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How One Aspiring Scientist is Following in Her Father’s Footsteps

Suchitra Dara

Suchitra Dara (center), an incoming first-year student at the California Institute of Technology, got an early look at a career in science while helping out in her father’s entomology lab during her K-12 years. In 2015, she presented a poster on entomopathogenic fungi at the 2015 Society for Invertebrate Pathology Annual Meeting.

By Suchitra Dara

Entomology can be fun for a child if the first exposure is with colorful and pretty insects like butterflies or iridescent beetles. But my exposure started by watching wax moth larvae and hemipterans dying from entomopathogenic fungal infections and by handling tobacco hornworms with my bare hands. While that may sound like an odd introduction to the field, I am sure that my curiosity and love for science stems from my very first entomological experiences.

Suchitra Dara

Suchitra Dara

Entomology has been a part of my life for as long as I can remember, from my father showing me how to properly pick up a beetle or rescuing a honey bee to doing research on the efficacy of entomopathogenic fungi. After a few years of teaching me about insects, my father, an entomologist with the University of California Cooperative Extension, would take me to his lab so I could watch him work. As I got a little older and less clumsy, I moved on to helping label Petri dishes and doing other minor tasks, like cleaning containers or arranging materials. At the time, I was not aware of how useful these simple lab skills would be or what it would eventually lead to.

After proving myself capable of doing all these tasks, I was allowed to have a bigger role in the experiments. With my increased responsibility, I came to enjoy the process. The detailed planning, careful execution, and data collection and analyses all became more appealing with my increased participation. Over the years, I have had the wonderful opportunity to work in the lab and in the field to conduct research on various aspects of sustainable agriculture and pest management. From evaluating the feeding preference of Bagrada bugs to demonstrating the compatibility between an entomopathogenic fungus-based biopesticide and fungicides, each study has not only improved my research abilities but also helped me become a better and more effective student.

As I look back on the past 12 years of school, I strongly believe that much of my academic success can be attributed to the skills I learned through these research projects. Being a part of these studies taught me how to effectively manage my time, organize documents, plan multiple events or treatments at once, adapt to unexpected changes, learn from mistakes, and, most importantly, be patient. While these are all aspects of life that students eventually learn through trial and error, being involved with research from a young age made me feel much more prepared for life, especially when heading into high school.

Suchitra Dara

The daughter of an entomologist, Suchitra Dara earned a first-hand appreciation for science and nature early in life. Here, she examines a tobacco hornworm (Manduca sexta) larva.

Being the daughter of an entomologist is both a blessing and a curse. While getting introduced to the fascinating areas of entomology and entomopathology research is definitely a blessing, enduring extra layers of scrutiny to maintain objectivity and credibility seemed like a curse. My father was always twice as strict with me as he was with any of his technicians to make sure I earned my share of the research. I will admit, it was difficult for me to understand the importance of what I was doing for many years. During summer vacations, while my classmates were out swimming and traveling, I was meticulously collecting data from tomato plants in a hot and humid greenhouse or from zucchini in an open field or processing hundreds of vials of mealworms. Looking back, though, I am incredibly grateful that my father kept pushing me to continue to work and learn.

Having this research experience has shaped me in many ways. Most directly, it allowed me to travel around the world and present my work to leading scientists in the field, which was nerve-wracking but extremely gratifying. This greatly improved my public speaking and communication abilities. However, perhaps even more importantly, it gave me clarity about what I want for my future. Throughout the years, I have realized how much I enjoy the research process, so much so that I would like to pursue that as my career. I don’t know where my future career will take me, whether it is in entomology or a related field, but I know that research and academia is something that I want to be a part of, as it would allow me to contribute to innovations that could help improve the lives of many. Additionally, working on Integrated Pest Management (IPM) and sustainable agriculture early on in my life has made me a lot more aware of the environment and our food supply, as well as the ways we all impact them.

Suchitra Dara

One of Suchitra Dara’s science fair projects during grade school was an experiment to observe the feeding preference of the stink bug species Bagrada hilaris.

The most immediate impact research has had on my life is related to college. At the start of my senior year when I was just beginning my college applications, I was forced to reflect on the most meaningful aspects of my life. In this time, I recognized the many ways entomology and research have shaped me and my passions. Eventually, many of my essays became about research and its influence on me, and, thankfully, colleges found that interesting. When I received my acceptance letter from the California Institute of Technology, the college I will attend in the fall, at the bottom was a note from the admissions team stating that my commitment to STEM research was particularly interesting to them. I can say with confidence that this research is one of the main reasons why I got into this university. I am very grateful for all the experiences I have had because of entomology, as it has a huge influence on my skills and goals.

Knowing how much entomology and research has impacted me, I strongly believe every young student should have access to research. Without a doubt, I was incredibly lucky to have a parent in academia who could guide me. For students who don’t have that avenue, reaching out to local colleges or extension centers can be a great resource and provide opportunities to do research. Additionally, more K-12 schools need to encourage students with interests in STEM fields to look past the theoretical approaches and give them chances to have hands-on experiences, whether that is by connecting them with scientists and researchers or having a dedicated space and resources for experiments within schools themselves. Overall, entomological research has given me the unique opportunity to meet renowned scientists from around the world, give talks about my work, publish reports, and learn many valuable life skills throughout the process. I am incredibly humbled and grateful to have these experiences, and I hope other students get similar opportunities too. My life has been changed because of research and I know others’ lives can be too.

Suchitra Dara is a 2020 high school graduate and an incoming first-year student at the California Institute of Technology. Email: sdara@caltech.edu.

All photos courtesy of Suchitra Dara.

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