Meet the Recipients of the 2021 Black in Entomology Student Prizes
By Melissa Mayer
In February 2021, Black in Ento hosted a week of virtual events and gatherings to build community and connection, and organizers also raised money to support a grant program. Five $1,000 grants were awarded to exceptional Black scholars in the field of entomology in 2021, and the awards are part of a community-led movement to provide “adequate resources, mentorship, and access” to student entomologists of color.
The grants are sponsored by BASF, Corteva, the Entomological Society of Canada, and the Entomological Society of America, as well as individual donors. For more information on the organization’s work, follow #blackinento on Twitter or the BlackInEnto YouTube channel—and check out the amazing recipients of the 2021 Black in Ento Student Prizes below.
Cornell University, Ithaca, New York, USA
Kyla O’Hearn was a senior majoring in animal sciences at the University of Kentucky when she took a general entomology course that would change the trajectory of her career. Now, she studies the taxonomy, systematics, and ecology of Hawaiian drosophilids. She says that approximately one-third of the vinegar fly family Drosophilidae are exclusive to Hawaii, where they enjoy close relationships with about 40 percent of Hawaii’s native plants. Since a lot of these plants are endangered, many of the Hawaiian drosophilids are endangered as well.
O’Hearn says the highly specialized flies are often misunderstood, and she hopes her work will generate data that support conservation efforts: “When I tell people I study fruit flies, they immediately say, ‘Oh, well I have some in my kitchen that you can look at.’ So, not many people know there is so much diversity within Drosophilidae and that the majority of those found in Hawaii are not considered pests.”
O’Hearn’s favorite insects are bed bugs. “I think it’s really fascinating that there is an insect that has so closely coevolved with us that they’re such a successful endoparasite,” she says. “They’re, unfortunately, really remarkable at what they do, but, despite being such notorious pests, they are not known to transmit any diseases, and about one-third of people don’t even react to them.”
Kenya Medical Research Institute, Kisumu, Kenya
During Diana Omoke’s undergraduate studies at Kenyatta University, a three-month industrial attachment at Kenya Medical Research Institute provided the opportunity to work in an entomology lab and inspired her passion for working with malaria vectors. Omoke’s research has shown important differences in the microbial communities associated with insecticide-resistant Anopheles gambiae mosquitoes. She says these microbes (especially bacteria from the genera Sphingobacterium, Rubrobacter, Lysinibacillus, and Streptococcus) could serve as early warning system for monitoring insecticide resistance.
Omoke was excited to share her findings in a peer-reviewed journal as well as at international conferences, including the Pan African Mosquito Control Association Virtual Vector Conference and the American Society of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene 68th Annual Meeting.
Mosquitoes are Omoke’s favorite insects. “There is this quote [from the Dalai Lama] that says, ‘If you think you are too small to make a difference, try sleeping with a mosquito.’ These are tiny creatures that are capable of ruining your sleep. Also, as tiny as they are, they can cause an impact in the community in terms of malaria transmission,” Omoke says. “Coming from a malaria-endemic region and working as an entomologist, I have learned a lot about mosquitoes and am working in groups whose common goal is to alleviate malaria morbidity and mortality cases.”
University of Ilorin, Nigeria, and Indian Institute of Horticultural Research, Bengaluru, India
Suleiman Mustapha found his love for entomology during the first undergraduate entomology lecture he attended. “I was so fascinated to learn about the things insects could do, such as build castles, tend to their own farms, make paper, control agricultural pests—and some groups having a society of their own with the different castes executing specific duties,” he says. He also learned that the number of entomologists was dwindling in Nigeria and wanted to change that.
Now, Mustapha studies crop protection, using honey bees to detect heavy metals and pesticides in the environment as well as to predict the level of those contaminants in bee-pollinated food crops before harvest. So far, he’s found that the African native honey bee Apis mellifera adansonii is useful for detecting contaminants tied to agricultural intensifications and overuse of persistent pesticides. He says the most exciting part of his work is receiving an international grant to expand his study and offer a possible solution for sustainable agriculture. Plus, he enjoys working at the intersection of entomology and chemical ecology.
Mustapha’s favorite insects are wasps because they are valuable in agricultural pest control. “Unfortunately, they are one of the most misunderstood insects, as they have been mistaken to only cause nuisances in some places and are not entirely recognized for the ecological services they provide,” he says. “I am also reminded that, when I was very young, growing up, I was in an environment with lots of mud dauber wasps. Observing them build mud nests on buildings and flying with insect larvae was a part of my childhood. Since then, having more knowledge about insects has made me appreciate them even more.”
Auburn University, Auburn, Alabama, USA
Seun Oladipupo’s childhood experiences inspired him to pursue a career in entomology: “I grew up in Nigeria with no (silver) spoon. As I watched sick friends and family turn to plants as a panacea in my childhood, I imagined that I could uncover the science behind it. But, as I grew up, I discovered insects were mostly responsible for these sicknesses. As existing insect control strategies are not always sufficient, safe, and sustainable, I turned to safer options that are not only novel but efficient and sustainable.”
Oladipupo’s interest in the use of natural products and endosymbionts to manage pests led him to his Ph.D. research, which looks at using essential oils to help manage urban insects like the German cockroach (Blattella germanica). He reports that factors like vapor pressure and molecular weight make a difference when it comes to an essential oil’s toxicity and that these compounds can be used to help suppress cockroach populations because they reduce the cockroach’s reproductive fitness. He’s also looking at endosymbionts like the reproductive parasite Wolbachia. “Ultimately, my research seeks to contribute to the US pest management industry by providing alternatives to synthetic pesticides, creating environmentally conscious pest management tools, providing solutions for public health pests, and creating affordable options,” he says.
Oladipupo’s favorite insects are butterflies and moths, which he calls “illusionists” because they are beautiful yet their larvae can wreak havoc on crops.
JEGEDE Oluwasegun John
University of Science and Technology of China, Anhui, China
JEGEDE Oluwasegun John planned to study biochemistry in college but found himself immersed in the biology of insects that are agricultural pests or medically important through the lens of storage techniques and integrated pest management.
As a Ph.D. student, JEGEDE screens bioactive compounds in ethnobotanicals for pest control applications. He’s identified several phytochemicals from two medicinal plants that are bioactive against the beetle Callosobruchus chinensis and is using molecular docking and other bioinformatics tools to screen the phytochemicals against molecular targets like proteins. The goal is to design an eco-friendly pesticide that’s biodegradable and sustainable.
JEGEDE’s favorite insect is the honey bee. “Bees are highly industrious, making them a beneficial social insect,” he says. “Although they are known to sting … their active roles of making honey and cross-pollination are so significant to human sustainability. I love the honey they produce, being a natural product with no expiry date or shelf life. With these qualities, I can boldly affirm that the honey bee is my most adorable insect.”
Black in Ento
Melissa Mayer is a freelance science writer based in Portland, Oregon. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.