Riverside Insect Fair: Kids Love Coloring

The 3rd Annual Riverside Insect Fair was held last Saturday, April 29, 2017, 10am-4pm in downtown Riverside. This free community event is a collaboration between the Entomology Graduate Student Association at UC Riverside and the Riverside Metropolitan Museum.

This year I hosted my own educational booth at the event – an Invasive Insect Species Coloring Table! I created coloring pages featuring invasive and pestiferous insects, and my friend & colleague Tessa Shates contributed a few too! I’m quite pleased to say that coloring was a popular activity, and these coloring pages were a fun way to introduce children (and their parents!) to locally important invasive insects, and the field of invasion biology.

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All of the coloring pages that Tessa Shates and I created are available for personal and educational use for free here.

A Natural History of Undergraduate Entomology

Teaching Entomology to undergraduate students is a special experience at UC Riverside – this university is rooted in the study of insects! This fall, I taught discussion sections of the non-majors introductory “Natural History of Insects” with my colleagues Kelsey Schall and Dr. John Trumble. Kelsey and I crafted our course plans with the aim of inspiring our students to overcome their fears of insects and to develop an appreciation for insects in the world around them.

Goal 1: Challenge entomophobia


A student’s leg with a visiting praying mantis!

A size-able proportion of the general population, including students enrolled in this course, are freaked out by insects. Accordingly, the first activity of the course was to present all students with the opportunity to touch and hold live insects. Praying mantids, stick insects, and desert stink beetles were passed around class, and nearly every student touched at least one insect! Success!

Goal 2: Awareness of local insect issues

We took students on a walk to the UCR Bio-control Orange Groves for a history lesson and hands-on participation in invasive species management! Before UCR was a university, the entire region was blanketed in citrus orchards as far as the eye could see. In support of this booming industry, California established the Citrus Experiment Station to conduct agricultural research – on new citrus varieties, fertilization, pests, diseases, pollinators, and pesticides. Eventually the Citrus Experiment Station gave rise to the University of California in Riverside, where the Entomology department continues the legacy of citrus research.

Today, one major research focus is the Asian Citrus Psyllid, Diaphorina citri, an invasive insect herbivore that attacks citrus trees. Asian Citrus Psyllid vectors a bacterial plant pathogen, which causes Huanglongbing, an incurable disease in citrus. At the UCR Bio-control Orange Groves, students inspected trees for insect pests and released an insect biocontrol agent, the parasitoid wasp Tamarixia radiata. The teeny tiny wasps lay eggs inside the Asian Citrus Psyllid – as the eggs develop, the psyllid dies and it’s carcass acts as a “mummy” shelter for the maturing wasps.

Goal 3: Bee-come an Insect

We ended the quarter with a buzz by taking students outside to practice their honeybee waggle dance. Honeybees use the waggle dance to tell one another about great food resources (flowers full of pollen and nectar!) nearby the hive. They waggle their abdomens side to side as they move forward in a straight line. The direction and angle of their dance relative to vertical is used to convey the direction of the food patch relative to the position of the sun. Students took turns dancing to communicate the location of various “flowers” with one another.

Bonus: Websites are my favorite assignment

Last summer, I discovered that assigning a website project is a GREAT IDEA. Naturally, I brought it back for this class – students found an insect, took selfies with it, and then created an informative website all about what they found! Reviewing nearly 160 websites was not only way better than grading papers, it was also entertaining to see my students demonstrate how much they had learned in such creative ways!


Active Teaching: Ecology in 5 weeks! (or, How to turn future Doctors of America to the dark side…)

Ecology & Conservation Biology discussion in action: groups of 4 students each worked together to solve iterative equations and make predictions about their populations.

