Hampshire College (2009-2013), Cornell University (2014-present)
Entomologist and Ecologist
Kellogg Biological Station, Smiley Research Station, University of Massachusetts bee lab,
I study predatory insects, and the fear they cause. I also study how plants talk to each other through huge underground fungus networks.
I have two big projects right now.
1. Predators can stress out their prey. Imagine if you were walking in the woods and you heard wolves all around you. Insects get stressed too when the hear or smell or feel big predator bugs nearby. Some of them hide, or try and run/fly away while others make themselves poisonous. I study ways that humans can use predator smells to scare away the insects that eat our food supply. Right now I am working on the Colorado Potato Beetle. That little guy loves eating the plants we need to make potato chips, mashed potatoes and french fries.
One of the great things about using predators to scare away pests is that farmers don’t need to use as much pesticide. Much better for the environment!
A Manduca caterpillar senses a spined soldier bug and rears back t protect its self.
This spinied soldier bug has had part of its straw like mouth cut off so that it cant eat other bugs.
This spined soldier bug has caught a Colorado Potato Beetle larvae and is sucking out its insides.
2. I am also studying how plants communicate through huge underground fungi networks. Its not quite as fast or effective as sending a text, but plants can connect to a huge network of fungi called mycorrhizal fungi. The plants and fungi have a mutualistic relationship where the fungi grows into the plant’s roots and helps it absorb water and nutrients from the soil. In trade, the plant gives the fungus sugar (not a bad deal). It turns out that, since each fungus connects to lots of plants, the plants can send signals to each other. If an insect starts chewing on one plant it can send out a signal to the other plants to get their defenses ready.
My Typical Day:
I am blowing predator smells over beetles to see how much they freak out.
As a first year graduate student I still have to take classes, so my typical day involves classes and homework and group projects, but I also get to do some research too. Once it starts getting warm I will be planting potatoes on farms and watching to see which pests come to try to eat them.
I come up with new methods of research, which mostly involves a lot of building so I spend a lot of time gluing together rubber tubes, jam jars, aquarium filters and bits of cut up screen.
Some of my days involve lots of intense brain storming and planning, but many require hours of mindless tasks that a trained monkey could do. I once spent a month and a half counting bumps on the roots of 600 plants. I like switching back and forth between the the high and low thinking days. Constantly thinking, planning and coming up with new ideas is exhausting so its nice to let my brain take a break. Once I start getting bored, its time to start thinking again. The long stretches of mindless activity let me listen to music and my favorite podcasts or daydream about cool superpowers.
We also have awesome Halloween parties.
What I'd do with the prize money:
I would provide amazing insect pets for underprivlaged schools in New York.
A lot of adults dislike and fear insects. I believe that if they get to see and hold amazing insect as children they won’t be afraid as adults. I will use the money to buy insects that underprivileged classrooms can use as pets to learn more about insect and see that they aren’t all dangerous and scary.
Many schools and teachers rely too much on dry, boring lectures. Science is a fun, hands on process. giving students cool insect that they can hold and interact with will help them realize that science is more than textbooks and powerpoints. I would get mantises and stick insects and tarantulas (I know they aren’t really insects), and rainbow dung beetles and hissing cockroaches and whip scorpions(also not really insects but still cool) and rhinoceros beetles.
How would you describe yourself in 3 words?
magnanimous, effervescent and distractible.
What's the best thing you've done in your career?
You know the poem ‘The Raven’ by Edward Allan Poe? I used the same poetic structure as ‘The Raven’ to write a rhyming poem about Glycolysis (how cells in your body turn sugar into energy). Its 15 stanzas and took 20 hours to write but it is my Masterpiece.
What or who inspired you to follow your career?
I was that kid who always annoyed my parents and teachers by asking a million questions. Why? Why? Why? I never stopped asking questions, but now i have to find the answers myself.
What was your favorite subject at school?
Science and English. I have dyslexia and I didn’t really start reading chapter books until 6th grade. I couldn’t learn to read the normal way, so I had to find a new way that worked for me. Once I could read though, I loved it. Usually I read books under the desk in English class. The whole process made me realize that you don’t need natural talent. Being willing to work hard and try new things to achieve your goal is just as good, if not better than being born talented.
What did you want to be after you left school?
I wanted to be an environmental activist. In my mind environmental activists were James Bond like agents who took down big companies.
Were you ever in trouble at school?
I got afterschool detention for not doing my homework back in middle school. Twice.
If you weren't doing this job, what would you choose instead?
I would be a chef. I love cooking. Its like doing science that you get to eat afterwards.
Who is your favorite singer or band?
I love musicals. I like Broadway but Disney musicals are my favorite (LET IT GO!). Sometimes I am the only person in the lab so I start singing Disney songs. It’s fun until someone one walks in. Then it’s really embarrassing. I know all the lyrics, but I couldn’t sing in tune to save my life.
What's your favorite food?
Chocolate. Anything made out of chocolate. In my first week of college, I realized that I could eat anything I wanted with out my parents finding out. I bought and ate two pounds of milk chocolate and a jar of pickles. #Noregrets
What is the most fun thing you've done?
When I was in 5fth grade my parents took my brother and I to Spain. They bought my brother and I metal swords and we had an epic battle on top of an old abandoned castle. It was AMAZING! Later, I accidentally stabbed my brother in the leg and we both lost our sword privileges.
If you had 3 wishes for yourself what would they be? - be honest!
I wish I could teleport or fly. I would totally just teleport to the beach every day at lunch. I wish I could transform into an insect to see what its like. Do they experience emotions like we do? Finally, I wish I could spell without using spellcheck. Autocorrect is my nemesis.
Tell us a joke.
What is worse than finding a caterpillar in your apple? Finding half of a caterpillar in your apple.