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What It’s Like to Be a Graduate Student in Entomology

students at Entomology 2018

Part of entomology research as both a student and professional is gathering at scientific conferences to share research findings and learn from others. In 2018, (left to right) Cody Seals, Kadie Britt, Melissa Schreiner, and Marguerite Bolt organized a symposium at the Entomological Society of America Annual Meeting in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada.

By Kadie Britt

Editor’s Note: This post is part of a series contributed by the ESA Student Affairs Committee. See other posts by and for entomology students here at Entomology Today.

Kadie Britt

Kadie Britt

When I first heard the word “entomology” and learned it was the study of insects, for some reason, ants were what came to mind. I often wonder what vision pops into other people’s minds when I tell them that I am an entomologist. I imagine many people think of the classic insect collection, made up of many beautiful insect specimens pinned and mounted in a stained wooden Cornell drawer. While most entomologists have likely constructed an insect collection of their own (shout out to insect taxonomy classes in entomology graduate programs!), this is merely one aspect of studying entomology. I think an initial fascination with these beautiful creatures lures many of us into studying entomology, but it is rarely what keeps us buckled in for the duration of the journey.

Since many people—often even our very own friends and family—aren’t familiar with entomology, I thought it would be fun to share a glimpse into the life of someone engaged in this field of research. To do so, I have collected thoughts and experiences from several of my peers and added some of my own to let the rest of the world know what it’s like to be a graduate student in entomology. (A special thank-you to the peers who shared their opinions and experiences: Dr. Meredith Spence Beaulieu, Dr. Lina Bernaola, Marguerite Bolt, Jackie Brown, Dr. Katelyn Kesheimer, Dr. Chris McCullough, Kelly McIntyre, Patricia Prade, and Dr. Amanda Skidmore.)

A Wide-Ranging Subject

Many entomology research projects have some sort of human focus and span a wide range of topics, whether it’s preventing insects from harming our agricultural commodities, learning more about insects that facilitate pathogen transmission, or documenting the regional or global distribution of a species. Our work in conducting this research aims to improve the lives of people throughout the world. For my research, I get to go outside and study insects in the natural world, learn how to grow plants so I can study insect interactions with them, and conduct chemical or molecular analysis on insects and plants to discover the relationships that occur between these organisms. The type of research that I do is only one example of the experiences that graduate students in entomology may encounter.

For example, many of my peers spend their days in a laboratory setting studying insect species (or related arthropods, like millipedes or ticks), doing specialized work like DNA barcoding and molecular analyses to gain information about life history and origin that we cannot learn from just collecting a specimen in the wild. Other students also work in the lab, but use insect specimens (like bees or fruit flies) as model organisms to learn more about unique biological processes, some of which only occur in insects. Many peers also conduct their research outside, such as those studying arthropod-borne virus transmission and helping to manage pests of human health concern, like mosquitoes and ticks.

Aquatic entomology is another focus; I might be the most jealous of this work! Aquatic entomologists sample macroinvertebrates from varying bodies of water like streams, creeks, and rivers, and their study sites are often in beautiful locations. There are many other aspects of entomology, but hopefully you have a better idea of the kinds of work you could expect to hear about from a friend or family member who is an entomologist.

Research and Studies

We don’t always talk about the time spent indoors, in the office or in front of the computer, but this is what makes up a huge chunk of our time. In order to properly conduct research, we form a committee of professors to help guide us along the way, design and prepare the logistics of our studies, analyze the data we collect, write up and report our results, apply for funding via fellowships or grants, and prepare presentations to share our work at conferences or stakeholder meetings. We pull a lot of long hours and put in a lot of hard work.

field work

Entomology research is conducted both in labs and in natural or agricultural settings. Here, Kadie Britt defoliates hemp plants to simulate insect damage during her reserach in the Department of Entomology at Virginia Tech.

One of the fun rewards for this hard work is the chance to take part in regional or national conferences where we get to present and share our work with student peers and the greater entomological community. This leads to the ability to learn from others conducting similar research, opportunities for networking, and the chance to meet other insect-oriented researchers from other universities (who end up becoming friends in real life).

Our primary focus in graduate school is research, but we still take a few courses to establish a firm foundation of entomological knowledge. We must also maintain a certain grade point average to sustain our financial assistantship. Our assistantships provide us with an income that covers most of the bills and prevents us from going into debt by pursuing this degree. This is not exclusive to entomology, but it’s still a perk.

While classes are important, most of what we take away from our degree work is what we learn outside of the classroom. The truest assessments of the knowledge we gain while pursuing our graduate degrees are embedded in some of the big steps we take along the way: designing our projects and proposing research plans, passing preliminary exams (if in a Ph.D. program), writing, and defending a thesis or dissertation at the end.

Collecting Specimens

Since a lot of our time is spent in the field or in the lab, you might assume that our yearly schedules are vastly different from the normal school calendar. Indeed, the typical summer slowdown is nonexistent for us—quite the opposite, actually. To learn about, observe, and collect the insect and arthropod specimens that we work with, summer is usually our main time to do research.

The structure of a typical work week can vary widely. Many species are present in the field in the early morning or late in the evening, so we often have to get up early or stay up late to gather the needed information about our study species. Our study specimens are often present throughout our respective state or geographic region, so many of us spend a lot of time driving from field site to field site so we can observe, collect, and study the life cycle of our study species. For those of us conducting much of our research in the lab, summer is a time of (mostly) uninterrupted scheduling that allows us to make vital progress toward answering our research questions. Please be patient with us and know that we aren’t intentionally skipping out on family beach trips or other fun summer gatherings!

Education and Outreach

education and outreach

Entomology students are often enthusiastic volunteers for education and outreach efforts, such as visits to classrooms for insect demonstrations. Here, Kadie Britt (left), a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Entomology at Virginia Tech, poses with an elementrary schooler who volunteered to let a cockroach perch on her head.

A unique aspect of entomology is the chance to take part in outreach activities. Do you remember your first time holding an insect? Maybe you didn’t hold or touch an insect until later in life, or perhaps you were able to take part in raising caterpillars in your elementary school classroom to learn about monarch butterfly life cycles. Insects are so much more than the creepy-crawly, scary aliens as they are sometimes portrayed.

Insects play a huge role in many aspects of our daily lives, but fear of these organisms with too many legs or powerful stingers often deters people from learning about insects. We want to help change those opinions and help the public learn about the endless positive qualities of insects.

Hosting insect-focused festivals at our respective institutions, visiting grade school classrooms, and hosting departmental tours are just a few of the ways we interact with the public to conduct outreach-based education events as entomologists. We participate in these events to enhance and facilitate positive perception of insect organisms and, in turn, it helps us grow as educators.

“What’s This Bug?”

Last, I want to share one of my favorite parts about being an entomologist. I love when my friends and family send insect photos and ask for help with identification. It could be because they’re genuinely curious about what a specimen is, or perhaps it’s because they have a pest issue and need help tackling it. No matter the reason for their reaching out, I am always flattered that they consider me to be their own personal insect identification queen!

I don’t think they realize it, but this makes me feel so supported in my chosen career path. I find it especially enjoyable when I do not recognize a specimen at first glance; it’s always fun to be presented with a random challenge, and, if I can’t figure it out, I definitely know someone who can. So, please don’t stop sending me photos of insects to help ID! (Maybe just make sure the insect is in focus.)

Kadie Britt is a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Entomology at Virginia Tech and is the Plant-Insect Ecosystems Section Representative on the ESA Student Affairs Committee. Twitter: @kadiehempvt. Email: kadieb@vt.edu.

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