Meet Tanya Dapkey, an entomologist working on the exciting Barcode of Life project!

What is your scientific background?

I have a Bachelors of Science degree from West Chester University. My focus was on freshwater ecology. I have a Masters degree in Environmental Studies from the University of Pennsylvania. My capstone was “Combining DNA Barcoding and Macroinvertebrate Sampling to Assess Water Quality”

Did you have a role model that influenced your decision to become a scientist?

When I was younger I loved the PBS show Marty Stouffer’s Wild America. Watching a true naturalist explore the world around him was something I had never seen before. I also loved the shows narrated by David Attenborough and was always fascinated by whatever he shared in his programs. When I was 10, my cousin from Germany came for a visit. He was in college studying to be a biologist, and during a walk in a local forest, he found a tiny little frog hiding in a tree. It changed my world-view; suddenly I realized that I could become a naturalist here in my own backyard. In college, I had many professors who were enthusiastic about ecology, most notably Dr. Maya Evenden and Dr. Winfield Fairchild.

Why did you choose to become a scientist?

It was something that made sense to me and that I was good at.

How did you choose your field of study?

My professors at West Chester often worked with invertebrates when discussing population biology and ecology. I had an entomology course with Dr. Maya Evenden (who now teaches 6 + entomology courses at the University of Alberta in Canada) and her enthusiasm was contagious. She was a true inspiration and an excellent teacher.

Which topic are you working on at the moment? Why did you choose this topic and how do you think you’ll make a difference?

My current project is The Barcode of Life ( We are working to build up the library of genetic CO1 sequences of all the Lepidoptera (and their parasitoids) of the Guanacaste Conservation Area in Costa Rica ( This project is our attempt at cataloging species in an effort to bring to light the higher-then-expected diversity in Costa Rica. As we examine our results, we are finding a surprising amount of biological diversity. What we thought was one species turns into 10, what we thought was a generalist parasitoid turns into 20 + species of specialists! If we can spread the word that there is still a large number of undiscovered species in these areas, we can add value to them.

I am also working on describing Crambidae species by dissecting genitalia and mounting them on slides. We will publish all our ecological, biological, genetic and morphological data on several species.

Dr. Janzen explaining a problem/ Winnie Hallwachs

What are your biggest achievements, and what your biggest failures?

My Master’s degree has been my biggest achievement career-wise, having my children be kind, generous people is my biggest personal one. My biggest failure career wise is not having a Ph.D. by this point in my life, and not spending more time with my children has been my biggest personal one.

What are the hardest parts related to this work?

Staying focused. A lot of my job is repetitive and mundane, requiring an attention to detail. To be fair though, most data-driven science requires this kind of work.

Did you ever doubt your abilities as a scientist? Why? How did you handle these situations/feelings?

This is a difficult question for me. Yes, I doubt myself, I feel if I did not, then I would not be good at what I do. Attention to detail and consistency requires one to be a bit self-critical. I work hard at what I do, and I am a very capable cog in the wheel – but still a cog. I have a pretty great partner; he is always supportive and kind. I have amazing children who love everything I do. I go to therapy twice a month to manage my anxiety and depression. I have started to volunteer my time to educate young people about insects by bringing my live and dead collection for them to see and interact with. Watching their faces light up with wonder and excitement is truly uplifting.

What (or who) motivated you in difficult times?

Righteous indignation at how biodiversity and science are undervalued. Watching other scientists never give up in the face of uncertainty. Fear of disappointing my children.

Is there any scientific topic (outside of your field of research) that you think should have more scientific attention? Which one?

It’s tough for me to pick just one. I feel like most ecology studies should receive more attention. And maintaining old collections is vitally important; museum funding should have a higher priority in our society.

Tanya saying goodbye to the immature parts collection as it leaves to the Smithsonian/ Winnie Hallwachs

If you were completely free to choose a scientific topic to work on, which would it be?

Freshwater ecology or the physiological basis of human asexuality.

What is the funniest or most memorable thing that has happened to you while working in science?

The most memorable moments have been on field trips. When I was interning at Stroud Water Research Center, I was given the opportunity to assist them with some fieldwork in New York. New York City and the EPA had been conducting a long-term study on the water quality of the streams in the Catskills. I was able to tag along, help out, and get to see how large-scale fieldwork was done. It was very exciting and beautiful.

The best trip was my trip to Montana. While working on my Master’s degree, I had an opportunity to go to Montana and Wyoming for 2 weeks for a field course. My husband and I had just bought a house and gotten married. We were pretty poor and couldn’t afford a honeymoon, but the course allowed the students to bring someone with them. My husband tagged along as we learned all about rocky mountain geology and ecology. It was an amazing experience that changed my life. I have made lifelong friends and if I had a chance to go anywhere in the world, I would return to Montana.

In ten years, what do you hope to have accomplished in terms of your work?

I hope to have my Ph.D. in 10 years or at least a better paying job!