Earlier this summer, I TA’ed Ecology & Conservation Biology bi-weekly discussions, an upper division course for Biology majors, in the accelerated summer session. Five week summer courses are great: intense, fast-paced, and immersive. I was excited to implement, for the first time, recently acquired active learning approaches in my efforts to engage a class of predominantly pre-medical students with the subjects I myself am passionate about. Teaching pre-medical undergraduates is a familiar challenge at UC Riverside – fellow ecologists, evolutionary biologists, geneticists & physiologists joke about turning students to the dark side, i.e. not pre-med. Here I describe the active learning strategies I used each week- (spoiler alert): scroll to the bottom for my biggest success!

Week 1: Remember & Recognize

After 4 lectures (reminder: 5 week classes are INTENSE!), students had learned how abiotic variation creates environmental diversity globally. So we headed to the UC Riverside Botanic Gardens to find plants representative of dominant biomes around the world. Students explored the gardens, photographed representative plants, and submitted their photos to the Riverside NatureSpotter app for local citizen science. Each observation is stored on iNaturalist.org, with a description indicating the plant’s native biome.


Week 2: Interpret & Solve

No ecology course is complete without math; Lotka-Volterra equations are integral to population ecology (pun!). In groups, each student assumed a group role from the POGIL (Process-Oriented Guided Inquiry Learning) model to calculate changes in population size through time, and to predict the outcome of competition between two species. Also, everyone was quite happy to stay indoors during the record-breaking heat wave!

Week 3: Defend & Infer

After completing roughly half of the course, students applied their ecological knowledge in a class-wide debate, arguing for and against a series of 8 Ecological Maxims, listed below. Each student came to class prepared to argue both sides for every maxim, and students were then randomly selected on the spot to present their arguments. This class-wide debate also served as an interactive review session for the next day’s midterm: students used course material and examples from lecture to support their arguments.

8 Ecological Maxims –

  1. You can never do just one thing
  2. Everything goes somewhere
  3. No population can increase in size forever
  4. There is no free lunch
  5. Evolution matters
  6. Time matters
  7. Space matters
  8. Life would be impossible without species interactions

Following the midterm, students paired up to apply their ecological knowledge to one of my favorite subjects: invasive species! Each pair made inferences about how & why some species become invasive, & whether more diverse habitats more or less susceptible to invasion.

Invasive species ecology figures from: Shea, K., Chesson, P. 2002. Community ecology theory as a framework for biological invasions. Trends in Ecology and Evolution 17, 170-176.

Week 4: Be an ecologist & Meet a conservation biologist!

As Pokémon Go took the world by storm, students practiced catching real-life critters for Team Citizen Science! Students set out pecan sandie cookie traps around UC Riverside campus for the School of Ants project. Most samples were dominated by invasive Argentine Ants, Linepithema humile, but most students also caught Pikachu! Win win!

Bagged samples of field-collected ants for the School of Ants citizen science project.

Bagged samples of field-collected ants for the School of Ants citizen science project.

After trying on the role of ecologist for a day, several real-life ecologists & conservation biologists visited class for a personalized Career Day. Each shared their job description, career back-story, lots of advice, encouragement, & hard-won wisdom.

Career Day Panelists:

Steven Su: Scientific Programs Director at West Valley Mosquito & Vector Control District, tsu@wvmvcd.org

Molly Peters: Biologist at Edith Read & Associates supporting Southern California Edison, molly.peters@sce.com

Grace Hartt: Seasonal Assistant at Orange County Mosquito & Vector Control District, grace.hartt03@gmail.com

Aaron Echols: Field Ecologist at Inland Empire Resource Conservation District, aechols@iercd.org

Korie Merrill: Supervisory Biologist at Center for Environmental Management of Military Lands, koriecm@gmail.com

Nicole Stutzman: Land Steward at Riverside Lands Conservancy, nicole@riversidelandconservancy.org

Week 5: Critique & Create

In that last home stretch just before summer-time freedom, students presented their final projects –

  1. An independent critique of a media story related to ecology and/or conservation biology;
  2. A group website of their own design, presenting a management plan of their own creation for a southern California endangered or invasive species.

