What made you choose UC Davis?
I am thrilled to be at UC Davis! The entomology department at Davis is ranked as the top in the U.S., and among the best in the world. In addition, the entomology department and the veterinary school have a very strong history of research on the biology of insect vectors of human disease as well as an array of top-notch faculty. I am looking forward to taking inspiration from and working in collaboration with them. Another important aspect of UC Davis is the culture of civility, diversity, inclusion and collaboration that permeates the campus. It is something that connects with me on a personal level and I feel is an essential component of good science and education as a whole.
What inspires you?
I have always been fascinated by nature and the ways in which life on earth has developed to survive and thrive in the varied and sometimes extreme niches in our environment. Specifically, I enjoy puzzling out how things work and seeing the different ways in which evolution has shaped the biology of organisms to solve problems. I get a particular satisfaction from understanding the molecular and genetic aspects of these biological adaptations and seeing how these small-scale mechanisms impact the larger scale aspects of physiology and behavior. Insects are ideal subjects for this type of work as they are incredibly diverse and can be found almost everywhere on the planet. Studying the physiology and molecular biology of insect disease vectors allows me to satisfy my innate curiosity and at the same time use the associated findings to help improve human health and well-being.
What research are you currently working on? What makes it unique?
My current research focuses on understanding various aspects of the reproductive biology, molecular biology and genetics of the tsetse fly. These are flies that live exclusively in sub-Saharan Africa and are solely responsible for the transmission of African sleeping sickness (human African trypanosomiasis). These diseases are caused by infection with single celled eukaryotic organisms called Trypanosomes. If left untreated this disease is fatal. One of the primary means of control is by reducing the populations of these flies. I study the reproduction of these flies to contribute to the development of novel population control strategies. Tsetse fly reproduction is very unusual in comparison with that of most insects. These flies give birth to live offspring and produce milk to nourish these offspring. In addition, reproduction in these flies is dependent on their obligate relationship with a bacterial symbiont. Without the bacteria, the flies lose their ability to maintain their offspring. Studying tsetse flies not only provides the chance to perform research of medical importance, but it also provides the opportunity to understand the molecular biology and genetics underlying a unique reproductive adaptation.
If you could impart one piece of advice to our undergraduates seeking a course of study/career path, what would it be?
While each person’s motivations and path are different, I think it is important to incorporate your passions into your career, but don’t necessarily let them limit your potential career opportunities. As a child I was fascinated with biology and in particular insects. I used that interest to motivate my choice of majoring in entomology as an undergraduate. During my undergraduate coursework I also found I had a passion for molecular biology, biochemistry and genetics. I think it’s important to follow your passions, and at the same time it is important to be pragmatic. You may have to make compromises in your career choices, and it can be rare to find what you envision as a your “dream job.” There are many jobs/career paths out there that in reality end up being just as good if not better than what you had envisioned. My feeling is that the best thing you can do is build a skill set based around your passions and then apply those skills (and your associated passions) to a job where they are in demand.
When not in the classroom or conducting research, what do you like to do?
I have a number of hobbies that I enjoy. When I can, I try to incorporate them into my work. I love to be able to express myself artistically, and I usually use digital media as my canvas. The great thing about this hobby is that it allows me to augment my research and teaching with art and graphical illustrations of scientific concepts or molecular mechanisms. I primarily work in Adobe Illustrator and Photoshop. I have also recently been learning how to 3-D model using a program called Maya. Another passion of mine is photography of all kinds; however I tend to focus on macro photography of insects and other arthropods. It is a hobby that can be done almost anywhere and results in images that highlight the amazing details of the animals that surround us that we cannot normally see or that we take for granted as boring or mundane. When I really want to take a break I also enjoy movies and computer games..
Have you found your favorite spot on campus yet?
While I haven’t had too much time to explore all the nooks and crannies of the campus yet, I do enjoy sitting outside the coffee shop across from Briggs Hall to enjoy a coffee and snack. It’s a nice place to sit with colleagues to talk about science or to sit quietly alone and contemplate my research.
If you could have one superpower, what would it be and why?
I think I would like to have the ability to breathe underwater. Another passion of mine, which I have not had the time to pursue for many years, is scuba diving. There is something very peaceful about being underwater. It is fascinating to see all the diverse forms of life that live under the water. To be able to explore that environment without having to put on equipment would be amazing!