University of South Carolina

Studying insects at USC: from ‘Ewww...’ to ‘Oooh!’

By Steven Powell, spowell2@mailbox.sc.edu, 803-777-1923

De Anna Beasley’s scientific odyssey has led to a much more relaxed relationship with what some people derisively refer to as “bugs.” The recent recipient of a doctoral degree in biology is now more than pleased to take some of the most fright-inducing insects on the planet and show them off – in the palm of her hand.

It wasn’t always like that.

In one University of South Carolina research laboratory where she works, the centerpiece of the room is a terrarium filled with dozens of giant Madagascar cockroaches. The 3-inch-long insects, which hiss defensively (albeit harmlessly) when touched, inspired a certain unease at first.

“My first couple of months here, I was afraid to touch them,” Beasley said. “I used to hug the walls whenever I had to walk by the cockroaches.”

But studying cicadas, grasshoppers and their ilk at USC led Beasley to overcome any insect-related phobias she carried into her graduate studies. The denizens of the cockroach display, which was the subject of one of the earliest live animal cams on the internet (and remains live to this day, link here), have been under her care for several years now (see a Vine video clip here).

“I’ve come to really appreciate what we can learn from insects. They can tell us quite a bit about shifts in environmental conditions,” Beasley said. “That’s what I’m hoping to explore in my post-doc, to expand looking at other ways we can explore how insects interact with their environment and what that can tell us about how we’re interacting with our environment.”

Science has always been a focus in Beasley’s life, but how she pursues that passion has been the subject of years of evolution. Being a physician was her original goal, so as an undergraduate at Wofford College, she was a pre-med major – until her senior year.

“I remember I was sitting in an anatomy class in the spring of that year, and this thought came over me: ‘I don’t want to go to medical school,’ which was terrifying at that age,” Beasley said. “I was focused for so long on this one goal, and to have that realization that it wasn’t for me was a little scary.”

After graduation, she took classes at the University of Central Florida, dabbling in sociology and anthropology. The she worked for a year as a high school science teacher.

Each step of the way, Beasley sought to continue working in science, but with an outlet that worked for her. In the end, it was graduate school, and a career in academic research, that appealed to her.

“It’s really simple, I did what I’m doing in looking for post-docs right now,” Beasley said. “I went to professor’s webpages, looked at their research, looked for what I thought was interesting. That’s how I found Dr. Mousseau’s research about the ecological consequences of radiation contamination in Chernobyl, and I thought that was really fascinating.”

Given her interest in Tim Mousseau’s research at USC, Beasley contacted the department of biological sciences in USC's College of Arts and Sciences, which arranged for her to meet with a number of potential doctoral student advisers at the university.

“In the end, I decided to work in Dr. Mousseau’s lab because it was asking those big ecological questions, with long-term implications across the board,” she said. The fact that the research has clear utility, particularly for understanding how humans influence the environment, was something of a revelation to Beasley.

“I saw it as an opportunity to use science in a different way, different from the way I thought of it as a pre-med,” she said. “I see this in some of the students here at USC – when they think of science, they think of medical or veterinary school, the professional schools. I never really considered research as an option.”

Dea Anna Beasley with cicada branchNow she is co-author on several research papers in the peer-reviewed literature, on topics ranging from the use of crowd-sourcing to gather scientific data in studying cicadas (link here) to the influence of radiation on the offspring of grasshoppers (link here). And with the research resumé she built at USC, Beasley is able to be rather selective in deciding where to move on for a post-doctoral position.

“There are a couple of places where I’m really excited about the projects, but it’s just a question of making sure it’s a good fit,” she said. “I’ve been really pleased about the opportunities that are available to me.”

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Posted: 04/29/13 @ 10:20 PM | Updated: 05/01/13 @ 8:41 AM | Permalink