Bullfrogs and Butterflies
Doctoral student takes her love of nature into the classroom and the lab
When it rained at Terri Matiella's
childhood home in San Angelo, Texas,
the self-proclaimed tomboy would
run outside and collect bullfrogs in
her favorite pink Crayon-shaped cup. She smuggled
them into the house as her pets.
“I always liked being outside as a kid,” she said.
“When we were little, my sisters and friends and I
would play with leaves and pretend to grind them
up because we were making wheat and bread.”
But even then, there was just something special
about butterflies. They held a certain magic for her.
“They are just fun,” she said. “You can’t feel sad
when you’re looking at butterflies.”
So Matiella decided to make monarch butterflies
the subject of her doctoral research. Aided
by an Alumni Association scholarship that
allows her to focus entirely on her research
without having to
juggle a full-time job,
Matiella is working to
find out if varying levels
of carbon dioxide
on monarch caterpillars’
plants, has any effect
on the development of butterflies. She’s also studying
how those gases affect the
“There’s a whole chain
reaction that can happen
from this one component of
climate change,” she said.
Any variation in the
milkweed plants could
cause them to be less nutritious
to caterpillars. That
could mean the caterpillars have to eat more to gain
the same nutritional value, which keeps them exposed
to predators longer as they feed on the plant’s
leaves. Milkweed also contains toxins that stick with
the caterpillars through metamorphosis into butterflies. These toxins make them poisonous to birds.
But it’s possible the gases could weaken the toxins
and make the butterflies vulnerable to predators.
It’s this kind of chain reaction that makes
Matiella so interested in environmental science. In
2000, she received her bachelor’s degree from UTSA
in biology. She returned to UTSA to pursue her master’s
in environmental science and graduated in May
2009. That fall, she enrolled in the Ph.D. program.
“I enjoy ecology and looking at how organisms
interact in the environment,” she said. “There is so
much we don’t know about what is happening with
the world today with climate change and how it affects
things even on a small plant or insect scale
and how that transfers up and affects us.”
She began teaching at the college level in 2007.
First she was a graduate assistant in an ecology lab,
but has worked her way up to leading a 126-student
Matiella’s students learn about biomes of the
world, precipitation and weather patterns, plant
adaptations and the chain reactions in nature that
have always fascinated her.
“It’s like a big puzzle and everybody has a little
piece of it,” she said. “I think this generation is going
to have to come up with
answers, solutions to the
problems we have today.
They didn’t create them,
but they’re there and [the
students] are the ones that
are going to be faced with
Anne Englert, director
of alumni programs, said
Matiella’s love of nature
and the desire to share her
knowledge is inspiring.
“She’s extremely driven,”
Englert said. “She lives
what she says. She’s a mother
of two, and she takes her
children to the zoo and
shows them nature. She’s
living what she’s studying.
That’s a perfect mix.”
Matiella expects to finish
her doctoral program in December 2012, but ultimately,
it’s up to nature to set the timetable. Already
her research has been delayed because of drought
and a little bit of bad luck that has killed her ninth
attempt at growing milkweed plants.
“You kind of have to roll with the punches,” she
said. “Working with the environment is such a big
thing. There are so many unknowns that you can’t
predict. You have to be patient, you have to be resilient.
And you have to really like what you’re doing
because you’re stuck with it for a long time.”
And that’s why she chose butterflies.