From Butterflies to Billbugs: How One Student Found Her Way to Entomology
By Hannah Quellhorst
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.
Marian M. Rodriguez-Soto is a master’s student in entomology at Purdue University. Marian works to improve management programs for specific turfgrass insect pests. She will be defending her thesis this fall.
Marian and I spoke in October about her path to entomology and, more specifically, her path to Purdue. We also talked about imposter syndrome, the impacts of COVID-19, her passions, and her advice for the next generation of undergraduate and graduate students in entomology. Marian’s Twitter handle is @mars_rodri125.
Quellhorst: How did you find entomology? Were you always interested in it, or did you find it later in life?
Rodriquez-Soto: During the summer of 2014, I participated in an internship in a nonprofit organization in Adjuntas, Puerto Rico. Every morning, I would take care of a monarch butterfly sanctuary project that the organization managed. I enjoyed the experience, but it wasn’t until I was mentored by a compatriot entomologist and scientist named Dr. Fernando Vega that I actually realized that I could pursue entomology as a career. As soon as I discovered entomology as a career path, I decided that it was going to be my next step, and I worked towards that.
How did you end up in entomology at Purdue? What was your path that led you there?
At some point in my career, I got interested in research and started to participate in different research opportunities at my institution (the University of Puerto Rico). Every summer, I liked to participate in undergraduate research experiences. This is what led me to Purdue. I applied to the Summer Research Opportunity Program and got accepted at Purdue. Dr. Linda Mason was the professor that reached out and was interested in working with me. I remember I applied on February 1 and about a day later, she had contacted me. I was happy to hear from her and decided to participate in undergraduate research that next summer with her as my advisor and Dr. Julius Eason as my graduate student mentor. It was eight weeks studying the different aspects of the hairy fungus beetle. Julius and Dr. Mason introduced me to different faculty in the department. I was really excited to work with soil insects at that time, so I expressed that to my mentor, Julius, and he introduced me to my current advisor, Dr. Douglas S. Richmond. When I met him, we had a nice conversation, but I never thought I would be able to work with him. When the summer was over, I left the conversation and doors open with my contacts at Purdue. After different hurdles, such as a hurricane affecting the island of Puerto Rico, without electricity, I applied to graduate school. I always like to mention this because it was a crazy time, but I was able to do it with help. Anyways, I contacted Dr. Richmond, who indicated that he and Dr. Laramy Enders had funding for me. That is how I got here as a master’s student. There are many lessons I gather from this, but the most important one is that networking and contacting faculty is what is most likely to open the doors for a graduate degree and a position in a lab.
What is your research?
I work with a group of insects called billbugs (Sphenophorus spp.), which are a complex of multiple weevil species that feed within turfgrass. There is a knowledge gap in the understanding of the species composition and populations throughout the year of billbugs as a result of a lack of morphological characters to differentiate larval species. Several species of billbugs occur sympatrically, and they have variable seasonal biology, even across regions of the U.S. Thus, we are developing a molecular tool to identify billbug larvae and track their biology throughout the growing season. We have found that by using a single mitochondrial gene (COI), we are able to differentiate species using a phylogenetic tree. We have also found that a nuclear ribosomal gene (ITS2) provides an option for identification, although there are some other constraints in trying to amplify this gene. Combining these identification methods with a morphometric measure has proved that we can use this tool to understand seasonal biology or phenology for this group of insects.
The barcoding identification tool developed through the research I do, while not used for the purpose of exploring the phylogenetic relationships of species, has expanded my interest in evolution and molecular biology. Going forward, my major research interests are molecular biology, science communication, ecology, extension, and integrated pest management. I hope to combine some of these areas of interest to improve management programs across disciplines.
What is your favorite part about what you do?
I enjoy multiple components of my research, but my favorite thing is going to the field to collect specimens with the field crew. We always have great conversations outside and a fun time collecting different insects and, of course, billbugs. My other favorite thing is the problem-solving aspect of it. In the molecular aspect of my research, there is always a challenge to understand why something is not working and how to solve it. It can be overwhelming sometimes, but eventually, when you get it done, it is satisfying. I also enjoy the bioinformatics component for similar reasons.
