As an undergraduate in agricultural sciences at the University of Puerto Rico – Mayaguez Campus, Marian Rodriguez-Soto enrolled in the Natural Resource Career Track (NRCT) program, which led her to two internships. The first, with a nonprofit organization that managed a butterfly sanctuary program, was her first experience with insects. “My job was to take care of the butterflies but also the people that visited,” she says. The second internship took her to a USDA lab in Beltsville, Maryland, where she studied the coffee berry borer and learned to do research. Rodriguez-Soto, who grew up in the small town of Maunabo on the southeastern coast of Puerto Rico, didn’t realize that entomology was even an academic option, but the combination of internship experiences convinced her to pursue a career in the field. Through the Summer Research Opportunities Program (SROP), a Big Ten Academic Alliance program to encourage underrepresented students to pursue graduate study and research careers, she spent eight weeks at Purdue researching the hairy fungus beetle. “I liked the Department of Entomology and contacted many different professors to talk about research programs,” she says. Among her faculty contacts was Douglas Richmond, professor of turfgrass entomology and applied ecology. When Rodriguez-Soto returned to Purdue in June 2018 as a master’s student, Richmond became her co-advisor with Laramy Enders, assistant professor of entomology.
“In the Soil Insect Ecology Lab we focus on turfgrass pests, and I work with billbugs,” Rodriguez-Soto says. The larvae of these grass-feeding weevils damage turf. “Billbug” is a common name for many different species, each with a different seasonal biology — distinct timing, populations and number of generations throughout the year. The larvae of the different species look the same, however, so Rodriguez-Soto is using DNA barcoding to tell species apart and track their populations through one growing season in one region of the United States. “This is important to turfgrass growers,” she says. Knowing when a certain larvae will be present allows the growers to target a particular life stage in the pest at a specific time and prevents the potentially ineffective prophylactic use of insecticides.
Rodriguez-Soto seizes every opportunity to present her research, determined to build her English fluency and confidence. That could mean attending an entomology conference, talking with growers at a turfgrass field day or meeting members of the landscape industry. “Since I got here through SROP, I also felt the need to give back to the office that brought me here,” she says. Through the Office of Graduate Diversity Initiatives, she works with the Louis Stokes Alliance for Minority Participation, a program to increase the number of students in STEM bachelor’s degree programs, especially from underrepresented groups.
Rodriguez-Soto will finish her program in December and is keeping her options open. While she would like to work in entomology extension, preferably in the Midwest, she also is considering pursuing a PhD. In her spare time, she enjoys spending time outdoors. At pitch-in dinners with her fellow graduate students, Rodriguez-Soto is always in charge of dessert, with flan as her specialty.