How One Entomologist Works to Bridge Molecular Mechanisms With Evolutionary Processes
By Carly Tribull, 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.) It is also the first in a set of four that will feature ECPs selected to present their work during the ECP Recognition Symposium at Entomology 2021, taking place in-person and online, October 31 – November 3, in Denver, Colorado. Learn more about the work ECPs are doing within ESA, and read past posts in the Standout ECPs series.
Amelia Lindsey, Ph.D., is an assistant professor in the Entomology Department at the University of Minnesota. Her lab uses functional genomics to understand insect biology across symbiotic and parasitic associations. Her research merges molecular biology, genomics, evolution, computational biology, microbiology, and entomology to uncover fundamental mechanisms of species interactions with a major focus on the insect reproductive symbiont, Wolbachia.
She received a B.A. from San José State University in 2011 and her Ph.D. from the University of California, Riverside, in 2017. She has two dogs named after fly mutants: Annie Lyra and Hannah Tubby.
Lindsey was selected to present her research at the ECP Recognition Symposium at Entomology 2021, taking place in-person and online, October 31 – November 3, in Denver, Colorado. Her presentation in the symposium, titled “Parasite-mediated losses of sex in parasitoid wasps,” is slated for 1:35 p.m. Mountain Time, on Tuesday, November 2.
Tribull: Can you briefly describe the research you’ll be presenting at the ECP Recognition Symposium?
Lindsey: I’ll be sharing the progress I (and now my lab!) have made on understanding how the bacterial symbiont Wolbachia can convert an insect’s offspring from male to female. This phenomenon, so-called “parthenogenesis-induction,” enables certain insects that are infected with these bacteria to reproduce asexually: females producing only female offspring without the need for a mate. This is research I started working on in the first year of my Ph.D. in 2012. At the time there were very limited genetic tools and resources available to tackle this question. So, after nearly a decade of developing the tools and building our “model system,” we finally have some exciting data on which genes Wolbachia uses to change the sex of an insect.
How is this research important to entomologists in ESA’s Systematics, Evolution, and Biodiversity Section, entomologists as a whole, and non-entomologists?
Wolbachia is a very common symbiont of insects: Nearly half of insects have some version of this bacterium that they inherited from their mother, just like how mitochondria are inherited. While not all Wolbachia change the sex of offspring (some Wolbachia strains change reproduction or physiology in other ways), this bacterium is broadly recognized as a significant player in the physiology and evolution of insects.
The conversion to asexuality is interesting not only because it helps us learn fundamental details of how insects reproduce and how sex is determined but also because reproductive mode (sexual versus asexual) is a core determinant of the potential for an insect to invade a new region, adapt to new food sources, or develop resistance to pesticides, for example. In my lab, we study parthenogenesis induction in parasitoid wasps, many species of which are used in the biocontrol of agricultural pests. In these systems, asexuality mediated by Wolbachia can be beneficial for biocontrol efforts, as females are the sex that targets the pest.
What’s your favorite part of your research? And what’s the most challenging or annoying part of your research?
In some ways these are one in the same. I love being able to go where my interests and data lead me. A lot of my research directions attempt to bridge molecular mechanisms with evolutionary processes. This enables (and perhaps requires) a lot of flexibility, curiosity, and a range of approaches. I enjoy the challenge of picking up new techniques and trying to figure out creative ways around problems. The downside to this is that it can leave me feeling like a “jack of all trades, master of none,” and sometimes I struggle to switch gears (e.g., from bioinformatics and writing code, to molecular biology, and then trying to remember how to read fly genetics).
The other thing that is challenging is that some of the parasitoid wasps I work with are small. I mean, really small: Adults can be less than 0.2 millimeters long. Static electricity is forever my nemesis, and this small size can be really limiting in the types of experiments we do. For example, dissections and injections are pretty much out of the question, but those are straightforward and routine in Drosophila.
ECPs in our Society hold a wide variety of professional positions. Can you explain more about your current role?
As of summer 2020, I am an assistant professor at the University of Minnesota. Prior to that, I completed a three-year postdoctoral research position at Indiana University, making this my first independent position. My appointment at UMN is 60 percent research and 40 percent teaching, so my job includes running my research lab and mentoring graduate students, as well as teaching two courses a year. This year I will be teaching a seminar for freshmen on genetic engineering in the fall, and in the spring I will teach our graduate-level insect physiology course that all our entomology M.S. and Ph.D. students take.
What do you like most about your current job?
Mentoring graduate students is something you can’t quite do in government or industry in the same way that academia offers, and it brings me a lot of joy. I love to see students grow, develop their own way of thinking, and curate their own research interests, and I especially like when students try to prove my hypotheses wrong or tell me that one of my wild ideas is simply too wild. In addition to my own graduate students, I have a few visitors from other labs who do a little work in my space. It makes me really happy to see students train each other, show off their study organisms, develop outreach projects together, and share their hobbies.
What is an impactful challenge that you’ve overcome as an ECP?
It is hard to pinpoint a single incident, but I’m generally open about my long-standing (and seemingly ever-changing) struggles with mental health as someone who is neurodivergent. I’ve come to embrace the way my brain operates (or, sometimes, doesn’t), but there were periods of time, sometimes a year or more, during graduate school and my postdoc where I felt hopelessly unable to think about science or get anything done. As an ECP, it was very challenging for me to find support and routine as I moved across the country and had to start fresh multiple times. I was lucky to have very supportive and flexible advisors as I worked through these particularly rough patches.
What advice would you give to other ECP members?
I am admittedly biased toward academic experiences, but I think it can be helpful to curate expertise, networks, and interests that are your own and set you apart from your advisor and other ECP scientists. I recognize there can be limitations due to funding or positions, and everyone has a unique journey, but in general I’ve found diversifying to be rewarding both personally and professionally. Sometimes this is as simple as going to a symposium at ESA you wouldn’t normally attend or lunching with a visiting speaker whose work is new to you. My science has benefited from diverse training, and I have also found that these sorts of “new” experiences have been helpful in getting myself out of a rut.
Entomology 2021, in-person and online, October 31 – November 3, Denver, Colorado
Carly Tribull, Ph.D., is an assistant professor of biology at Farmingdale State College and 2020-2021 chair of the ESA Early Career Professionals Committee. Email: email@example.com.
All photos courtesy of Amelia Lindsey, Ph.D.