How a Molecular Biologist Found Her Way to Insect Science
By Lina Bernaola
Editor’s Note: This post 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.
Priyanka Mittapelly, Ph.D., is currently a postdoctoral research associate at the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (USDA-APHIS) and the University of Richmond. Her expertise is in molecular biology and plant-insect interactions. She is currently working on developing an artificial diet for emerald ash borer, a notorious invasive pest.
Mittapelly was born and raised in India, where she earned her bachelor’s degree in biotechnology and master’s degree in microbiology from Kakatiya University. Then, she went to Germany for a short period as a visiting research scholar at the Max Planck Institute. This is where she first worked with insects. She also has experience working with poultry on improving the growth traits of chicken at the Indian Council of Agricultural Research. Her unending interest in entomology has landed her in United States in 2011, to work as a research scholar and later to pursue her doctoral degree in the same field at The Ohio State University (OSU). During her Ph.D., she worked on the molecular biology of brown marmorated stink bug and nutrient provisioning role of its bacterial symbiont.
Priyanka has been an active participant of Entomological Society of America (ESA) meetings and student debates. She has been serving as a student member-at-large for the ESA North Central Branch Executive Committee for two years and actively participated in leadership and decision making of the branch. She has also won several student awards for her presentations during ESA Annual and Branch Meetings.
Bernaola: What is your favorite aspect about your research area?
Mittapelly: I think I’m currently working on one of the coolest research areas, and that is artificial diet for rearing insects. I consider this as my favorite because I’m developing a diet for rearing emerald ash borer (Agrilus planipennis, or EAB). The EAB larva is a phloem feeder, whereas the adult feeds on the foliage of ash trees. Developing a diet suitable for both stages (larvae and adults) is challenging and also groundbreaking. This work has been ongoing for almost a decade and I’m privileged to continue the advancements made by my predecessors. Being a molecular biologist by heart and now working on artificial diets is a big leap for me; nonetheless, integrating the knowledge that I have on biology and insect-rearing skills in developing the insect diet is much more delightful.
What is a challenge that you solved during your most recent project?
Mittapelly: Last year, while I was a postdoc at Colorado State University, one of my research projects was on gene silencing in soybean thrips (Neohydatothrips variabilis). Soybean thrips is one of the most common insect pests found on soybean plants across United States, and they are also known to transmit plant viruses. Damage caused by soybean thrips can significantly reduce the yields of soybean. My research objective was to reduce the expression of target genes that are functionally important to thrips. This reduction in gene expression will negatively affect the fitness and survival of the insect pest. To achieve this, the initial step is delivering the target gene double stranded RNA (dsRNA) into the thrips by microinjection method. Injecting dsRNA was a major challenge as soybean thrips are very minute (1 millimeter) and slender in size. Choosing the right injection site, injection volume, and speed helped in overcoming this challenge. Most importantly, having the patience to carefully inject each thrips is crucial. This has reduced the overall mortality to a great extent and also led to promising preliminary results to further test more candidate genes.
Why did you become an entomologist, and what drew you to this field?
Mittapelly: Since my childhood I have always been interested in life sciences, especially biology. This led me to pursue biotechnology and zoology for my bachelor’s degree and microbiology for my master’s. During my master’s, I got my first opportunity to work with insects at the Max Planck Institute for Chemical Ecology. I enjoyed working with tobacco hornworm (Manduca sexta) there and realized how fascinating insects are! This is when my interest in entomology started and the world of insects opened up to me. Every insect is beautiful in its own way, and I had an opportunity to work with several insect species including bed bugs, beetles, stink bugs, aphids, leafhoppers, thrips, and mites. I can’t wait to explore more crawlies in future! I now spend my free time teaching my 3-year-old and telling him how vitally important insects are!
If you could be any arthropod, which would you pick and why?
Mittapelly: I would love to be a bee! They are one of the most important insects on the planet. They pollinate several plants and are responsible for approximately one-third of the food that we consume. Bees are social insects that also provide parental care for their brood. A huge number of plants would cease to exist without bees, and so too would the animals that feed on those plants. Furthermore, bees make honey, and who doesn’t love honey?! There are other insects that pollinate as well, but bees are one of the largest group of pollinators. I’m always in my high spirits when I’m around bees!
As a starting ECP, what is your long-term career goal and how has it shifted (if at all) since graduating?
Mittapelly: Since graduate school, I was always interested to have a career in industry. In the long-term, I see myself working on understanding the molecular mechanisms underlying various interactions, including plant-insect and insect-microbe interactions, and exploiting these mechanisms to develop potential pest-management strategies.
The entomology department at OSU and my amazing advisor, Dr. Andy Michel, have helped me grow both professionally and personally. Coming from India and getting adapted in U.S. was a huge learning curve for me. Graduate school and postdoctoral experiences have helped me build a strong background on various skills including teaching and outreach activities in addition to development of functional, molecular, and field-relevant techniques. My research experiences involved laboratory, greenhouse, and field experiments to better understand plant-insect and insect-microbe interactions. I have collaborated with postdocs, students, and technicians on multiple projects, which resulted in several co-authored publications. I have developed teaching and scientific skills by being an instructor and a mentored teaching assistant for Entomology and Molecular Techniques courses. I also managed a molecular lab for three years, assisting and mentoring research scholars and graduate students. The current postdoctoral work is a unique experience where I can integrate my knowledge on molecular biology to develop viable diets for insects.
Besides research, I served as vice president of the Entomology Graduate Student Association and have organized meetings that improved my leadership, communication, and teamwork skills with both scientific and nonscientific audiences.
These diverse experiences gave me a strong foundation and have helped me to start off to achieve my long-term career goals. I aspire to find a position in an industry where I can grow and take on new challenges over time.
If you ever felt excluded during your career, what would you do to help others if they face a similar situation in the future?
Mittapelly: Feeling excluded in our career depends on how we perceive things during that time. Being a mom and having a family during graduate school has excluded me on several social events with my peers. However, I was never sad about this, as I managed to spend quality time with colleagues and do my best during the office hours, like participating in journal clubs, outreach events, field trips, seminar luncheons, etc.
After grad school, life as a postdoc is definitely not an easy path, as it is an important transition phase before reaching your career goal. Also, this is the best time to explore new research areas, refine your skills, and add more tools to the “toolkit” that will help you land in your dream job. In the process of earning a Ph.D., you learn how to do research and you get to do research again during a postdoc, but on a very short timeline. So, having the right mentor during this phase is very important! I personally felt excluded when I was overwhelmed with work and failed to have a work-life balance at times. Having a to-do list, prioritizing things and sharing with my friends helped me pass through the stressful phase and not dwell on the same state of mind for too long. I have always acknowledged my feelings resulting from work and reminded myself that they are teaching me to learn something new about the social world.
Lina Bernaola is a postdoctoral researcher at Louisiana State University, in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, the current student representative to the ESA Governing Board, and a member of the ESA Early Career Professionals Committee. Twitter: @linabernaola. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
All photos courtesy of Priyanka Mittapelly, Ph.D.