Brown-headed Cowbird  California Condor  Humpback Whale

San Joaquin Kit Fox  Zebra Mussel  Green Sea Turtle

These are amazing – in just 1 month, students applied their classroom knowledge to a real-world problem, integrating textbook concepts with independent research – then presented cohesive, carefully constructed management plans, in visually pleasing websites! Watching my students present their work filled me with pride in them; learning that most actually enjoyed the process of creating their websites and recommended I implement this assignment into future classes… left me feeling pride in myself. I had achieved something remarkable – I created an opportunity for learning to become fun and to feel useful. And hey, let’s hope I may have even turned a few to dark side!

Writing along the Scientific Method (A message to aspiring scientists!)

Scientists write. A lot.

That’s the message that my colleague Amelia Lindsey and I shared yesterday with UC Riverside undergraduates nearly finished with their English course requirements.

We visited students in Liz Gumm‘s Applied Intermediate Composition course on the penultimate class of the quarter with a (hopefully) exciting and (definitely) enthusiastic lesson: “The writing never stops! You will continue to communicate with others, and it is important to do it well!”

Intrigued? I hope so! Check out our visual aids here.

Riverside Insect Fair: Insects are food, science, art and FUN!

The Second Annual Riverside Insect Fair was this past Saturday, April 30, 2016! This event, co-organized by the UC Riverside Entomology Graduate Student Association and the Riverside Metropolitan Museum, brought together scientists, artists, chefs, educators, conservationists to inspire the local community with the diverse and wondrous world of insects! Early morning rain subsided just before the Insect Fair got started, and the day was a wonderful success!

The Insect Fair had it all: vendors selling insect pets like millipedes and tarantulas, a tie-dye station with ground-up cochineal scale insects used to create pink dye, educational and informational booths from UC Riverside Entomology graduate students  with live & preserved insects & awesome displays of close-up pictures, a Bug Chef demonstrating techniques and recipes for fine insect cuisine, zookeepers from the San Diego Zoo and their animal friends, a fantastic line-up of family-friendly educational presentations, the always-popular Riverside Metropolitan Museum Nature Lab, the Northwest Mosquito and Vector Control District brought their hoverboat, the California Department of Food & Agriculture shared how to protect our city’s iconic citrus trees from invasive pests, and the UC Riverside Entomology Outreach Program brought lots of friendly insects to pet and hold!

The expansive world of insects and entomology was on full display all day, take a look at the highlights here:


Insects as food

Insects as art

Insects as fashion

Insects in science

Insects in nature

Insects as pets

Insects on household pets

Insects around our homes

Invasive insects


What a great day! A huge thank you to everyone who made the Riverside Insect Fair possible through donations, participation, and volunteered time! The second Riverside Insect Fair was a huge success, and I can’t wait to do it again next year! See you there!

On regret and loss in graduate school.

When I entered the Entomology Ph.D. program at UC Riverside in 2012, I signed up for the Graduate Student Mentorship Program, a program designed to provide support and encouragement to new graduate students during that intense first year. I was paired up with a mentor, an advanced graduate student, to facilitate my transition into graduate school. We met regularly over meals and coffee breaks and discussed the various “how-to’s” of graduate school: how to manage time for research and classes and life, how to optimally plan the chapters of a dissertation, how to maintain positive relationships with faculty and with lab-mates, how to successfully apply for grants, how to prepare for qualifying exams and choose the best committee, how to make the most of attending a conference. My mentor’s job throughout my entire first year of graduate school was to make sure I was doing okay, that I was adjusting well to the expectations and demands of the Ph.D. program, that I was on track to succeed, and that I felt supported by my academic community.

That first year seemingly flew by. I acclimated to the program, I did well in my classes, I was awarded a great fellowship, and I tried out a lot of research ideas (most of them fizzled, but that was okay), I made several friends, and I got married. Meetings with my mentor were a regular occurrence, and as I look back now, I am ashamed to say that I took them for granted. I was bright-eyed, bushy-tailed, and I had an entitled sense that I was important to science. I would not have admitted it at the time, but my ego swelled with self-importance: I had been admitted to join the ranks of the upper echelons of intellectualism; I was on track to have a Ph.D., to make important contributions to science, to discover something novel. Despite my obnoxious demeanor, my mentor never said an unkind thing to me. He offered positivity and encouragement, he took interest in my ideas and generously supported a confidence that perhaps he knew would waver as graduate school wore on.

