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How One Scientist’s Interest in Biosecurity Led Her to Entomology

Laura Nixon, Ph.D.

Laura Nixon, Ph.D., is a postdoctoral researcher at the USDA Agricultural Research Service, chemical ecology expert, world traveler, and subject of the next installment of our “Standout Early Career Professionals” series.

By Nicholas R. Larson, Ph.D.

Editor’s Note: This is the next 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.

Laura Nixon, Ph.D., is a postdoctoral researcher in the lab of Tracy Leskey, Ph.D., at the U.S. Department of Agriculture-Agricultural Research Service’s Appalachian Fruit Research Station in Kearneysville, West Virginia. Nixon earned her bachelor of science (honours) degree in forensic and analytical science at Robert Gordon University in Aberdeen, Scotland. During her honours dissertation, she chose to focus on optimizing analytical chemistry techniques for detecting toxic secondary metabolites released by cyanobacteria in potable water. From there, she moved to Lincoln University in New Zealand for a Ph.D. project based on manipulating chemical ecology for border biosecurity needs. She received her Ph.D. in chemical ecology in summer 2018.

Laura Nixon, Ph.D.

Laura Nixon, Ph.D.

Larson: Your background is in chemical ecology; what drew you to work on insects?

Nixon: Funnily enough, I moved to New Zealand for a Ph.D. project titled something along the lines of “Enhancing analytical chemistry techniques for detection of New Zealand biosecurity threats,” thinking that sounded vaguely interesting and New Zealand looked cool in photographs. Biosecurity threats turned out to be insects!

I did a lot of reading up very quickly on different insects that could be potential threats to New Zealand’s agriculture and ecosystem; high on the list of concern (in 2014) were invasive ants, Harmonia axyridis, Drosophila spp., and, of course, brown marmorated stink bug (Halyomorpha halys). I began my project (eventually titled “Identification of Biogenic Volatile Organic Compounds for Improved Border Biosecurity”) using brown marmorated stink bug (BMSB) as a model species to test the concept of detecting invasive insects in cargo by the presence of the volatile organic compounds (VOCs) they release rather than visual inspections.

Over the duration of my Ph.D. I visited Dr. Leskey’s lab three times to collect different headspace samples from BMSB and perform behavioural assays, collaborating with Dr. Ashot Khrimian’s chemical ecology lab for detection and identification of VOCs. It was really these visits that drew me in to the entomology side of my project, because, to be frank, I had no idea how much fun stuff could be done to learn more about insects, specifically the behavioural effects of chemical communications.

What is your research currently focused on, and what most excites you about it?

My current research is predominantly on spotted lanternfly (Lycorma delicatula), focusing on developing monitoring and biosurveillance techniques and pinpointing dispersal behaviours that could help with developing management techniques down the line.

This I my first foray into working with a relatively unknown species, so it’s pretty exciting to have everything we observe and record about this species be a new finding. I really enjoy how many questions there are to be answered about spotted lanternfly. Even those that are outside my wheelhouse are really interesting, and I can’t wait to see what all the research throws up in the next few years.

Working to control invasive species is a difficult and time-consuming endeavor. What is the biggest challenge that you have experienced throughout your experiences working toward mitigating invasive species?

A huge challenge when working with invasive species is interacting with members of the public and potentially affected industries. Whether species are completely unknown or have been known to cause huge damages elsewhere in the world, it’s a big worry for folks and they look to us for the answers. Gauging an appropriate level of urgency is really important in these situations. You don’t want to panic anybody or make them worry unnecessarily, but you do need the pertinent people to be paying attention to potential threats. This is easy to prepare for going into meetings, etc., but when working on something that is high in the publics mind you might be approached at any time with questions.

For instance, when I was a brand new Ph.D. student, just learning about BMSB for myself, I would get unexpected phone calls from radio shows and local papers for comments, because everyone was worried that BMSB had been intercepted at the border that month. Since then I’ve gotten a lot more experience with these kinds of things, but switching from “researcher mode” to “public outreach mode” is something I have to be very mindful of.

Finally, what are your hobbies outside of your research?

I grew up pretty outdoorsy; I particularly enjoy hiking and kayaking, and I’ve been lucky enough to live in a lot of hotspots for these activities. I’ve been part of indoor climbing and kickboxing clubs; though I’m not particularly skilled in either, I thoroughly enjoy both and seek out such clubs when I move to new areas. I also spend a lot of my spare time reading fiction and tabletop gaming with friends and wine. I love to travel and experience the history and culture of different regions. So far this has mostly centered around Europe, but the rest of the world is on my bucket list too!

Nicholas R. Larson, Ph.D., has a joint appointment as a post-doctoral researcher with Towson University and the U.S. Department of Agriculture-Agricultural Research Service. He serves as the Plant-Insect Ecosystems representative to the ESA Early Career Professionals Committee. Email: nicholas.larson@usda.gov.

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