Emily A. Carlson | Horticulture, Focus: Entomology | PhD | Oregon
Graduate Research Fellow (National Science Foundation), President’s Volunteer Service Award, Bronze
First generation graduate student
Like most entomologists, I consider myself quite the goofball. But hopefully, a good-natured one! When I’m not in the lab or netting bees in an orchard, I am a cardio fiend. I love to kickbox, run, and I even tried step aerobics this semester. I’m also a hopeless nerd; I play tabletop and role-playing games, I can recite nearly every line in Lord of the Rings, and I enjoy logic puzzles. I have a pet cat who is trained in agility and two tarantulas.
I am most inspired by how pollination connects biology and society. Pollination services bring an incredible diversity of stakeholders to the table: beekeepers, farmers, ranchers, conservationists, pest managers, and the general public (anyone who likes to eat!) can all rally under the banner of improving farms and gardens for bees.
There are many agricultural issues on which stakeholders are divided and many places where compromises need to be made. However, pollinator conservation can be a win for everyone involved. Collaboration on these issues will result in a better solution for bees and the humans who depend on them. I love the challenge of tackling ecological issues which directly impact society and translating my work so that it can be understood by people from any walk of life.
I chose to pursue my PhD in Horticulture with a focus in Entomology because I find insects infinitely fascinating and because I value their impact on food production. Although I work directly with bees, I love all things creepy-crawly. Insects are all around us, all the time. On any city walk or an afternoon in your garden, you can find dozens of insect species without even trying! I am inspired to work with an animal group which always gives us more to discover.
Insects are the most diverse animal taxa ever in existence; by counts of number of individuals, number of species, and biomass…this earth really belongs to them. The sheer diversity of their life histories, ecology, and evolution is staggering. Yet, we hardly ever spare a thought for them unless they are in our way. Understanding insect agroecology is exciting to me because it is a multifaceted issue.
Sadly, insects are also under threat from a myriad of pressures: Habitat loss, pollution (including pesticides), disease, and global climate change threaten to destabilize these organisms which are the foundation of nearly every terrestrial food web. I chose to major in entomology because I want to be part of the solution, balancing natural ecosystems and cultivated systems to conserve beneficial insects.
I had the opportunity in my undergraduate career (Gonzaga University, 2014) to intern at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration office in Seattle, Washington. This work was important to my professional development because it was the first time I got out of a lab and into the field. Ditching a lab coat for a pair of chest waders was quite the transition! Our crew monitored salmon populations in restored estuaries. We were up with the tide - usually 4:00 am or earlier - and netted fish in all weather. Even though it was cold, wet, and often stinky work, I discovered that I absolutely loved being in the field!
I find field work humbling. No matter how much you plan or how detailed your protocols are, some things will not work out the way you wanted! Being adaptable and modifying your work and expectations in real time is the most valuable lesson I learned working with NOAA that summer. It also taught me that a positive attitude and a good quality raincoat can make data collection in any weather pleasant!
I want to be a part of the solution to global climate change and, more specifically, addressing the loss of global insect biodiversity. After graduating, my goal is to work in a non-profit, government, or extension position helping landowners conserve beneficial insect populations on their properties.
My PhD training will help me build my skills as a researcher and investigator. My experiences in agriculture will allow me to translate these skills into meaningful change for land managers and stakeholders. Agricultural sciences is a compelling area of study because of its direct applicability to challenges of everyday life.
I knew that I wanted to go back to graduate school after finishing my undergraduate degree, but I had no idea what the process would look like or how to achieve that goal. It seemed like an insurmountable challenge to get back into academia after five years in the workforce, let alone to take that step without close role models who had earned graduate degrees and could share their experiences.
Regardless, I was determined to try; I started by talking to as many people as I could. I started asking people with jobs that I found interesting how they reached their position. Any time I found myself in a room with someone who’s work inspired me, I asked for their advice on how to take the next step in my career path. I found that these experts were not only happy to answer my questions, but also often excited to hear that their work was impacting young professionals. This process gave me a robust prospective on how to start doing the work that mattered most to me and I got to meet some interesting, passionate people in the meantime!
I found out that I would need to take the GRE, find advisors that inspired me, and apply to their programs. At the time, I was bus-commuting to work; so, I printed scientific articles about pollinator conservation at the public library and read them on my commute. I called up my undergraduate professors to hear about their experiences with graduate school and what they thought made a good application. Through this effort, I found several labs doing work I found compelling. I was lucky enough to secure a position here at OSU and I couldn’t imagine a better place to be.
Overall, these experiences taught me never to be shy in asking for help and using the resources available. I’m also very grateful because I would not be here without cumulative hours of conversation with generous strangers. I hope someday that I’ll be in a position to give someone else a hand up when I graduate!
A key turning point in my life was the two years I spent in the Washington Conservation Corps. I served two terms: first as a riparian restoration technician and next as an education specialist.
These opportunities exposed me to work in the public sector and inspired me to use whatever talents I had to help my community. I felt a rush going to work each day, knowing that my sweat was keeping our public lands free of weeds or helping educate landowners about natural resources. I feel pulled toward community service and I hope one day that I’ll be able to apply my insect conservation skills towards a public good.
Don’t let fear hold you back!
I got this advice from a crew supervisor when I was considering taking a restoration opportunity which meant a week-long camping trip in a remote area of eastern Washington. I wanted to volunteer for the opportunity, but I had never taken on a physical challenge of such caliber and I was intimidated. My supervisor told me that if fear of failure was the main thing holding me back, I should at least give it a try! I ended up going on the trip and it was a wonderful experience!
We all have to say no to certain opportunities. It’s a delicate balance to both protect one’s limited mental and physical resources and still challenge oneself to try new things. However, I don’t want a fear of failure to prevent me from attempting the things that interest me. Now, whenever I hesitate over taking an opportunity, I ask myself if fear is making me hesitate. At least, if I have to say no, I know I’m saying it for the right reasons. I believe that trying and failing is better than never attempting at all.
Overall, I am incredibly grateful for the opportunity to do what I love!
Although science can sometimes feel like a lonely pursuit; executing any experiment is not possible without the support of a whole team of people. I wouldn’t be able succeed without the support of my advisors and lab mates. In ecology, organizing a team and working collaboratively with others can be just as important as having great ideas.
So, I want to say thank you to all the people who support me in this role, including my incredibly patient friends and family.