And it did. My second year was filled with the anxiety of producing: getting experiments going after several failed attempts, collecting and analyzing as much data as possible, applying for grants. I spent untold hours preparing a research proposal that would satisfy five distinct faculty members into believing my ideas were good enough, all in the endeavor to be as prepared for my qualifying exams as I could be. The work progressed, data accumulated, and my research plans grew far beyond what was reasonable until a year-end meeting with my committee members deflated those ideas and brought me back down to Earth. My dog died, at home with my husband and I, following a heart-breaking month-long fade that left us devastated and our home empty.

My third year began with dread and a nauseating anxiety, followed by an exhausted relief as qualifying exams came and went with only a few tears, some humiliation and rattled nerves. The work progressed, data accumulated, I started analyzing complete datasets, started writing manuscripts instead of proposals. My grandfather died, Alzheimer’s delivered unto him a precipitous decline following years of slow degeneration. The year ended watching so many friends, colleagues, and my sister move away from southern California as I jealously stayed behind. I adopted a new puppy.

Year four began with a pipe dream of finishing early for a job that I was not offered. The work progressed, data accumulated, and I continue data analysis and writing. Halfway through the year, I learned that my mentor had passed away. He had given away everything he owned, cancelled his cell phone, and erased his online presence. He removed himself from all means of communication and wandered away, alone.

Following that first year, I would occasionally pass him walking through campus, we had mutual friends, we’d occasionally attend the same parties. After a year of regularly meeting up a few times a month, we mostly fell out of touch. Through mutual friends, I heard about how things didn’t seem to be going well for him. At nearly the very end of his own Ph.D., he had been offered a post-doctoral position, but then something happened and everything seemed to fall away. He moved out of his apartment and gave away most of his possessions. I accepted a foosball table and didn’t ask questions. I invited him to our Halloween party and didn’t ask where he was headed, both literally and figuratively.

This inaction, this failure to show compassion or concern, this willful ignorance – this is one of the deepest regrets I hold in my heart. I feel that I squandered an opportunity to return the generosity that he paid to me, to offer support and encouragement, to show kindness during an intense and difficult period. As I’ve grown from the exasperating newbie into an exasperated Ph.D. candidate, I’ve come to appreciate the extreme psychological stress of enduring graduate school, of finishing the Ph.D., of finding a job afterward – particularly if the job desired is an academic one. I’ve watched those who came before me traverse this path, watched them lose sleep, fall into depression, gain weight and gray hairs. Some lose friends and relationships to their stress and mood swings. Others manage, and are lucky enough to have understanding and sympathetic supporters.

I feel I should have known better, I should have been struck by what I knew; I should not have stood idly by. This regret stands in stark contrast to the view I hold of myself as a good person, it reflects an image of indifference and disregard that eats at me.

1.8 Million Acres of California Desert

On February 12, 2016, President Barack Obama established three new national monuments in the California Desert: Castle Mountains, Sand to Snow, and Mojave Trails.

National Monuments

Map indicating the respective locations of the three new national monuments: Castle Mountains, Sand to Snow, and Mojave Trails relative to existing protected lands.

Together, these three national monuments encompass 1.8 million acres of California desert land, newly protected from development. This is a huge victory for deserts and desert enthusiasts (like myself!) and enhances the quality of existing protected lands by protecting the continuity important wildlife corridors.

Castle Mountain.jpg

In red: approximate boundaries of the new Castle Mountains National Monument. Source: biologicaldiversity.org

Castle Mountains National Monument effectively “plugs a hole” by protecting land surrounded on three sides by the existing Mojave National Preserve. Larger contiguous protected areas are critical for safe wildlife movement, and for preserving wildlife access to critical life resources (food, water, refuge from predators, and safe places to mate and raise young).

