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The experience that set a journey into motion

Photo of the author Rachel Blood.
Photo of the author Rachel Blood.

Hi all! My name is Rachel (pictured on the left), and I currently have a Bachelor’s in Zoology and will be starting a master’s degree the fall of 2020. I am going to shed some light on how I began my journey into scientific research, especially related to entomology. I hope those of you who are considering or who are wanting to get into research or entomology find my experience helpful.

When I first started university, I was not sure how I was going to achieve my career goals. I knew I wanted to become a researcher focusing on some sort of animal, but the specifics were unclear.

Fast forward through all of the classes and volunteer activities to the tail end of my third year where I was able to get my first, paid research opportunity. I had not much research experience, but thankfully, I was offered a job as an undergraduate technician in the Walton Lab. The Walton Lab research focuses primarily on horticultural entomology. It investigates how insects (and insect pests) interact with various crop systems. One of the main insects the lab focuses on is a fruit fly named Spotted-Wing Drosophila (known as SWD and scientifically called Drosophila suzukii; photo below on the left shows an adult female (left) and adult male (right) of the fly species).

A female (left) and male (right) SWD (Drosophila suzukii) adult.
Dead adults of SWD. Photo: Rachel Blood.
Adult parasitoid wasps (Pachycrepoidus vindemiae) scaling the sides of the cages we used to rear them in the lab.
Parasitoids of SWD. Photo: Rachel Blood.

When I first started in the lab, I worked for Dr. Cherre Bezerra da Silva. During my time with him, his work was mainly focused on the behavior of a parasitoid wasp (pictured above on the right in the cages we used to rear them in the lab), that feeds on SWD during its development. Dr. Bezerra da Silva’s work was super interesting to me and really got me excited about research and entomology!

Being a lab technician, you do a wide range of tasks. Related specifically to Dr. Bezerra da Silva’s work, I did a lot of lab work, from taking care of the insect colonies, microscope work, field work (pictured in the photo below that shows an experiment setup within a crop system), daily collection of data for ongoing experiments, and data entry. For the lab in general, I did a lot of cleaning. Believe it or not, but fruit flies create quite the pile of dishes. Doing this work taught me dedication, attention to detail, how to execute experiments successfully, and how to keep asking questions. I learned how to work with different insects in a variety of environments from lab to field, how to handle the experiments of others as if they were yours, and how to work with people in a scientific setting. I was so invested in the lab, the research, and entomology that I almost continued to pursue a graduate degree with the Walton Lab. There was so much about entomology that I wanted to learn about and explore and still do. Dr. Walton from the lab described it as a ‘black hole’, and in an exciting, intriguing way, he was right.

My time in the lab ended up being one of my best experiences and fondest memories. Now, to be clear, it was a lot of work, you needed to be adaptable, able to perform accurately and precisely under stress, and persist with the learning curve that was associated with it all. What I gained from my time in the lab was worth every bit of energy and effort I put into the job. I would do it all over again.

Field work. My absolute favorite part of the job. This photo was taken after a morning of setting up an experiment with SWD.
Experimental setup in a vineyard. Photo: Rachel Blood

This lab experience really helped me advance in my scientific career. It set my CV apart from others my age and gave me the confidence and skillset I needed to feel confident pursing whatever was going to be next in my career. For example, I was able to get an internship after finishing my undergraduate degree that set a cascade of events in motion that led to my acceptance into my master’s program. It helped me figure out what I wanted to do with my life.

If research and/or entomology are paths you want to travel down, be ready for an adventure. To get started in these areas, find a position that is somewhat related to what you want to do. It does not have to be exactly what you envision your career being. It can be paid or unpaid, both are equally as valuable. Be ready to work, and more importantly, be ready to learn. Ask questions, read articles from peer-reviewed journals, and be willing to push yourself outside of your comfort zone so that you be the scientist/entomologist you aspire to be. If you have that interest, those questions that make you want to find answers through research, you find your path. Just be patient, put in the effort, and keep asking those questions.

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