Do you come from an academic family?

No, my mother does not have a college degree and my father was a software engineer. I am not the first person in my immediate family to have a degree, but I am the only one working in an academic institution.

How does your family regard your career choice?

My mother and husband are proud of me. My husband just wished it paid better.

During your career, have you been specifically mentored or supported by someone?

My boss, Dr. Daniel Janzen, and his wife, Dr. Winnie Hallwachs have mentored and supported me since the day I started working for them. They are patient, encouraging, kind, amazing people who I am extremely proud to work with.

Besides your scientific interests, what are your personal interests?

I love photography, reading books and sorting my insect collection.

Tanya getting some fieldwork done for her Master’s Degree, 7 months pregnant with her son, White Clay Creek, Chester County, PA.

Is it hard to manage both career and private life? How do you manage both?

Yes! You manage both by realizing you have to make some sacrifices. I can’t have a fully realized academic career AND have a happy fulfilling relationship with my children. I think people who do manage to have both of these things have a ton of resources available to them. I have amazing resources (my mother and husband) but they can only do so much, and my commute limits the amounts of hours I have left in a day. I do want to be a part of my children’s lives – but it means I have to make sacrifices at work. Do I help my daughter with her science project and go to her fair or do I stay late at work so I can attend a talk or a networking meeting? At some point, I stop worrying about it and make the best choice I can in the moment and try hard not to beat myself up about the choice. I recently heard a woman on a podcast speaking about how motherhood made her a stronger person, and this statement really resonated with me. Becoming a mother has given me more confidence in myself, even though I channel that into career choices.

What is a typical day like for you?

I wake at 6 AM, then get dressed and ready for work. I pack my own and my families lunch, then leave at 6:30 to catch a train into the city. I usually get some work done on the train and catch up on emails. I arrive at my lab around 8:15 AM and finish my emails and have my coffee. I work until 2:30, and then I pack up and catch a train home. I usually arrive at home by 4:30, have dinner then help my kids with their homework. I will make lunches for the next day, and do any prep work for the morning before bathing the kids and putting them to bed. Sometimes I have meetings that run later in the evening, and in those instances, my mother helps me take care of the children.

What were the biggest obstacles you had to overcome? Did you ever have the impression that it would be easier/harder if you were male?

Finishing my graduate degree was difficult due to the fact that I was pregnant at the time, then I became a breastfeeding mother. I am not sure I was prepared for how it would affect my body to such a significant degree. I was exhausted and mentally drained most days. My beloved writing and reading became huge chores. So, if I had been a male-bodied person, I would have had fewer physical demands. In that sense I feel like being a man would make it easier.

What kind of prejudices, if any, did you have to face? How did that make you feel?

Tanya covered in Luna moths. Hopewell Furnace BioBlitz, part of the 2016 National BioBlitz.

Were you able to overcome these?

I am lucky that I do not have to face that many prejudices. If I had to pick something, it’s that I lack a Ph.D. Not having this has made it difficult to find other types of employment and to gain respect from older colleagues. But this is the exception and not the rule. I have only had one bad experience while working in my current position, and it was many years ago. I was at a table having dinner with some older scientists and one of the gentlemen made a derogatory comment about my position (not myself personally) while I was sitting at the table. He did not even look at me or acknowledge my presence. It was a brief encounter, but it made an impression. Many of the older scientists in my field (entomology) are male, and they cling to certain old truths. Integrating new technologies and people has been difficult for some, but not all. Again, most of the time I am met with true collaboration and mentorship. The entomologists and ecologists who have taught me the most have been of this older generation, and they shared their knowledge freely and with enthusiasm. As time goes on, I have become known and interacting with colleagues has become much easier and more fruitful.

In your opinion, which changes, if any, are needed in the scientific system to be more attractive to female scientists and possible future scientists?

Better childcare services! Make it affordable and on site. Penn offers childcare, but even with my employee discount, it’s more than I make in a year.

When my son was born, my boss lets me bring him to work so I could breastfeed on demand. I did this for 5 months, but my work suffered. I know some jobs are easier to do even with children underfoot, but it was very difficult for me to do my job well and be a mother at the same time.

Before my mother became the person who took my kids back and forth to school, I would have to wake my kids at 6 AM, get all of us ready, and then drop them off at daycare as soon as it opened at 6:45 AM. I would then work a 6-hour day, catch a train home (hope that it wasn’t late), and then pick up my kids right before the daycare closed at 6 PM. My kids were exhausted all the time, and I spent between $20K & $30K a year in daycare tuition! I did this for over 5 years.

If women knew they had a solid support system they wouldn’t feel the choice between children OR career, they could have both.

If you had the option to give advice to a younger version of yourself, what would that be?

I would tell myself to finish my degree(s) faster and wait a little longer to have children.


You can read more about Tanya at, contact here at, or find here as @TanyaDapkey on Twitter