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How an Evolutionary Biologist Found Her Place in Entomology

Emily Durkin, Ph.D.

After earning her bachelor’s and master’s in biology at the Northern Michigan University and her Ph.D. in biological sciences focused on ecology and evolution at the University of Alberta (Canada) in 2019, Emily Durkin, Ph.D., took on a postdoctoral research position at the University of Florida before moving to her current postdoc role at the University of Kentucky. Starting in fall 2021, she will continue her research in evolutionary biology of arthropods as an assistant professor at the University of Tampa.

By Lorena Lopez, 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.

Emily Durkin, Ph.D.

Emily Durkin, Ph.D., with her dog Pfeffer.

Emily Durkin, Ph.D., is a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Kentucky, where she studies the experimental evolution of endosymbiotic bacteria in dwarf spiders (Araneae: Linyphiidae). Since Emily began her bachelor’s degree in 2009, she embarked on a unique professional path investigating evolutionary biology phenomena, particularly in the field of entomology and acarology. She earned her bachelor’s and master’s in biology at the Northern Michigan University and her Ph.D. in biological sciences focused on ecology and evolution at the University of Alberta (Canada) in 2019.

During her Ph.D., Emily experimentally evolved a population of facultatively parasitic mites, Macrocheles muscaedomesticae, to exhibit an increased propensity in host-attachment behavior using artificial selection. Her research was the first to provide an estimate of heritability for infectious behavior in a facultative parasite, suggesting natural selection can act upon facultative strategies. Her Ph.D. research provided important implications for the evolution of parasitism from free-living ancestors. Emily continued her work on the parasitic behavior of mites as a postdoc at the University of Florida and moved to Kentucky in 2020. She recently accepted a professorship position at the University of Tampa and will move back to Florida in fall 2021 to start her program as an assistant professor in the Biology Department.

Lopez: Tell us about your current research. How did you get interested in the ecology and evolution of parasitic relationships?

Durkin: In the beginning, my master’s research was focused on birds; I was going to compare immune system function between two bird species that exhibit different parental strategies by measuring their levels of blood parasites. I had the choice of taking an ornithology class or a parasitology class. My advisor at the time wanted me to take ornithology, but I chose to take parasitology because the field was much more foreign to me. It was in that class that I was exposed to the intimate relationships between parasite and host. I was in awe of parasitic adaptations. They can manipulate their host’s behavior and evade or alter their host’s immune system to complete their lifecycle; they are true masters of their craft. But, of course, hosts evolve defenses in response. These intimately evolving host-parasite relationships provide some of the greatest examples of the red queen hypothesis (which proposes that species must constantly evolve to survive when faced with other evolving species) in action. As someone that loves evolutionary biology, it is difficult not to fall head-over-heels for host-parasite interactions.

Macrocheles muscaedomesticae mites on Drosophila hydei flies

During her doctoral research, Emily Durkin, Ph.D., experimentally evolved a population of facultatively parasitic mites, Macrocheles muscaedomesticae (shown here attached to Drosophila hydei flies) to exhibit an increased propensity in host-attachment behavior using artificial selection. Her research was the first to provide an estimate of heritability for infectious behavior in a facultative parasite, suggesting natural selection can act upon facultative strategies.

What’s your favorite aspect of your research?

I love how hands-on and tangible my research is. It involves a lot of observation of mite behavior and biology. Although it can be a double-edged sword, I enjoy that my work is unique. My less-common expertise in working with live mites has fostered some awesome collaborations, but it can be a bit isolating as well.

Emily Durkin, Ph.D.

During her postdoctoral research position at the University of Florida, Emily Durkin, Ph.D., often conducted education and outreach visits with teachers, using mites as a subject for lessons.

What’s a recent research challenge you had to overcome, and how did you do it?

Keeping track of multiple individual mites over an experiment is a challenge. It is so easy to lose them or accidentally kill them. I try my best to overcome this by going into an experiment with the expectation that I will lose a proportion of mites and start with a larger-than-needed sample size.

How has your life changed in the transition from graduate student to postdoc?

I think the biggest change I have experienced during my transitions is an increase in confidence. I would often compare my research to the research of others around me and think what I was doing wasn’t as interesting or important. Superficially, it may appear that I play around with tiny critters in the lab and watch them, but I have been able to test some interesting hypotheses and generate data that helps shed light on some larger questions on the evolution of parasitism.

If you could go back in time, what advice would you give to your graduate-student self?

First, find some supportive grad-student friends! I was so wrapped up in my work the first two years of my Ph.D. that I had very few friends. Once I made more friends, I realized how important they were. They helped me have fun, finish my work, and keep my sanity while I finished up my degree. Second, take breaks to enjoy yourself! I used to think taking time away from my work was just that, taking time away from my work, which I felt guilty about. I realized much later how refreshed and better my work and productivity were after taking a break to do what I wanted when I felt I needed one. And, third, don’t compare yourself to others. This is hard not to do, but really, everyone has different research and will likely have a completely different journey. As long as you are getting some enjoyment and satisfaction out of what you are doing and are being friendly and collegial with others, you are doing it right.

Lorena Lopez, Ph.D., is a postdoctoral researcher at Virginia Tech’s Department of Entomology (Eastern Shore AREC) and vice chair of the ESA Early Career Professionals Committee. Twitter: @lorelopez257. Email: lorelopezq257@vt.edu.

All photos courtesy of Emily Durkin, Ph.D.

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