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How One Entomologist Stands Tall in Her Adopted Country

Angelita Acebes

Angelita (Angel) Acebes-Doria, Ph.D., is an assistant professor of entomology at the University of Georgia’s Tifton campus. She was introduced to entomology as an undergrad at the University of the Philippines during an undergraduate research project involving biological control of mango leafhoppers. She went on to earn a M.S. from the University of Hawaii and Ph.D. from Virginia Tech. Before graduating in 2016, she joined the U.S. Army Reserve and has served throughout her two-year postdoctoral position and current faculty position at the University of Georgia. (Photo courtesy of Angelita Acebes-Doria, Ph.D.)

By Louis Nottingham, 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.

Angelita (Angel) Acebes-Doria, Ph.D., is an assistant professor of entomology at the University of Georgia’s Tifton campus. Angel delivers research-based solutions to agricultural commodity groups of Southern Georgia while holding partial appointments in extension and teaching. She also currently serves in the U.S. Army Reserve and is awaiting commission as an Entomology Officer.

Angel grew up in a small agricultural town in the center of the Philippines in a family involved in farming rice, vegetables, and mangos. She was introduced to entomology as an undergrad at the University of the Philippines during an undergraduate research project involving biological control of mango leafhoppers. She went on to earn a M.S. from the University of Hawaii and Ph.D. from Virginia Tech. Before graduating in 2016, she joined the U.S. Army Reserve and has served throughout her two-year postdoctoral position and current faculty position at the University of Georgia.

Angel and I spoke in August about her path to academia and the military, learning to manage common anxieties like imposter syndrome and public speaking, and how the COVID pandemic has forced her to work smarter, not just harder. (The following conversation has been edited slightly for clarity and length.)

Nottingham: So, has your nickname always been Angel?

Acebes-Doria: Oh no, not at all. [Laughs.] It’s an Americanization of my first name Angelita. Actually, growing up my nickname was Lit Lit. It is a tradition in the Philippines that your nickname is one syllable from your first name, repeated. Many of my friends from home would laugh if they heard me called Angel.

Were you an entomologist from birth, or did you fall into it later in life?

I did not even know the field of entomology existed! Not until I went to college. But I can say that, growing up, while my other friends were into dogs or cats, I remember being more interested in collecting ants in jars to watch them organize and carry food. I guess looking back, if I had grown up somewhere like the U.S. where people are exposed to more options at a young age, maybe I would have known about entomology as a career. So, I guess I was an entomologist from birth; I just didn’t really know it was an option.

When did you actually get into entomology for real?

I was in undergrad at the University of the Philippines working for a professor who studied

Angelita Acebes Field Work

Angelita (Angel) Acebes-Doria, Ph.D., is an assistant professor of entomology at the University of Georgia’s Tifton campus. “Being in an agricultural region allows me to be very productive,” she says. “Geographically, this is where pecans are grown, so I am in close proximity to the stakeholders I serve and where I conduct research.” (Photo courtesy of Angelita Acebes-Doria, Ph.D.)

biological control of mango leafhoppers. I just thought the concept of controlling one organism with another was so cool. And he was such an important mentor. Someday I hope I can go back to the Philippines to teach and mentor aspiring scientists. COVID really makes you think about that kind of stuff, because right now the Philippines is completely shut off to foreign nationals, including me.

So, as a student, were the challenges of graduate school amplified as a non-U.S. citizen?

Some people do not like to talk about it, but for international students it can be pretty challenging and anxiety-inducing. You always have to let USCIS (U.S. Customs and Immigration Services) know where you are residing so they can track you at all times. For example, if you change addresses, you must report it within 10 days of moving. Also, you do not want to get any sort of tickets because it may impact your chances of getting your visa renewed. It feels like you cannot make any mistakes. It’s [pauses] a lot, and that is on top of the standard pressure of graduate school.

Were there any support structures that were helpful in this regard?

Just having people that are available to listen to what you’re going through. It really helps to talk about it and to know you have allies, especially in your advisors and mentors. You should just ask your students how everything is going and if they want to talk.

What are some of the challenges you’ve had to overcome in your career?

Well, I’m terrified of public speaking.

I don’t believe you. I’ve seen you speak. You’re, like, really good.

People say things like that, but you should see me prior to getting in front of a lot of people. I am naturally shy. I was even scared to order food from restaurants for a long time.

So, how did you get over it?

I didn’t really, and I’m still learning how to manage it. I think treating it like I’m acting helps. I was in school plays in high school, so I try to pretend like I am performing. But I still get nervous.

Are there other things you’ve had to overcome or manage for your career?

There’s also just that imposter syndrome, which I think is common. [Pauses.] I constantly feel the pressure to prove that I am capable, both to others and to myself. Like, if I do not set the bar really high, people will not take me seriously. It doesn’t help that I look very young. Someone at an extension event recently asked me “What are you going to do when you grow up?” right after I gave my talk. It made me think, what else do I have to do to prove myself? But you learn how to not be reactionary. I was also interrupted in the middle of a talk once and asked if I was married. I later found out he was asking for his son who was single; so, he thought it was a compliment. But I cannot help but wonder if someone else who isn’t [pauses] like me would have to deal with that.

