How One Entomologist Learned to Appreciate the Little Things (Microbes) in Life
By Jacqueline Serrano, 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.) Read past posts in the Standout ECPs series.
Jacob “Jake” Cecala, Ph.D., is currently a U.S. Department of Agriculture-National Institute of Food and Agriculture postdoctoral research fellow in the Department of Entomology and Nematology at the University of California, Davis, where he is studying how insecticides and water availability affect floral microbial communities and pollination. Jake received his Ph.D. from the University of California, Riverside (UCR), in 2021, conducting research on wild bees in commercial plant nurseries with Erin Rankin, Ph.D. He also received an M.S. in biological sciences and a B.S. in biology, both from California State Polytechnic University, Pomona, where he researched bee pollination of watermelon crops with Joan Leong, Ph.D.
Serrano: Tell us a little bit about yourself and how you became interested in entomology.
Cecala: Ironically, I was actually terrified by most insects when I was a child. I grew up in southern California, but my mom’s family is from Cleveland, Ohio, and we would visit there each summer. There are obviously lots of insects there we don’t have on the West Coast. Two species in particular left lasting impressions on me. The first were the giant mayflies, which emerge en masse around Lake Erie every summer to mate. I remember feeling a bit nauseous watching millions of these things covering every available surface and getting smashed against cars. The second, which I have more vivid memories of, were the periodical cicadas. I remember the summer a brood was emerging when I was 10 years old. I recall cicadas being everywhere—in the grass, on trees, all over buildings, staring at me with their fiery orange-red eyes. I was so afraid of them, I had a borderline panic attack when one landed on my leg.
I gradually opened up to the world of bugs as I got older and especially while I was an undergraduate at Cal Poly Pomona. While I was there, I started taking more zoology-focused courses for my biology major requirements. I wanted to get involved in something extracurricular, so I asked the professor of my invertebrate bio course, Dr. Joan Leong, about research opportunities in her lab. At that time, Joan’s lab did work on the contributions of honey bees and native, wild bee species to watermelon crops around southern California. I found the research to be super accessible and engaging: A lot of our field sites were in suburban areas, but they harbored surprisingly high native bee diversity. I joined the lab in May 2010, and by that summer I was already knee-deep in my first independent research project, looking at honey bee foraging behavior and pollen deposition. I am really fortunate for having had this research experience, because I ended up loving it. Thirteen years later and I am still passionate about the topics, so I’m grateful I had that opportunity.
Looking back on it, I think that my views on insects changed primarily because I learned more about them through coursework and my research. I began to understand that those mayflies and cicadas which I had thought existed to gross me out and dive-bomb me on hot summer days weren’t actually out to get me. Rather, they were just living their lives and trying to secure a future for their offspring. I know now how fascinating their biology is, with all its quirks and peculiarities, and can appreciate them for the astounding biological phenomena they represent. I think that’s a testament to the value of knowledge and outreach in shaping how people view other living organisms and, more broadly, biodiversity.
During your Ph.D., you worked with bees in commercial plant nurseries; why were you interested in that topic?
While I was at Cal Poly Pomona, I took several awesome botany courses with Dr. Ed Bobich and Dr. Kristin Bozak, where we as students got to observe and work with a lot of plant species on campus for various research projects. Lots of these species were, of course, ornamental and landscape plants—in other words, plants that we humans grow mainly for their aesthetic appearance. Observing these plants and the diversity in their anatomies, geographical origins, evolutionary histories, and interactions with other organisms made me appreciate them quite a bit. I began to develop a search image for these plants, rather than them just being background fixtures in my field of vision. I soon realized how widespread some ornamental species were in suburban areas.
As I familiarized myself with the scientific literature on pollination through my research, I noted that ornamental plants got quite a bit less attention than other crop plants did. Going into my Ph.D., I knew I wanted to study a topic that combined my love for native bees with my curiosity about the ecological role of ornamental plants. After brainstorming with my advisor, Dr. Erin Rankin, I settled on commercial plant nurseries as a setting for my dissertation research.
Have you always studied bees? How did they become to be your study organism?
Yes, honey bees and native bees have always factored into my research in some way or another, either as the subjects of projects or as statistical covariates. As to how they became my research organism of choice, I’d have to say it is really just serendipity. As I mentioned earlier, the lab I ended up joining as an undergrad just happened to study bees, and I just happened to find them extremely intriguing, charismatic, and fun to work with. And I have stuck with them.
