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Friday, February 01, 2013

Walking Stick Mysteries

UC Davis Ph.D. candidate in entomology Matan Shelomi tells us why, when it comes to stick bug research, you should go with your gut. Mbr<The Wild World of Insect Digestion

Reflections from Matan Shelomi, Ph.D. Candidate in Entomology at UC Davis

I have been interested in insects for as far back as I can remember. I can't explain why - they're just awesome. So much variety, so many shapes and forms and adaptations. And you don't need to fill out any paperwork when you study them! I knew I wanted to be a scientist since kindergarten, and when I learned that an insect scientist is called an "entomologist" in third grade, I committed the word to memory. It's actually been very convenient to have such a strong passion; it made choosing my major and classes in college much easier, and now I have the pleasure of saying "Yes, I have achieved my childhood dream."

I am originally from New York, did my undergrad at Harvard, and am now at UC Davis for the Ph.D. in Entomology. As much as I loved insects, at first I didn't have a more specific passion that that, and actually got rejected from most of the grad programs I applied to because I couldn't fake enthusiasm for any of their research projects. Whoops. I never even met my current adviser until I got to Davis, but was genuinely interested in the bioprospecting and biodiversity project she was working on in collaboration with Indonesian scientists (free trip to Indonesia, wooo!). Our lab is the Bohart Museum of Entomology (http://bohart.ucdavis.edu/), and we have a collection of live insects and arachnids as a petting zoo for visitors. Among these there are about 6-7 species of walking stick (Phasmatodea), which make great pets. As we have so many and so few people study them, I figured they would make a convenient study organism with a low chance of me being scooped. That's the wrong reason to pick a graduate project, but it worked for me.

My work started as trying to find microbial symbionts in the walking sticks that help them break down cellulose and/or toxic compounds in their food. I also tried looking for the enzymes directly. I should mention that my adviser is a wasp systematist and that my research has nothing to do with anything anyone in the lab is studying, so I've been mostly on my own on this one, seeking collaborators around campus and the globe (free trip to Japan and Taiwan... wooo Wooo!). While trying to use microscopes to look for endosymbiotic microbes, I first noticed the appendices of the midgut. Nobody on campus knew what they were, and the literature wasn't much more helpful, which made me all the more excited. Here was a genuine mystery - a question with no answer - that I could really sink my teeth into. It also helped me figure out that my passions lie in insect physiology, so now I know how to market myself as I look for postgrad jobs and professorships.

The moral of the story is to follow your heart, and everything will work out in the end.