Mojave Trails

In dark green: location of the new Mojave Trails National Monument relative to existing protected lands.

Mojave Trails National Monument, similarly, “plugs” many holes in land adjacent to the Mojave National Preserve, Joshua Tree National Park, and several protected Wilderness Areas. This expands the spatial extent of protected land and improves continuity among wild habitats.

Sand to Snow.jpg

In green: The new Sand to Snow National Monument.

Sand to Snow National Monument extends from the San Bernardino Mountains in the west across Morongo Valley, nearly all the way to Joshua Tree National Park. This newly protected land comprises many strikingly different habitats in close proximity – snow-capped mountains, aeolian sand dunes, riparian oases, and the ecologically magnificent transition between the high elevation Mojave and low elevation Colorado Deserts. This is my favorite of the 3 new national monuments, simply for the diversity of ecotones (the transition and blending region between two habitat types) contained within this single land area. It’s also pretty close to a field site I’ve used extensively in my dissertation research, the Oasis de Los Osos UC Natural Reserve (also an ecotone site!).

When this historic exciting announcement was delivered by the White House, it was accompanied by a beautiful “In Photos” article on whitehouse.gov, highlighting the stunning aethetics of these natural landscapes. I’m a little ashamed to admit that despite the enormous environmental victory represented in these pictures, my heart sank a bit when I scrolled to find the second picture of sand dunes dotted by an invasive plant, Salsola tragus, also known as Russian thistle.


The offending photograph of a site within Mojave Trails National Monument, from whitehouse.gov. Each yellow-y plant in the foreground of sand dune is an invasive Russian thistle plant (Salsola tragus).

Russian thistle, Salsola tragus, has been present in California’s desert a long, long time. Tumbleweeds blowing across a dusty landscape are an iconic symbol of the California desert, despite not actually being from here. So it shouldn’t be surprising that they make it into a high-profile desert photo-shoot. And their presence in these photos may actually serve a higher environmental good, inspiring feelings of environmental responsibility in the masses, and instigating greater resource allocation to invasive species control and management in sensitive habitats. Such that, perhaps, when these national monuments follow the Joshua Tree path to National Park-dom, invasive plants will be a less prominent blight on the vast landscape.

One can hope…

Invasive Plants Threaten Our Bees!

Hysteria over disappearing bees is widespread: declines in domesticated and wild insect pollinator populations have been documented worldwide. Insect pollinators, particularly bees, are responsible for the vast majority of plant pollination services in wild landscapes and agricultural systems. Without effective and sufficient pollination, the persistence of native plants and various fruit and vegetable crops is in jeopardy. The suspected drivers of pollinator decline include habitat loss, habitat fragmentation, agrochemicals (e.g. pesticides and fertilizers), invasive species, emerging pathogens, and climate change. Herein, the threats posed to insect pollinators by invasive plants are explored.

Invasive species are those transported to novel habitats, often across great distances, which demonstrate negative impacts on recipient communities. Invasive plants often dominate vast contiguous areas of land, in effect generating a form of habitat loss or fragmentation. This feature of invasive plant ‘behavior’ has severe consequences for native insect pollinators and their access to food. Bees and other insect pollinators feed on nectar and pollen harvested from flowers. Invasive plants with large, showy and rewarding flowers are often very attractive to bees – they tend to draw in more species, and more individual pollinators than neighboring native plant species. At first glance, it might appear that invasive plants are in some way “better” than their native competitors – the invasive plants are associated with greater insect diversity and abundance. However, closer inspection reveals quite the opposite story. Invasive plants tend to reduce the number of pollinator species and the abundance of pollinators in a landscape, and they also reduce the number of pollinator visits that native plants receive.

