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From Spain to Champaign: How One Entomologist Switched Countries and Study Organisms

Rubén Martín-Blázquez

Postdoctoral researcher Rubén Martín-Blázquez is studying why certain species of North American bumble bee are drastically declining while others remain stable or thrive.

By Ryan J. Leonard, Ph.D.

Editors Note: This is the next post in the “Standout ECPs” series contributed by the Entomological Society of Americas 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 more posts in the Standout ECPs series.

After completing his Ph.D. on locust functional genomics at Universidad de Granada in 2017, Rubén Martín-Blázquez moved to the United States, where he is currently a postdoctoral researcher in the Department of Entomology at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Below, we asked Rubén a few questions about his research and postdoc life.

Leonard: What are the main goals of your current research?

Bombus impatiens workers

Rubén Martín-Blázquez is investigating how mortality and gene expression changes in bumble bees like these Bombus impatiens workers following exposure to Nosema bombi, a sometimes-lethal parasite and imidacloprid, a systemic insecticide. Photo credit: Benjamin Sadd.

Blázquez: My research in Sydney Cameron’s lab at UIUC aims to understand why certain species of North American bumble bee, like Bombus affinis, are drastically declining while others, like Bombus impatiens, remain stable or thrive. To do this, I investigate how bumble bee mortality and gene expression (e.g., immune response and detoxification) change following exposure to Nosema bombi, a sometimes-lethal parasite and imidacloprid, a systemic insecticide.

How did you become interested in insect genomics?

I got hooked on insects during a student internship in the Department of Zoology at the University of Granada, Spain. My project, involving ants, namely Cataglyphis taxonomy and Tapinoma nigerrimum ecology, ultimately inspired me to pursue postgraduate studies. During my postgraduate years, I learned about bio-molecular and bio-informatic tools, such as next-generation sequencing. The more I learned, the more I realized how cool these tools were and how we can use these them to answer interesting entomological questions. This ultimately led to my dissertation research with Prof. Mohammed Bakkali, where we began disentangling the genetic basis of swarming behavior in the desert locust, Schistocerca gregaria. As a postdoctoral researcher I’m now able to apply these cool genomic tools to answer questions in bumble bees, a completely different group!

What have you found hardest about changing study organisms between your Ph.D. and postdoc? Do you have any advice for other researchers wishing to switch study organisms?

I’ve changed study organisms a lot, switching from ants to locusts and now bumble bees. I’ve also collaborated with research groups investigating non-arthropod species. My philosophy is, don’t be afraid of switching! Because I study insect genomics, I’m pretty lucky. Since all insects share a common ancestor, they also likely share some of the same genes. For example, the vitellogenin gene is differentially expressed in both my Ph.D. study organism, the desert locust, and my postdoc study organism, bumble bees. Seemingly different insects may be more similar than you think.

Bombus impatiens workers

Rubén Martín-Blázquez enjoys using bio-molecular and bio-informatic tools in his work with bumble bees. Pictured: Bombus impatiens workers. Photo credit: Benjamin Sadd.

As someone who moved countries for their postdoc, what advice would you give to people thinking about making a similar move?

Move somewhere where you’ll be inspired. At UIUC, I’ve had the opportunity to interact and collaborate with several well-known experts in arthropod genomics, insect conservation, and integrated pest management. This has ultimately opened my eyes and widened the types of research questions I am interested in.

Also, be ready for drastically different weather. I moved from Granada, a warm and dry city in Southern Spain, to Urbana-Champaign, a city that’s humid in the summer and freezing in the winter. It was a challenge, but I think I’ve adjusted.

What’s your favorite insect and why?

For me, this is a difficult question, but if I had to choose, I would say ants. Not only are they eusocial, which is by itself amazing, they are also highly diverse and can exhibit unique adaptations. Dracula ants, for example, suck the haemolymph from their own larvae, while army ants build ant bridges and rafts. Some ants are even farmers, harvesting fungi inside their nest or aphids on nearby plants for food. My favourite ant group, however, is social-parasitic ants, or “slave-making ants.” Observing a live raid is spectacular, both the deployment and the attack. I feel sorry for the “host” ant nest, though. They suffer a lot of casualties.

Ryan J. Leonard, Ph.D., is a postdoctoral researcher in the Department of Entomology at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. He is also the International Branch Representative to the ESA Early Career Professionals Committee. Email: rjl@illinois.edu.

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