At the Burns Lab of the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, assistant professor Mercedes Burns has worked as part of a team decoding the sex lives, and subsequent conflict, of animals trying to get it on. Taking a multifaceted approach, they explore all the bizarre and violent behaviors exhibited in animal mating systems among the arthropods. Her affinity for arachnology was even honored in the naming of a west Texan species of trapdoor spider, Ummidia mercedesburnsae. Here, Burns explains the perks of life as both a lab and field researcher, even if the latter does sometimes land you with malaria…
What do you do?
I’m an assistant professor at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County.
What did it take to get here?
It took many years of school! I got a bachelor’s degree in biology (4 years) and then worked for the Bureau of Land Management and University of Minnesota while I applied to graduate school (2 years). After I completed my Ph.D. in evolutionary biology (6 years), I had a postdoctoral research position at San Diego State University (3 years). While I was a postdoc, I started applying for jobs and that’s what led to the job I have now.
Imagine you’ve met yourself as a teenager at a careers fair: How would you describe what you do to your former self?
My job combines molecular lab research, field research, travel to cool countries, teaching, mentoring students, and lots of writing – especially to explain my research and ask for funding. It’s a different combination every week, which I really like.
What's the most common misconception about your line of work?
There’s definitely a stereotype about professors that I think my existence serves to debunk. I’m a Black woman, I enjoy fashion as much as fieldwork, and I have a full life of interests outside of the classroom and lab. I am not my job, but it is a big part of my identity.
Any particularly proud or funny moments on the job?
A proud moment was definitely finding out I’d been awarded a National Science Foundation postdoctoral fellowship. I burst into my Ph.D. adviser’s insect biodiversity classroom and gave him a big hug.
There was a particularly funny event when I was doing field work in Japan. My collaborator, Dr. Nobuo Tsurusaki, and I caught a mimizemi cicada, which has a famous call synonymous with summertime in Japan. I let it go and we watched it flutter away… only for a bird to swoop down, catch the cicada, and proceed to tear it apart! It was like being in a cartoon!
Any hairy moments on the job?
While studying abroad in Costa Rica, I contracted malaria. Also, while climbing a tree, I got stuck, stung about 20 times by hornets and almost had to break a finger to get unstuck. It was a pretty wild trip, altogether.
What do you never leave the house without?
I try to always have a few handy vials for collecting specimens, just in case.
What’s one piece of advice you'd give to someone wanting to embark on the same career?
It’s very difficult to get an academic career, and some might look at getting a professorship as a stroke of luck. I believe you create your own luck. Put yourself in positions to network by making an effort to meet new people that do work you are interested in, join clubs and societies, and whenever you have a good research idea, write it down so you can share it with someone!