How and why does this happen? What is it about invasive plant that is so destructive to native insect pollinator communities? Scientists are still figuring this out, and there is a lot of work left to be done, but here’s a bit of what we know so far:

Invasive plants are visited a lot by native pollinators, especially by native generalist pollinators who visit many species and types of flowers. This weakens the relationships between generalist pollinators and native plants. When invasive plants are present, neighboring native plants generally receive fewer pollinator visits, and are thus less likely to be pollinated! In addition, the pollen transported by visiting pollinators is overwhelmingly that of the invasive plant, native plants can’t use this to create their own seeds, and it may even be harmful to early seed production. This double-whammy leaves native plants with reduced reproductive success: they produce fewer fruits and fewer seeds. These circumstances present a dismal prognosis for the native plant community: the few flowers present produce few seeds, so fewer native plants grow the following year. As this continues season after season, the native plants might disappear altogether, becoming locally extinct. Clearly, this is a threat to the native plant community; it also has cascading consequences for entire communities of native pollinators. Along with the generalist pollinators already described, many types of wild bees and other insects are specialist pollinators that rely on specific native plant species for their survival. When those native plant species are difficult to find, or even non-existent, specialist pollinators are faced with starvation.

The scenario described above is bleak. Likewise, there are a lot more ways that ecologists know invasive plants could be harming native pollinator communities, they just haven’t been investigated thoroughly yet. Ecologists around the world are working to understand how invasive plants affect pollinators, and how to mitigate negative impacts to support biodiversity conservation, agricultural productivity and ecosystem stability. This research inspires hope for the future of bees and other insect pollinators, as well as all our favorite insect-pollinated foods.


A List of Some Important References

Bartomeus I, Vila M, Santamaria L. 2008. Contrasting effects of invasive plants in plant-pollinator networks. Oecologia 155:761–770.

Brown BJ, Mitchell RJ, Graham SA. 2002. Competition for pollination between an invasive species (Purple Loosestrife) and a native congener. Ecology 83:2328–2336.

Brown BJ, Mitchell RJ. 2001. Competition for pollination: Effects of pollen of an invasive plant on seed set of a native congener. Oecologia 129:43–49.

Chittka L, Schürkens S. 2001. Successful invasion of a floral market. Nature 411:653.

Dietzsch AC, Stanley DA, Stout JC. 2011. Relative abundance of an invasive alien plant affects native pollination processes. Oecologia 167:469–479.

Hanula JL, Horn S. 2011. Removing an invasive shrub (Chinese privet) increases native bee diversity and abundance in riparian forests of the southeastern United States. Insect Conserv. Divers. 4:275–283.

Kearns C a., Inouye DW, Waser NM. 1998. Endangered mutualisms: The conservation of plant-pollinator interactions. Annu. Rev. Ecol. Syst.:83–112.

Lopezaraiza-Mikel ME, Hayes RB, Whalley MR, Memmott J. 2007. The impact of an alien plant on a native plant-pollinator network: an experimental approach. Ecol. Lett. 10:539–50.

Montero-Castaño A, Vilà M. 2012. Impact of landscape alteration and invasions on pollinators: A meta-analysis. J. Ecol. 100:884–893.

Morales CL, Traveset A. 2009. A meta-analysis of impacts of alien vs. native plants on pollinator visitation and reproductive success of co-flowering native plants. Ecol. Lett. 12:716–728.

Potts SG, Biesmeijer JC, Kremen C, Neumann P, Schweiger O, Kunin WE. 2010. Global pollinator declines: trends, impacts and drivers. Trends Ecol. Evol. 25:345–353.

Powell KI, Krakos KN, Knight TM. 2011. Comparing the reproductive success and pollination biology of an invasive plant to its rare and common native congeners: A case study in the genus Cirsium (Asteraceae). Biol. Invasions 13:905–917.

Pysek P, Jarosik V, Chytry M, Danihelka J, Kuhn I, Pergl J, Tichy L, Biesmeijer JC, Ellis WN, Kunin WE, et al. 2011. Successful invaders co-opt pollinators of native flora and accumulate insect pollinators with increasing residence time. Ecol. Monogr. 81:277–293.