While I have been branching out into the realm of microbes as a postdoc, the research I’m doing now still falls under the conceptual realm of plant-pollinator interactions. I can’t say for sure where my work will go in the future, but bees will always have a special place in my heart, and I’ll circle back to them whenever I can.
What is the most interesting research challenge that you have encountered, and what was your approach to solving it?
Not sure it’s interesting per se, but during my Ph.D. at UCR I conducted a research project that comprised 20 mesh flight cages set up in a field at the campus agricultural station. Each cage had 30 potted plants, an automated irrigation setup, and I filled each cage with alfalfa leaf-cutter bees—a species of solitary bee that can be commercially purchased.
It was challenging because I essentially started this project from scratch. All I had at the beginning was the idea. Looking back on it, I’m still not sure how I managed to pull this off because it was such an ambitious project with so many moving parts: the cages, the plants, the bees, their nesting blocks, the irrigation system, the pesticides, the maintenance, the observation schedule.
Additionally, the last field season of this project was in 2020, when pandemic restrictions prevented me from having any sort of research assistants. But in the end it really paid off, so I’m glad I stepped up to that challenge.
As a postdoctoral researcher at UC Davis, you are continuing to work with pollinators but have changed focus to bees and bee-microbe associations. Can you describe your current research?
In Dr. Rachel Vannette’s lab at Davis, I’ve been investigating how neonicotinoid insecticides might affect the growth of microbes—namely bacteria and yeasts—that inhabit flowers. While it might seem counterintuitive at first that bacteria and fungi would be affected by compounds designed to kill insects, remember that neonicotinoids are synthetic analogs of nicotine. Nicotine is a secondary metabolite naturally produced in the nectar of some plants, and it has antimicrobial properties. Other studies looking at soil microbes have found that some kinds of bacteria are susceptible to these compounds or can actually degrade them.
I’ve investigated nectar microbes using both in vitro, culture-based studies in the lab as well as greenhouse experiments where I inoculate flowers with microbial communities. I’m currently writing up the results of this project, and I’m really excited to get it published. In the remaining time of my fellowship, I’m shifting to focus more on how plant traits and nectar chemistry impact the development of floral microbe communities.
How has the shift from your dissertation work to your postdoctoral work been? Any advice for graduate students making that transition?
All in all, the research itself doesn’t feel all too much different. It is more challenging in some ways, but that’s mainly because I’ve delved into a field that’s new to me (microbiology), and I’m constantly learning new techniques as I go. I think the main thing that has changed since I was in graduate school is the level of independence and the expectations I put on myself.
As a Ph.D. student, things can feel overly structured and rigid at times—you have a dissertation project you’ve proposed, you need to complete it in a certain time frame, and it needs to meet an agreed-upon set of criteria in order for you to receive your degree. As a postdoc funded by an external agency, there’s much more freedom in how you can conduct your work, which has both its pros and cons. A lot of those expectations from grad school don’t exist because you don’t have thesis committees or classes to complete or other things like that. It’s more about rounding out your expertise as a scientist, gaining new experiences and skills, making connections, and figuring out the next steps in your career. It’s both stressful and rewarding but in very different ways than a Ph.D. program was.
My advice for graduate students going into a postdoc is to think about what skills you want to pick up during your time there. When I started my postdoc, I made out an IDP, or “individual development plan,” with my faculty mentor, where I thought about my past experiences and strengths and how they relate to my future short- and long-term research, professional, and career goals. While it can feel redundant at first, it really helps to get these thoughts down on paper early and to discuss them with your advisor so you’re both on the same page for the duration of your appointment.
When you’re not busy conducting experiments in the lab or field, what are some ways you like to spend your time winding down from a busy workday or week?
I love spending time with my partner, trying new recipes, going into Wikipedia spirals, and working out. I’m a big fan of video games as well—the new Legend of Zelda game has been competing with my other forms of leisure quite severely over the past week.
Last question: If you could be any arthropod, what would you pick and why?
You’re probably expecting me to say that I’d want to be a bee, but honestly a bee’s life sounds pretty difficult. Flying around flowers on a summer day seems like fun at first, but having to constantly worry about optimal foraging theory while avoiding pesticides and all the other stressors they’re facing seems kind of hectic. I think being a water strider looks pretty fun and stress-free, but I could be wrong since I don’t know much about them.
Jacqueline Serrano, Ph.D., is a research entomologist at the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Agricultural Research Service in the Temperate Tree Fruit and Vegetable Research Unit, in Wapato, Washington, and Pacific Branch Representative to the ESA Early Career Professionals Committee. Email: email@example.com.
All photos courtesy of Jake Cecala, Ph.D.