Erika Cristina Pinheiro De Castro

Chemical Ecologist and Entomologist

A colour photograph of the head and shoulders of a Brazilian woman with black curly hair tied up wearing a long sleeved black top. She is holding up her hand with a black and orange butterfly held inbetween her first two fingers. She is smiling at the camera and there is green foliage in the background.

Me holding a Heliconius erato phyllis during fieldwork (ESEC Caetés, PB, Brazil)

(All images on this page kindly provided by Erika)

  • BORN 1989, Bauru-SP, Brazil
  • WORKED Zoology Department (Postdoctoral Researcher), University of Cambridge, UK; Better Origin (Research Associate), UK; Department of Plant and Environmental Science (PhD Student) University of Copenhagen, Denmark
  • HONOURS PhD in Biochemistry, University of Copenhagen, 2017; MSc in Biochemistry, Federal University of Rio Grande do Norte (UFRN) 2013; BSc in Biology (UFRN), 2011.
  • MINERVA SCIENTIFICA PROJECT Voices for the Future: Miriam Rothschild 2022


I greatly enjoy dancing – it can be any type of music. I have tried several types of dance and loved all of them (Jazz, Street Dance, Forró, axé, Funk, Reggaeton, Contemporary Dance, etc). Dancing always helps me to cope with stress.

I was also part of choirs during my whole school life. This and the dancing led me to work as an actress in the piece “Auto de São João Batista”. I used the salary to pay for my admission exams at University.


Title: In Miriam’s Wildflower Garden
Composers: Year 3 Oak & Willow Classes, Thomas Hickman School
Words by: the composers
Written in: March 2022
For: Voices, piano, and sound effects
Performed by: the composers
Recorded: in the gardens of Waddesdon Manor, March 25th 2022
Film by: Herbie Clarke and the composers

This MEGASONG for Miriam Rothschild was created as part of the Voices for the Future: Miriam Rothschild project in collaboration with the Learning Team at Waddesdon Manor near Aylesbury. The children worked with me and my colleagues, Glennis Julian (Zoology Department, University of Cambridge) and Billie Pike (Better Origin), exploring the entomology and ecology of Miriam’s Wildflower Garden; created drawings of the stories of their chosen insects to use in the film; created the music with electric voice theatre and Bucks Music Trust musicians, and even designed a wildlife area with Ed Turpin from Bucks Wildlife Trust for their school.

Me next to my favourite HPLC-MS machine where we run butterfly and plant samples for chemical analyses (PLEN- University of Copenhagen, Frederiksberg, Denmark)


I decided to be a Biologist when I was about 9 years old, during my first visit to the science lab of our school. I was so fascinated about the diversity of living forms and how we could group them together according to their similarities that I could not stop talking about this at home. My mom told me “Well, if you like this so much, perhaps you should be a biologist when you grow up”. I got my degree as a Biologist in 2011 (UFRN).

Since I took my first Biochemistry course at university I knew that this was what I wanted to study for the rest of my life. The world just made much more sense at the molecular level! I did my Bachelor thesis in Biochemistry and afterwards got a studentship to do a MSc degree in Biochemistry – both studying how plants cope with stress from the environment.

One of our fieldwork sites in the Brazilian Atlantic Forest (Parque Nacional Itatiaia, RJ, Brazil)

I came to learn that being eaten, very often by insects, was one of the greatest stresses that plants have to cope with. Thus, I decided that I would study plant-insect interactions for my PhD. I heard about a heliconiine-Passiflora project from an Associate Professor in my university in Brazil (UFRN) to be performed in collaboration with a group in Denmark. We applied for funding together and I got a studentship to do my PhD at the University of Copenhagen studying the chemistry of heliconiine butterflies and Passiflora plants.


Research Associate (Academic)
After completing my PhD, I became a researcher at Cambridge University studying the genetic and ecological bases of the heliconiine–Passiflora coevolution (Marie Curie Fellow/NERC Co-Investigator), which I have continued alongside working in industry.

Research Associate (Industry)
I recently joined Better Origin as a Research Associate to help promote and improve insect farming.

Trainee Teacher of Environmental Education
I started teaching Environmental Education in a NGO and in a social-project at the beginning of my bachelor degree in Biology. I did this for 2.5 years and I love it!

Cultivated Passiflora edulis which produce passion fruits.

Scientific Achievements

We can only truly understand how a species came to be, when we also look at evolutionary history of its close interactions with other species, and I have contributed to the study of the coevolution of heliconiine butterflies and Passiflora plants. For example, the colourful heliconiine butterflies only lay eggs and feed as larvae on Passiflora plants. Passiflora plants are poisonous for most insect herbivores but not heliconiines, which utilize the plants’ toxins to make them distasteful to predators. The arms-race between these two players has shaped their evolution. However, nobody was interested in studying their coevolution after the 80s, so I decided to change this.

We have also catalogued the distribution of heliconiine butterflies and Passiflora plants over a 3,000 Km latitudinal gradient of the Brazilian Atlantic Forest and the data we collected has been used to support local Nature Reserves. Like the Amazon, the Brazilian Atlantic Forest is a hot-spot of biodiversity, but it is far more fragmented and destroyed. I am very proud that we were able to help some of these reserves.

Did You Know?

I have been studying heliconiine butterflies and Passiflora plants for many years, but their beauty still wows me. When I am doing fieldwork and I see a gorgeous Heliconius or Philaethria flying around, my first reaction is just to stay put and admire it. It takes me few seconds to realize that I should probably make some notes and run after them…

Butterfly Heliconius ethilla (Reserva da Sapiranga, BA, Brazil). Butterfly had pollen on its proboscis.

An Inspiring Woman

As a Brazilian woman studying the chemistry, ecology and genetic bases of butterfly toxicity, these are the women that have inspired me:

  • Marie Curie: Discovered two chemical elements and developed the theory of radioactivity. First woman to earn a Nobel price and first person to earn two Nobel prizes,
  • Rosalind Franklin: Her amazing work led to the elucidation of the DNA structure and completely change the future of Biology, especially Genetics,
  • Miriam Rothschild: Fantastic entomologist who studied toxic butterflies and fleas when entomology and Biology in general were not popular fields for women,
  • Helena Nader: Fantastic biochemist who is a great defender of the Brazilian Science. First woman to be president of the Brazilian Academy of Science.

I am a member of the Equality and Wellbeing Committee and Postdoc Committee of my department. We do our best to make of our department a place that welcomes diversity.