Schweiger O, Biesmeijer JC, Bommarco R, Hickler T, Hulme PE, Klotz S, Kühn I, Moora M, Nielsen A, Ohlemüller R, et al. 2010. Multiple stressors on biotic interactions: How climate change and alien species interact to affect pollination. Biol. Rev. 85:777–795.

Stout JC, Morales CL. 2009. Ecological impacts of invasive alien species on bees. Apidologie 40:388–409.

Thijs KW, Brys R, Verboven H a F, Hermy M. 2012. The influence of an invasive plant species on the pollination success and reproductive output of three riparian plant species. Biol. Invasions 14:355–365.

Vanparys V, Meerts P, Jacquemart A-L. 2008. Plant–pollinator interactions: comparison between an invasive and a native congeneric species. Acta Oecologica 34:361–369.


Reflections on Aspirations

Earlier this week, I submitted an application to the Robert and Patricia Switzer Foundation for the 2016 Switzer Environmental Fellowship Network program. The application process included a personal statement on my personal history, and my goals for the future – in particular, how I have been and will be an effective leader, and how I will generate positive impacts on the environment. Writing this statement was…cathartic. Graduate school takes a long time to complete, and it’s easy to get lost in the minutia of failed experiments and unexpected obstacles, to forget the big accomplishments, and the small victories that accumulate over time. To forget what drove you to do this whole thing in the first place.

I’m posting a pared-down version of the statement I submitted here, not because of it’s quality (I’ll skip the criticism of my own writing and abusive self-talk for now), but because of how I felt writing it. Personal statements demand that you speak positively, and highly, of yourself. Effective statements tell your story, how and why you got to where you are. And after years of doing this over and over again, this statement feels like the first time I’ve gotten a glimpse of what my professional story is. And damn, that feels AWESOME.


Sarah O’Neill, Ph.D. Candidate.


Beyond my childhood pursuits to learn everything I could about animals and local ecosystems, in the eighth grade I began volunteering at a local animal hospital, soon afterward gaining part-time employment. My veterinary knowledge expanded as my tenure extended beyond high school and college; moreover, my communication skills flourished in ways I had never expected through vast experience with both clients and co-workers. Compassion and patience grew out of cumulative hours upon hours of client education, assisting with difficult decisions, resolving disputes, and sharing in the joy, fear, grief and loss experienced by my clients with their pets. My individual pedagogy arose from the gratification of guiding trainees through learning a new skill by doing it themselves, and the gratitude I received for the trust and respect I showed them. Honing my communication and pedagogical strategies early in my professional career has been pivotal; I have successfully applied them in new undertakings, forming a strong foundation for my career following graduate school.

In college, I fostered a community of like-minded student peers as the vice president of the Zoologists of Cal Poly Pomona club. I organized extra-curricular activities, coordinated volunteer efforts in local natural areas, and initiated a mentoring network with alumni and local environmental professionals through invited seminars and mini-workshops. My pedagogical style proved effective in this leadership position: delegating tasks in collaborative projects cultivated rapport, new students emulated the communication and networking strategies they observed in me, and club membership grew, with new recruits eager to take the reins of leadership in succeeding years.

Concomitantly, my undergraduate research examining the influence of environmental variability on avian species detections exposed me to the importance of ecological research for environmental management and policy decisions. Perhaps more critically, this work exposed me to the challenges of conveying scientific concepts and results to diverse and general audiences. My work revealed that surveys for rare and breeding birds in the threatened and rapidly disappearing California coastal sage scrub habitat are sensitive to changes in local weather conditions. I was faced with explaining to established professionals and ecological scientists that monitoring and management programs throughout California likely vary systematically in their efficacy, and would continue to do so without key procedural modifications. I met this challenge head-on, accepting several opportunities to present my work, and with each iteration, using audience feedback to refine my delivery. This culminated in a presentation at the Ecological Society of America just prior to enrolling in graduate school, where I employed my polished public speaking experience for an international community of ecologists and environmental scientists.