Toward the end of your Ph.D. you joined the Army Reserve. Why did you do this and has it benefitted you?

Angelita Acebes Army Reserve

Angelita (Angel) Acebes-Doria, Ph.D., serves in the U.S. Army Reserve and is awaiting commission as an Entomology Officer. She joined through Military Accessions Vital to National Interest, a program that allows non-citizens with valuable cultural backgrounds and professional skills (such as entomology) to work for the U.S. military and gain citizenship once they complete basic training. (Photo courtesy of Angelita Acebes-Doria, Ph.D.)

I saw this as another way for me to get out of my comfort zone and as an opportunity to give back to this country, the U.S., which has provided me with a lot of opportunities. I wasn’t actively seeking it, though; it was my cousin in Canada who found this program called Military Accessions Vital to National Interest. This was a pilot program that allowed non-citizens with valuable cultural backgrounds and professional skills, like dentists, surgeons—and even entomologists!—to work for the U.S. military and gain citizenship once they complete basic training. So, when this opportunity presented itself, I really didn’t hesitate. My only reservation was not being sure if I could do push-ups! My husband helped me realize that this was just like any other new challenge—you struggle to do one, then you add a second, third, then a fourth. The first is always the most difficult. That’s been true for most of my experiences. [Pauses.] It also ended up being a great way to stay active while writing a dissertation!

What are the pros and cons of being a professor at the agricultural research campus in Tifton, Georgia, far from the main university campus in Athens?

Being in an agricultural region allows me to be very productive. Geographically, this is where pecans are grown, so I am in close proximity to the stakeholders I serve and where I conduct research. We also have lots of space and capabilities for me to have my own research orchard. This helps me learn how to think like a grower, because I have to think about all the things that aren’t just entomology, like herbicides, fungicides and fertilizer. If I were on campus, I wouldn’t have any of that; it’s a blessing.

On the other side, it’s tough in terms of student recruitment, because you have to sell this area that isn’t quite [pauses] it’s just a small town compared to Athens, with way less student-oriented activities and resources. Even getting housing is harder here. You have to be honest with students about what they are getting into.

But another benefit is that I teach here, and since I have fewer students to teach it is easier with the pandemic to have socially distanced lessons. And it’s nice getting to have smaller class sizes despite being at a large university.

Does the location and proximity to stakeholders drive you toward applied research?

Correct.

How do you balance the applied needs of the stakeholders with the expectations from the university, which are usually more fundamental? 

In our department, the faculty who are off-campus have extension appointments, so it’s accepted that we will perform more applied research catered toward stakeholder needs. We are still expected to publish high-level research that involves basic science. However, I do not have to do that on my own; I rely on collaborations with more basic researchers to achieve a balance.

Do you have an example?

Sure, one of my applied research questions asks how novel pruning strategies of large pecan trees affects pest populations. But, instead of just looking at the pests, we’re seeing how this cultural strategy affects the broader arthropod community structure. To do this we’re collaborating with a molecular ecologist who specializes in gut content analysis. It’s like hitting two birds with one stone, because I do not have to do everything myself; you collaborate with people so everyone is helping each other out.

Sorry, but I have to ask, how has COVID affected your research?

It has been a challenge for sure, and a lot of our experiments did not get done in the exact way we initially planned. We’ve had to think outside the box. Many of our lab-based experiments had to be redesigned for the field. We also had to get a lot better with organization and communication, which I think has been a benefit. Everyone in the lab knows what everyone else has to do ahead of time; so, when we show up to the lab everything is packed and ready to go to the field.

Another blessing is that this has made me more confident in saying no. As a grad student and then a new faculty member, you rarely say no to anything. Now that I have to plan things out in such detail, I have a better understanding of my limitations in time and resources, so I know when I need to say no. Now I have more time to focus and do better work, and it has also allowed me to spend more time focusing on my grad students and staff, and even myself. Not just in terms of research but in terms of mental health. I spend a lot more time with my team in Zoom talking about both work and stress.

angelita-acebes-louis-nottingham-zoom-interview

Angelita (Angel) Acebes-Doria, Ph.D., assistant professor of entomology at the University of Georgia’s Tifton campus (left), spoke with Louis Nottingham, Ph.D., entomology research professor at Washington State University and ESA Early Career Professionals Committee member, via Zoom for this installment of Entomology Today’s Standout Early Career Professionals series. (Screenshot by Louis Nottingham, Ph.D.)

Okay, this is my last and most important question. Everyone knows that you’re an avid high-fiver; what has it been like to not give high-fives in the COVID era?

[Laughs.] Oh nooo, I guess I have not done that in a while. Well, you know there is an air high-five, right? [Laughs.] Yeah, I’ve had to look at things from a different perspective and just be thankful for those things we use to take for granted. I definitely will not take high-fiving for granted again.

Do you think you will go back to high-fiving when and if the pandemic ends?

Oh, definitely yes! Definitely.

Louis Nottingham, Ph.D., is an entomology research professor at Washington State University’s Tree Fruit Research & Extension Center in Wenatchee, Washington, and Pacific Branch Representative to the ESA Early Career Professionals Committee. Email: louis.nottingham@wsu.edu.

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