals, which is both similar and different from our world. Butterflies can migrate using ultraviolet polarized light, a feature of sunlight we can’t see, and by sensing the earth’s magnetic fields. They can also see colors that we cannot. I often wonder, ´why is the natural world so colorful? Are all color patterns meaningful to the animals that bear them?´”
We´re not sure but will leave it up to Briscoe´s time with the butterflies to eventually tell us.