Over the dozens of hours I spent in the field on this project, I had become acutely aware of the dominance of exotic invasive plants throughout my field site and in wild landscapes all around my home. The bright yellow hillsides of southern California springtime comprised invasive mustard plants, choking out the poppies, lupines and other native annuals. This disturbing realization fueled my desire to pursue a graduate degree, where I planned to develop the skills to effect positive environmental change through improved prevention, control and management of invasive species. Naturally, as a Ph.D. candidate in Entomology at the University of California, Riverside, my dissertation research is focused on the direct and indirect impacts of those same notoriously invasive mustards, particularly through synergistic interactions with an invasive insect, Bagrada hilaris.

Beyond my own experiments to discover these species’ mechanisms of ecological destruction, I’ve mentored a total of nine undergraduate students in completing complementary research projects. Building upon the pedagogy I developed earlier, I have collaborated with each student and led them to directly engage with the scientific process through a “learn-by-doing” approach. My students begin with literature reviews and continue beyond the execution of research experiments through data analysis, presentation and manuscript drafting. Four of my students recently presented the results of their work to the general scientific community at an annual meeting of the Southern California Academy of Sciences. These efforts have encouraged my students’ innate appreciation for nature, but also cultivated that into a nuanced understanding of ecology and the complex effects of policy and management decisions. While the substantial investment I have made into mentorship may be atypical as a graduate student, it has produced drastic improvements in my own work. Continual refinement of the pedagogy I formed early on has supported my growth into an effective research mentor.

Beyond my current academic training, I intend to create a legacy of effective, compelling interactions between scientists and the general public through outreach and educational efforts (e.g. citizen science programs, BioBlitzes and other events). The well-documented disparity between science literacy in the general public and the comprehension required for issues like climate change has instigated priority shifts and major investments toward public outreach and science education. Improvements in public science literacy and comprehension of complex issues are absolutely vital to effective environmental action policies in the future. As I move forward in my career, I will be continuing the work I’ve already begun in mentorship of young scientists, utilizing communication and outreach tools to engage the public with science, and to engage professional scientists with the public.

Entomologists convene in Minneapolis, MN: I co-organized a symposium!

The annual conference of the Entomological Society of America (ESA) just wrapped up in Minneapolis, MN following four days of symposia, oral and poster presentations, keynote speeches, workshops, committee meetings, special breakfasts and lunches, social mixers and receptions, and so much mingling and networking! #entsoc15

I particularly look forward to this conference each year for the great diversity of people that attend – from academic, government, industry, non-profit organizations – and the resulting opportunities for networking! I met scientists from large and small, public and private universities, from government agencies like USDA and county-wide extension, and from the private sphere of corporations and advocacy groups. The ESA meeting is great for students at all stages for exploring future prospects and networking with potential collaborators and employers.



This year, I co-organized a member symposium with C. Scott Clem of Auburn University (Scott just defended his M.S. thesis, woohoo!) on Arthropod-Mediated Associational Effects Among Native & Non-Native Plants. Our symposium was held on Wednesday morning and was a fantastic success! We hosted eight presentations from student and professional scientists from around the globe. Check out our speakers below:


Scott Clem presented “Can interactions between native and non-native trees in urban landscapes influence herbivore abundance and diversity?”

I, Sarah O’Neill, presented “Invasive annual promotes spillover of invasive herbivore on to native perennial”


Doug Tallamy presented “The impact of non-native plants on insect herbivore alpha and beta diversity”


Matt Greenstone presented “Plant provenance and natural enemy diversity: Parasitoid and spider data from a residential-scale experiment”


Andrew Merwin presented “Resource density, resource frequency and herbivore density: Assembling associational effects from behavioral choices”


Andrea Litt presented “Influence of patch size and neighborhood composition on arthropod communities in the face of plant invasion”



Phil Hahn presented “Plant frequency generates associational effects by altering grasshopper foraging behavior”


Martijn Bezemer presented “Disentangling the aboveground and belowground associational effects of native plants on aboveground insects associated to ragwort”


Many sincere thanks to Scott Clem for co-organizing, and to all our speakers for their contributions. See you all next year!