How an “Insect Ecologist at Heart” Got Focused on Pest Management Research
By Lina Bernaola
Editor’s Note: This post is the third post in the “Standout ECPs” series contributed by the Entomological Society of America’s Early Career Professionals (ECP) Committee, highlighting outstanding ECPs that are doing great work in the profession. (An ECP is defined as anyone within the first five years of obtaining their terminal degree in their field.) Learn more about the work ECPs are doing within ESA, and read past posts in the Standout ECPs series.
Lauren Diepenbrock, Ph.D., is a postdoctoral researcher at North Carolina State University and soon to be an assistant professor at the University of Florida. Lauren was the 2016 recipient of ESA’s Early Career Professional Extension Award, and she has been a proactive influencer in social media as well as serving on the ESA Science Policy Committee as the Southeastern Branch representative. Below, we ask her a few short questions about her research, and we hope that you will enjoy learning about her and the amazing research she is doing.
Bernaola: What is your favorite aspect (or coolest thing) about your research area?
Diepenbrock: The best part of my research is that I get to ask interesting ecological questions that help in the production of food, which is pretty important with an ever-growing global population and a limited amount of productive land. I’m an insect ecologist at heart and I enjoy figuring out how insects, particularly invasive species, make use of the available resources to be successful.
My current research focuses on the management of spotted-wing drosophila (Drosophila suzukii), which is an invasive economic pest of small fruits in most of the world. I’ve worked on projects for near-term management options to develop rotation programs using insecticides in blueberry and blackberry, and I’ve developed projects looking into the ecology of the pest that we can use to create long-term management options.
For example, I designed a project to understand how the pest may be partitioning resources in space throughout the blackberry canopy. This information was used to develop cultural management techniques for blueberry, raspberry, and blackberry canopies as part of an Organic Research and Extension Initiative project that our lab participated in.
What is a challenge that you solved during your most recent project?
My most recent project has been one of my most challenging. Because of the mobile, polyphagous nature of spotted-wing drosophila, there is still quite a bit we don’t understand about the ecology of the adult flies, including what they’re eating and what they’re doing in a field setting during the day (previous studies are all indirect measures).
During the first year of my postdoc, I had the idea that we could use gut-content information to answer these questions. This has been done in predatory insects and, to a much lesser extent, in some other species of phytophagous insects, so I wrote a proposal to the U.S. Department of Agriculture National Institute of Food and Agriculture’s post-doctoral fellowship program and was rejected, which was not surprising given funding rates. In the feedback, though, most of the reviewers strongly believed that it would not be possible to do gut-content analysis for plant-feeding insects.
So, I reached out to a more knowledgeable colleague who confirmed my thought that it should be possible to detect DNA from consumed food in the guts of the flies. So, I focused on getting small grant funding to do proof-of-concept work and received money from the Southern Region Small Fruit Consortium to develop my idea.
With the help of Jonathon Lundgren (Ecdysis Foundation) and Tim Sit (NC State) and support of my principal investigator, Hannah Burrack, we were able to produce data to confirm that plant DNA can be detected for up to seven days after consumption under laboratory conditions. We were only able to do this for one host plant, strawberry, due to reliability of available primers.
This paper actually just came out in the Journal of Economic Entomology, which is awesome timing. I’ve secured further funding to develop primers for blackberry, which is a highly impacted crop in the region, and have designed plans for field validation. Both the funding and those plans are being left to be completed by a graduate student, as I’ll be leaving to take a faculty position in May.
Why did you become an entomologist, and what drew you to this field?
Pure dumb luck. It took me a while to find something I love and wanted to really do for a career. As an undergraduate, I started working as a technician in a laboratory that studied molecular aspects of aging in Caenorhabditis elegans and was fortunate to receive funding to do independent research in this lab. I enjoyed this work, particularly the applications to human health, and moved on to a Ph.D. program in the biomedical sciences, which I hated.
I left that program, completed a master’s in science education, and then taught high school for 2.5 years. But I really missed research. And I thought back on what classes I enjoyed the most: ecology and mycology. So, I applied to some ecology-based graduate programs and was accepted into a master’s program at Florida State working with Dr. Walter Tschinkel.
Working with Walter was a great opportunity, as I was allowed to develop my own project as long as it was with ants. I wound up helping a postdoc collect trap-jaw ants in the field early in the program and thought that they were fascinating. There wasn’t much published on the species (Odontomachus brunneus) at the time, so he encouraged me to do some natural history research, and it was one of the best experiences I could have had. From coursework and discussions at FSU, I became interested in how restored habitats impact insect communities, which led to my Ph.D. work in Missouri.
During my Ph.D., I studied native lady beetle communities in tallgrass habitats: native prairie, restored prairie, and agricultural grasslands. I also looked at the impacts of invasive lady beetles (Coccinella septempunctata and Harmonia axyridis) on the native communities. I absolutely fell in love with this work, and I enjoyed thinking about how this work could be applied to pest management, since lady beetles are excellent predators. This led to my postdoctoral position, where I get to use applied insect ecology for pest management, which is the most interesting work I’ve ever done.
If you could be any arthropod, which would you pick and why?
It would have to be a lady beetle, for several reasons. One, the adults are kind of clumsy; if you watch them plow through aphids, they are all over the place if there are a lot of them. Two, they have incredible focus when they want to; their search behavior after prey encounter is thorough, checking the entire area before moving on. And, three, they are both beautiful and deadly; in some cultures, they are seem as symbols of good luck, but for the most part they are killing machines.
To find out more about Lauren’s research program, please check out her page at www.laurendiepenbrock.com.
Lina Bernaola is a Ph.D. candidate at Louisiana State University, in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, and the current student representative to the ESA Governing Board and a member of the ESA Early Career Professionals Committee. Twitter: @linabernaola. Email: email@example.com