You are nearly finished with your M.S. What were the specific challenges you faced while working during your graduate program?
It is a little bit scary to talk about this, but most of the challenges came from within. I know I am not the only one, because I talk with many different graduate students and most people in the beginning face imposter syndrome too, especially if you are from a historically underrepresented identity group. Getting to a place of confidence and overcoming the doubts and challenges that come from within was the biggest challenge. Many of the external challenges were also rooted in this; for example, language barriers, communication, etc. It is important to know that, no matter how you got to the place you are, you deserve it. The important thing is what you do from this point forward. Every person that has the desire and is willing to put in the work can be successful in graduate school; it has little to do with talent.
How have you worked to overcome those challenges?
I basically talked to people and noticed that my peers were going through similar things. Once I understood that, I started to think differently about my imposter syndrome. After that, I was happier and was able to focus more on my work, which in itself brought other challenges. I am always trying to find ways to improve myself and overcome challenges. For example, the other day I was worried that I didn’t do everything I was supposed to do, so the next day, I downloaded an app to make a list and started making lists and checking things out as I did my tasks. That really helped. So, I think having that kind of mindset that no matter what happens, there is always a way to solve things, and then doing something about it is how I overcome my challenges. Sometimes you have to talk to somebody or ask for help, so you do that, and things work out.
If you could give advice to new undergraduate students or even a new graduate student, what advice would you give?
In general, this is my advice: To new undergraduate students, I would say start thinking about what you want to do in the future, but enjoy the process. Participate in as many different experiences as you can, and explore, but be mindful of your grades. Find paid internships for every summer that take you to places away from home. There is so much growth in doing this, and it can’t be measured.
To new graduate students, first of all, understand that this is different than when you are an undergraduate. You are here to think and produce knowledge, but, in order to do that, you have to read and develop your own way of thinking. So, start by reading journal articles and being critical of them. Find what motivates you about the research that you do and remember it every day, especially when you are in the lab for long hours. Don’t spend too much time trying to decide if you deserve to be there or not; find focus within your work and work hard. If you come from a different culture or country, sometimes working hard has different standards, so find your own levels of what you think working hard is. But also, be mindful and blunt when you think that someone is being unfair and advocate for your own needs, because they are important too!
Get comfortable with the idea that one day you will make a mistake. My first mistake came a year after I started my master’s. When my advisor communicated to me about it, I took it really hard, but with time, I understood, and now I work hard to be better.
But most importantly, to both undergraduates and graduate students, create your support system. We all need people around us when difficult times come, and they need us too! So, find your ride-or-die crew.
How has COVID impacted you this year?
I feel blessed and privileged to have had and continue having a research assistantship. During the pandemic, I was able to continue my writing, and later, when the school allowed us to participate in research activities, I was able to advance in my research. The pandemic impacted me this year in a positive way, to an extent—it opened my eyes to understand that humanity is vulnerable, and we are closer to each other than what we think. It also made me a better person, happier and grow[ing] in multiple aspects within myself and my career. Like I said, I feel privileged and grateful to be able to express this perspective of the pandemic.
With graduation pending, what do you think your next step will be?
I have decided that after my graduation, I will start working and remain close to Purdue University. That is the plan for now, due to the current world situation. Plans in terms of what type of employment are still brewing. The ideal job would be in extension or research at Purdue or industries in the surrounding area.
What is something that you are very passionate about, whether insect–related or otherwise?
I am passionate about nature, spending time in nature and learning new things. Right now, I am passionate about trying to learn to cook more Puerto Rican meals like my grandma and aunts. However, sometimes when I am stressed I paint, do yoga, and go on hikes or go on runs. All of these activities are things which I am trying constantly to learn more about. In general, I am passionate about musicals, musical soundtracks, and watching theater. They just bring me so much joy, to watch and learn more about them.
Hannah Quellhorst is a Ph.D. candidate at Kansas State University. She can be reached at email@example.com or follow her on Twitter at @greekbugchick.
Congrats to Marian!