The leap to discover Borikenia
University student Cielo Disla and Dr. Daniel Proud will name the new species after one of the only two caciques of Puerto Rico.
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Cielo Disla is an uprising junior at Moravian University pursuing a Bachelor’s in Biology and a Secondary Education certificate to become an educator and a resource for children— already showing great promise in arachnological research.
But dreams always have a starting point, and for Disla, it was the Dominican Republic— born in Jaibon and raised in Mao until the age of ten, migrating to the United States soon after— a difficult adjustment in a foreign environment she was not accustomed to. She admits the culture shock made learning environments challenging; great educators passionate for their work assisted her in transitioning and adjusting “to this way of life,” where the first-generation student aspires to be that “welcoming source” to others in academia.
Her mother, Deyanira Polanco de Pichardo, a hardworking woman and the source of Disla’s inspiration, tried to pursue a higher education when she lived in the Dominican Republic—attending college for about a year. Unfortunately, the lack of resources and support stopped Deyanira from becoming an educator.
“But that did not stop her from wanting to educate,” Disla tells AL DÍA. “That did not stop her from inspiring me, and I can confidently say that she is one of the strongest women I know, if not the strongest.”
“I am truly proud of her, and all I seek is to take that dream from her and push it forward and see that her efforts are validated… I want to speak through my actions,” she added, deciding to break from her timid shell once in college and be more involved with students— crediting Dean Christopher Hunt in the Office of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) as “one of the main supports that I had as I entered college.”
“I remember Dean Hunt talking to me and encouraging me to step up and not let all of these fears hold me back,” she assured, using Dean Hunt’s advice to be more involved on campus as the Peer-Assisted Study Session (PASS) Leader, secretary of DEI for the United Student Government, secretary for the Latinx Student Union, and HUB Desk Manager for Haupert Student Union Information Center.
You have the ability to continue to push forward.
Career Development at Moravian University
“I am very proud of my Latino background, Latino roots,” she assured. “I’ve always tried to keep that part of myself and my culture alive in thriving to be a representation everywhere I go, especially at the school I’m currently in.”
The Dominican feels a sense of responsibility at Moravian, a predominantly white institution (PWI), because “I know that there are a lot of immigrant students there as well, and I can connect with them and have that sense of solidarity and trying to be as much as a resource as I possibly can.”
The Office of DEI at Moravian ensures students “experience a sense of belonging,” which Disla stresses “they are constantly working extremely hard to provide that representation on campus, to provide resources for students coming from diverse backgrounds.”
Disla is actively involved on campus to uphold and spread DEI efforts. And as the secretary for the Latinx Student Union, she collaborates with the Office of DEI to continue improving representation on campus.
“I get to work with students one-on-one, and I get to hear their opinions, their thoughts, how they are feeling,” explained the student leader, who assures this feedback “encourages me to not only be a student leader but also be a voice” for students and serve the needs of the community.
She uses her high school Spanish teacher as a reminder of how meaningful and impactful an educator can be in a student’s life, especially to immigrant students adjusting to a new culture, stressing that she wants to be “those open arms that you can turn to in school because a lot of what impacts children are their time in school and how they can learn how they receive the support to learn.”
Where only researcher can take you
In 2022, Disla conducted research as part of the Student Opportunities for Academic Research (SOAR) at Moravian University. She worked on Systematic revisions of three species of harvestmen (Opiliones: Cosmetidae) from the Caribbean Islands,” research granted and accepted by SOAR Committee and co-sponsored by the Office of DEI to promote more social justice in undergraduate research projects.
She mentions using “integrative approaches of morphological and molecular data to analyze the relationships of Cosmetidae from the Caribbean islands.”
Disla presented her research at the 22nd International Congress of Arachnology in Montevideo, Uruguay, after receiving an International Society of Arachnology grant to attend.
“That was so mind-blowing to me,” she explained. “I had just finished my first year at Moravian University. I had this wonderful mentor [and] advisor Dr. Proud, who saw the potential and offered me this opportunity to work in his laboratory.”
“I’m not only currently able to work with species and on specimens from the Dominican Republic. But I got to work with specimens from around the Caribbean islands like Cuba, Jamaica, and the Lesser Antilles, and this was such an amazing opportunity,” she reiterated.
However, this is not the only research to amass recognition; last year, the aspiring educator received the 2022 President’s Research Award for her Jars of Joy research as a mindfulness method for children.
New species discovery
During her research with Dr. Proud: Systemic Revisions of Cosmetid Harvesting (Opiliones: Laniatores: Cosmetidae) in the Caribbean, she discovered a new genus and two species found in the island of Puerto Rico, facilitated by the specimens collected by the Caribbean Biography team in 2013—but the analysis of the first-generation student and seasoned researcher, Dr. Proud, made possible this discovery in La Isla del Encanto.
Opiliones (daddy longlegs or harvestmen) represent the third largest order of arachnids with more than 6,650 species worldwide, and due to “antiquated classification system and the lack of a family-wide systemic study [that] have made it difficult for researchers to study these animals,” the research states.
Harvestmen are most diverse in neotropical environments, which enabled Disla and Dr. Proud to “propose several systemic revisions of island lineages. We examine the morphological characters useful in diagnosing cosmetid genera and discuss the importance of an integrative approach to taxonomic studies within this family.”
The new genus found in Puerto Rico will be named later this year, Borikenia, inspired by the word Boriken— a word used by the indigenous group of Puerto Rico, the Tainos, to refer to the Island of Puerto Rico.
“Within this new genus, we are describing a new species, which will be named Borikenia yuizana. The species name, yuizana, is inspired from the name of one of the only two known female caciques in the Caribbean Island, Yuiza, who was from Puerto Rico,” the research further explains.
The researchers are presently describing an additional species that will be part of their new genus, Borikenia. Disla shares that at the beginning of their research, they only had one female of this particular species; thanks to the Museum of Natural Sciences of Argentina, they obtained enough specimens to describe the species.
“We identify new characteristics that can be [utilized] to organize them into genera. In our molecular phylogenetic analysis, we recovered two distinct clades (genera) that occur in Puerto Rico,” the research states.
Currently, they are describing the new genus, Borikenia, and two new species, Borikenia yuizana and Borikenia sp.nov (new species not yet named), and redescribing Paecilaema luquillense and adding it to their new genus. Later this year, researchers expect to publish their research.
Ultimately, Disla wants to be “one of those first researchers in the Dominican Republic that brings more awareness to this great diversity in the Dominican Republic. Not only harvestmen, [but] so much more.”
Disla presented her research at the American Arachnology Society’s 2023 Annual Meeting, held at the Cornell University campus in Ithaca, New York, from June 25-29.
I want to speak through my actions.
The impact of research
Her research has allowed other students to be interested in research, often asking Disla for assistance on what to do.
“Having this exposure not only opens doors for me but for other students as well,” explained Disla, who notes she had no prior research background, “but it was an opportunity that I truly appreciate because it opened up so many new doors for me.”
She dreams of one day returning to the Dominican Republic and offering free education. She notes that many children cannot get an education because of a lack of resources and support.
“They might have that passion [of learning], but they just have all these roadblocks ahead,” she explained. “But if I can somehow kind of guide them in a direction where they can learn, I think that would be such a goal to achieve for me, as a dream that I’m working towards.”