Carlos Ruiz

To many people, flies are little more than pests, but Carlos Ruiz finds them fascinating. He believes they are one of the more diverse and abundant groups of insects and that they certainly deserve to be studied, which is exactly what he does.

“I study visually-driven behavior in flies,” Carlos says. 

Carlos hails from Colombia and graduated as a biologist from the Universidad del Valle in Cali. He became interested in entomology as an undergrad because he viewed insects as an excellent model to understand evolution. He studied forensic entomology for his undergraduate thesis, and that led to studying taxonomy and morphology of flies. His master’s research was on systematics and focused on the restructuring of evolutionary relationships within a small group of hoverflies.

“Biology is one of the sciences that allows us to explore our place in the universe,” Carlos says. “I think that biology gives us a humbling and beautiful view of ourselves. I just love it.”

A primary goal of Carlos’s research is to understand how flies in different habitats use visual information from their environment to accurately control their flight. To this end, flies are tethered to a virtual reality arena, which Carlos utilizes to measure the flies’ steering maneuvers as they respond to visual stimuli.

Biology isn’t Carlos’s only interest. He’s also a photographer.

“I got involved in photography because long ago, I needed to describe some coloration patterns in the abdomen of hoverflies, and my drawings were absolutely horrible, so I decided to use pictures as templates for them,” Carlos says. 

Most of Carlos’s photography is macrophotography. “In other words, I like taking pictures of small things, usually insects,” he says. 

Some of Carlos’s photographs

While some people may perceive art and science as unrelated, Carlos views them as complementary human endeavors. High-quality pictures can be highly useful for identifying specimens, but he enjoys photographing small insects because it helps him understand how they see the world.

“People usually see insects as nuisances and, to be fair, from our height and with our sight, most of them even look the same,” Carlos says. “However, through a macro lens placed at ground level, things are different. You see detail in their morphology, and it becomes easier to understand their natural history. You see who they are and what they do.”

Carlos won first place in the 2020 Faces of Biology Photo Contest, sponsored by the American Institute of Biological Sciences (AIBS). According to the AIBS website, the contest “showcases biological research in its many forms and settings” and helps the public and policymakers gain a better understanding of the value of biological research and education.

Carlos came to FIU because of Dr. Jamie Theobald, an assistant professor in the Department of Biological Sciences and one of the leading researchers in visually-driven behavior in flies.

“I wanted to learn from him and work in his lab,” Carlos says. “FIU was also a great choice because of its friendly multicultural and inclusive environment. This made it easier for me to adapt to the language requirements when I first got here.”

In addition to adapting to the language, Carlos had to overcome other challenges, including the death of his mother and having to overhaul his research project because of logistical reasons. He credits his wife, family, and FIU’s faculty for making it possible for him to graduate in Spring 2021. “It’s been a long road, but here I am,” he says.

Carlos is currently continuing his research as a postdoctoral scholar at the University of Washington in Seattle. “There are so many things yet to be done,” he says. “Acquiring more research experience and getting to publish more of my work are short-term goals that would put me in a better position to obtain a job in the future.”