Embracing Diversity and Advancing Research: A Journey with Professor Dr. Tracy Heath

Meet Dr. Heath, an accomplished associate professor in the Department of Ecology, Evolution, and Organismal Biology (EEOB) at Iowa State University. With an inspiring journey rooted in her Filipino heritage, she brings a unique perspective to her research and academic pursuits. In this interview, we explore Dr. Heath’s journey, research interests, and gain valuable insights on various topics. 

Raised in the southwestern US, she pursued biology at Boston University, delving into research on evolutionary biology and vertebrate organisms. Under Dr. David Hillis at the University of Texas, she explored computational methods and the fascinating world of phylogenetic trees. Postdoctoral positions at the University of Kansas and UC Berkeley honed her skills in analyzing species-level biodiversity data. Driven by a fascination with macroevolution, she joined Iowa State University, studying broad-scale evolutionary patterns. Dr. Heath’s interdisciplinary approach merges computation and biology, making her a notable figure in the field. Her insights inspire scientific discovery, leaving an indelible mark on the scientific community. 

When asked about her journey in the field, Dr. Heath stated, “I was captivated by the concept of phylogenetic trees, which depict the relationships among organisms and their evolutionary history. It fascinated me how we could use DNA data to understand the organization and diversification of species.” 

Her research revolves around developing broad-scale models and statistical methods to explore how species diversify and evolve over time across different groups in the tree of life. Dr. Heath’s work sheds light on the patterns of biodiversity on our planet, offering valuable insights into the intricate web of life.

“I’ve always been drawn to broad-scale models and statistical methods that describe how species diversify and change over time across different groups in the tree of life. My research focuses on macroevolution and understanding the patterns of biodiversity on our planet.” – Dr. Heath

Throughout her journey, Dr. Heath encountered significant challenges during her undergraduate years, struggling to find her academic footing. However, her determination and love for evolutionary biology led her to a serendipitous opportunity to work in a research lab, where she discovered her true potential and expertise in the field. Overcoming setbacks, she found her fluency in biology, recognizing that learning is a continuous process and that progress is the key to success.

“I never really hit my groove as an undergrad… [but] I’m good in the lab, and was really starting to understand biology in a way that I tell students this all the time—learning biology is like learning a language, and you have to immerse yourself in it.” – Dr. Heath

Her achievements include expanding models for understanding species diversification and contributing to groundbreaking projects, such as the discovery of the largest fossil penguin species. Dr. Heath’s work on penguins has opened new avenues of research and showcases her expertise in the field. Do check out her work published in New York Times.

“Through the development of this method [fossilized birth death process], I’ve been able to work on some really awesome empirical projects, like the discovery of a new fossil penguin species, shedding light on penguin evolution and diversity.” – Dr. Heath

Beyond her impressive research contributions, Dr. Heath’s journey also highlights her trailblazing role as a woman of Filipino heritage in a field traditionally dominated by white men. In the candid discussion, Dr. Heath reflects on the challenges she faced as a woman and a person of Filipino heritage in her field. She shares how she noticed the lack of representation early in her career, with very few professors or researchers who looked like her. As she advanced, the gender and racial disparities became more apparent, especially in computational and theoretical fields dominated by white men. Despite having supportive male colleagues, Dr. Heath acknowledges the isolating burden of being the only person of her background in certain spaces.

“And it’s one of those things where when you, even though you have very supportive and kind male colleagues, like they don’t feel kind of the burden of being the only person in the room.”

Professor Tracy Heath’s passion for her field, her dedication to research, and her commitment to promoting diversity make her a shining example for aspiring scientists. With each step of her journey, she continues to leave an unforgettable impact on the scientific community.

If you’re eager to gain further insights and delve deeper into Dr. Heath’s inspiring journey, we encourage you to watch the full discussion in the video provided above. In this interview, she shares valuable perspectives on representation, diversity, and the pursuit of scientific excellence in evolutionary biology. Dr. Heath’s experiences, challenges, and triumphs serve as a powerful reminder of the importance of inclusivity in the scientific community. Listening to her words offers a unique opportunity to learn from a trailblazing scholar and advocate for a more diverse and inclusive future in STEM.