ALAMOSA — When he arrived at Adams State University as a freshman, Mario Padilla had no idea what subject he wanted to study or what career he wanted to pursue.
Flash-forward more than a decade and Padilla, now 32, has his dream job, educating the public about bugs at the nonprofit Butterfly Pavilion in Westminster, Colo.
“This is better than the best-case scenario,” said Padilla, the recipient of the 2019 Adams State University Exceptional New Alumnus Award. “I feel really, really, really lucky to be doing what I’m doing right now. There’s not another job that I could ever think I’d want to be doing. I feel lucky that I love what I do and I’m also able to do it as a job.”
Padilla will receive the Exceptional New Alumnus Award at the Alumni Banquet and Awards Ceremony on October 18. For reservations and tickets, call the ASU Alumni Relations Office at 719-587-8110.
As a child in Alamosa, Padilla always loved animals and wanted to become a zookeeper when he grew up. Even so, he wasn’t quite sure what he wanted to study in college, so he spent his freshman year at Adams State taking general studies courses before declaring an organismal biology major.
Padilla described himself as an average student while attending Alamosa High School, but he blossomed at Adams State, earning the Academic Excellence Award for Highest Freshman GPA. Once he found his niche studying animals in the biology department, Padilla kept excelling, earning the Veryl Keen Outstanding Biology Student Award in 2010-11.
It was during entomology courses taught by Brent Ybarrondo, Ph.D., emeritus professor of biology, who had a contagious passion for the subject, that Padilla discovered his own enthusiasm for insects, especially bees. Padilla credited other professors for serving as sources of inspiration and motivation, too, including Martin Jones, Ph.D., emeritus professor of chemistry; Tim Armstrong, Ph.D., professor of biology; and Benita Brink, Ph.D., professor of biology and department chair of biology and earth science.
With support from professors, advisors and his wife Halie (also a 2011 Adams State graduate), Padilla went on to pursue a graduate degree in entomology from Penn State University, which has one of the top programs in the nation. After graduate school, he also worked for a year as a research technologist at Penn State, supporting students and researchers in the lab.
“As a kid growing up in Alamosa, I didn’t know any entomologists — I didn’t even know that was a job until I got to undergrad,” he said. “Dr. Ybarrondo was also instrumental in giving me advice on how to apply to graduate school and writing letters of recommendations.”
In graduate school, he studied social insects like ants, bees and wasps, which live and work together in harmony as a superorganism. Collaborating with other researchers, Padilla studied the way that bees use pheromones, the invisible, silent chemicals that animals secrete to communicate with each other.
“They’re fascinating little animals,” Padilla said.
Padilla’s passion for insects led him back home to Colorado, where he now works as a curatorial entomologist, striving to educate children and adults about the importance of invertebrates and conservation.
“Conservation of the animals in this world is a huge, daunting task, but we’re focused on some of the smaller animals, the animals that may not get as much attention as tigers and elephants and lions and things like that,” he said.
In his role at the Butterfly Pavillion, Padilla curates the collection of terrestrial invertebrates (which includes spiders, millipedes and centipedes), manages 40 honey bee hives, oversees interns and serves as a spokesman for the organization through public lectures and media appearances. He also leads several Butterfly Pavilion research projects, which have taken him to far-flung places like Nepal and Mongolia.
When he looks back now on everything he has accomplished, Padilla said it would not have been possible without the experience and knowledge he gained during his time at Adams State.
“Adams State was completely instrumental to me being where I am now,” he said.