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How Catching Insects Turned an Engineer Into an Entomologist

Manpreet Kohli, Ph.D.

Meet Manpreet Kohli, Ph.D., entomologist and evolutionary biologist at the American Museum of Natural History, former engineering major, and subject of the next installment of our “Standout Early Career Professionals” series.

By Priyadarshini Chakrabarti Basu, 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.

Manpreet Kohli, Ph.D., is currently a postdoctoral fellow at the American Museum of Natural History, where she is pursuing her research in insect systematics, evolution, and phylogenetic methodology. Her work particularly focuses on establishing the Odonata tree of life and studying patterns of evolution in arctic dragonflies.

Manpreet is from India, where she trained as an engineer. She moved to the United States in 2010 and received her master’s degree in biology at the New Jersey Institute of Technology and then subsequently her Ph.D. in ecology and evolution at Rutgers University. Manpreet has been a member of the Entomological Society of America since 2011. She is currently the Eastern Branch Representative to the ESA Early Career Professionals Committee. She is also treasurer of the Dragonfly Society of the Americas and one of the founding members of collective Entomologists of Color.

Chakrabarti Basu: Tell us about you and how you got interested in entomology.

Kohli: I am an entomologist and an evolutionary biologist, but I had not been interested in bugs since I was 5. As a kid I loved being outdoors and being in nature, but that is not something we did very often in Delhi, India, where I grew up. Most of my interactions with the natural world were limited to watching nature documentaries. For my undergrad I trained as an engineer. After that I moved to United States to pursue my master’s and, at this point, I was unsure if I still wanted to continue my training as an engineer.

I was interested in studying evolution—human evolution, in particular—so I looked for labs with this research focus. I eventually started volunteering in a lab that was studying insect evolution. As part of this lab, we would go for “Field Fridays,” and it was during these trips that I caught my first dragonfly (or any insect) ever. Soon after joining this lab, I got an opportunity to be part of a field expedition to the South American country Guyana, studying insect diversity there. On this trip, every day we would go into the Amazon rain forest, wading through mucky pools collecting dragonflies and other insects. I started learning so much about insects and was absolutely blown away by how cool these organisms are. This trip was one of the most amazing experiences I have had in my life. I felt like I was in one of those nature documentaries I used to constantly watch as a kid.

And, at the risk of sounding dramatic, I have to say that that trip changed the course of my life. From a boring engineer I turned into a cool bug nerd. I am not saying engineers are boring. It was just me! I was accidentally an entomologist! It was after that trip to the Amazon rain forests and collecting bugs there that I decided to get my Ph.D. studying insect evolution.

What is your research about, and what makes it unique?

My research focuses on understanding patterns of insect biodiversity that we see today and all the way back to 300 million years ago in the Triassic. I approach this by studying the evolutionary history of various species in a comparative context and by asking questions like, “How are different insect species related to each other?” “What role did an event like the separation of an island from a mainland play in the evolution of a group?” “What can their geographic distribution tell us about their evolutionary history?” or “If and how would rising temperatures affect these distributions?”

My research is a unique mix of various disciplines including systematics and phylogenetics, population dynamics, morphology, and microbial ecology—all of which I employ to enhance our understanding of evolutionary history of insect lineages and then leverage this knowledge to understand the past, present, and future of biodiversity.

Part of my research focuses on reconstructing evolutionary trees or phylogenies of various lineages of dragonflies, which I then use for studying trait evolution or patterns of speciation and diversification in these lineages. Another portion of my research also focuses on phylogenetic methods, particularly divergence-time estimation methods, which can be used for establishing the timing of origin of a lineage. I particularly work on establishing the best practices for combining molecular data with fossil data to get reliable estimates in divergence-time estimation methodology.

However, a major portion of my research currently focuses on studying the evolution of the arctic dragonflies. I want to understand how events of past like the last glaciation have affected the evolution of these dragonflies and if studying these events of the past can help us understand how these dragonflies and other insects in the Arctic will be affected by rising temperatures due to climate change. We already know there are genetic and biogeographic consequences of climate change, and, in fact, for one of the species that I have been working with, Somatochlora sahlbergi, there is already evidence that it is being outcompeted and replaced in some of its locations by sister species from the south that are moving northward with rising temperatures.

Can you discuss some of the challenges you have faced in your research, and how did you overcome those challenges?

One of the biggest challenges I have faced is dealing with my imposter syndrome. I started my Ph.D. in an insect lab coming from a completely non-insect background. Because of this, I often felt inadequate in my knowledge and skill and ultimately in my ability to finish my Ph.D. While I still occasionally feel this way, over the years I have gotten better at dealing with this. I have also had an excellent academic support system that has always helped and encourage me as I have continued my academic journey.

Are you also involved with extension or teaching?

Yes, I have been actively involved in teaching, mentoring, and outreach throughout my academic career. I regularly teach courses in ecology and evolution. However, I spend a lot of my time mentoring students as well. I have trained several students during my Ph.D. at Rutgers. For most of these students, who were recruited from the Garden State Louise Stoke Alliance for Minority Participation program at Rutgers, working in our lab would be the first time they had looked at insects so closely or gone collecting on the field. Providing students with these kinds of experiences is very important to me, as this is how I started my journey as entomologist and a scientist.

Currently at the American Museum of Natural History (AMNH), I am mentoring high school students from the Science Research Mentoring Program. These high school students have been working with me on a project looking at the microbiome in dragonflies. One day when I was dissecting dragonflies and talking to the students about dragonfly anatomy, one of them exclaimed, “Insects are cool, humans are so boring!” I couldn’t stop smiling when they said this. This is a win in my notebooks, and I hope I can continue to work with students and keep getting them interested in insects and science.

Lastly, along with mentoring students, I am also involved in outreach. I collaborate with the education department at AMNH, and I often talk to school students from different grades including kindergartners and their caretakers. With them I share how I became an entomologist, why insects are amazing and fascinating creatures, and, perhaps most importantly, why dragonflies are the coolest bugs.

If you could go back in time and change something, what would it be and why?

I don’t really think I would like to change anything. I have quite enjoyed my journey so far. However, if I could perhaps start again, I want to do more “Field Fridays.” I absolutely loved going out and catching bugs with my academic mentors, peers, and mentees, and I wish I could do more of that.

Finally, if you could be any arthropod, which would you pick and why?

Do extinct arthropods count? Because I would very much like to be the Meganeura, the extinct relatives of the Odonates that existed somewhere in the Carboniferous period. Referred to as the giant dragonflies of the past, these insects were almost as big as a hawk. I always imagine how cool it would be to be a giant insect like this taking to the skies and flying over the marshes of the Carboniferous.

Priyadarshini Chakrabarti Basu, Ph.D., is an assistant professor of entomology at Mississippi State University and 2021-2022 vice-chair of the ESA Early Career Professionals Committee. Email: pb1090@msstate.edu.

All photos courtesy of Manpreet Kohli, Ph.D.

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