Research Success through Mosquito Mentorship

[This blog was written by Claire Dust, an alumna from the Integrative Biology with Honors program. It is part of the SIB Student Research Experience, a blog series that offers a closer look at our students and their research.]

Hi all! My name is Claire Dust and in May of this year, I graduated from Illinois with my bachelor’s degree in Integrative Biology Honors (IBH) and a minor in chemistry. I was originally admitted to Illinois as a student in the Division of General Studies (DGS), and my sophomore year I started in IBH, where I immediately began searching for research opportunities.

One of my professors invited me to work in her lab, which focused on the relationship between the insect aphids and their endosymbiotic bacteria, Buchnera. I was very excited at this prospect, and during my short time in this lab, I worked with a team of undergraduates from my program to develop and implement a novel procedure to deliver CRISPR/Cas-9 into aphids and silence the tor gene, a gene which is hypothesized to affect exoskeleton formation, in subsequent offspring. To our delight, we were modestly successful in this task (although many aphids gallantly gave their lives during our scientific pursuit).

My first lab experience involved research on aphids and their endosymbiotic bacteria, Buchnera.

I only remained in this lab for roughly a semester; however, my friends and mentors in IBH helped me to find a new research opportunity. One of my good friends worked in the Allan lab under then PhD student Allison Parker (now Dr. Allison Parker, assistant professor in environmental science at Northern Kentucky University in the greater Cincinnati area). Allison was looking for undergraduate students to help with her summer field season, and I was very happy to come on as a part time student researcher during the summer of 2017. A field season with Allison was not what I initially expected, I’ll admit. It involved going out to houses to collect mosquito eggs from the field and then bringing back these eggs to count under a microscope and then hatch. That first summer, I went out to houses and counted eggs three days a week with Allison and other members of the research team.

Allison taught us how to identify mosquito species, different fly species, and she taught us to always wear bug spray when doing field work in mid-July. I think that summer I was doing some of the least technical work I’d ever done in lab (or ever would do during undergrad), but I had by far the most fun, and I learned so much more about insects, the research process, and study design.

My junior year, in addition to our fieldwork with mosquitoes, Allison asked me about conducting an independent study of my own for IB 490 credit (which is a requirement for graduation in IBH). She encouraged me to read different papers on topics that could be encompassed within the realm of the work done in the Allan lab, but she made sure to tell me to look for something that I found interesting, not just something I thought would be quick and easy (and boring). I kept coming up with ideas that were potentially larger and more involved than an undergraduate thesis, but Allison helped me to cull my interests into a more “bite size” amount of work and we eventually together came up with my research project: “Differential hatch rates of Aedes albopictus (Diptera: Culicidae) eggs inoculated with common bacterial species”.

My independent study work gave me a chance to learn more about experimental procedure with bacteria.

Basically, I inoculated mosquito eggs with two different species of bacteria and saw how that affected hatching rates. This was really fun for me, because I got to work with different people from the Illinois Natural History Survey (INHS) in order to learn various new laboratory techniques. I was taught how to culture bacteria, how to make a bacterial suspension from my culture, how to work in an aseptic environment, among other skills. I came up with my own experimental procedure, of course with lots of help from Allison.

We applied for a joint grant, which we ended up getting; this allowed me to go with her (and other entomologists from SIB at Illinois) to present my findings at the Entomological Society of America, ESC, and ESBC Joint Annual Meeting in Vancouver, BC in November of 2018. I never thought I’d be able to present my research at an international conference as an undergraduate researcher, yet there I was.

Presenting my research at the ESA, ESC and ESBC Joint Annual Meeting in the fall of 2018.
The ESA, ESC and ESBC Joint Annual Meeting was held in Vancouver, where I was able to network with other biology students also presenting their work.

I worked with Allison up until I graduated, working with her the summer before my senior year and then into my senior year. She helped me analyze my data (or in a lot of cases, she analyzed in for me and taught me how she did it, so I could do it myself next time) and she helped me write up a manuscript for my research that is now in the process of being submitted for publication. Working with Allison in the Allan lab provided me with countless opportunities that I don’t know I would have gotten anywhere else.

Because of my robust research background, I got a great offer from the graduate school I wanted. Starting late this August, I will be attending the Gilings School of Public Health at the University of North Carolina – Chapel Hill to earn my Master of Science in Public Health, and hopefully I will stay on to get my PhD here as well. So many of the things I learned and skills I gained were a direct result of working with Allison and benefiting from her mentorship.  I feel sure I will remain in contact with Allison even though we no longer work together. Through all of the research and field work and manuscript editing, we became very good friends and I don’t intend to throw that away just because we’re in different states now. My parents still live in the Champaign area, and I know Cincinnati is on the way from Chapel Hill to Champaign; she doesn’t know it yet, but I’ll be sleeping on her couch soon enough.