Meet Kelly Oten
Kelly L. Oten, doctoral student in Entomology, earned second place in the Natural Resources category at this year's Graduate Student Research Symposium. Her winning poster presentation was entitled, "Scanning Electron Microscopy as a Tool in Understanding Hemlock Woolly Adelgid Biology, Feeding Behavior, and Host Plant Resistance."
Oten, who has just started her third year as a doctoral student at NC State, grew up in College Station, TX. She said that she's loved insects since she was a child, ". . . sometimes clutching beetles in my palm and carrying them into church (much to my mom's chagrin!)." Since she never outgrew her fascination for insects and how they impact our world, she decided to make it a career choice!
In 2005, she earned her B.S. in Entomology from Texas A&M, and from there, went to the University of Tennessee for her M.S. in Entomology. Years before, Oten and her family had vacationed in Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Her Master's research focused on springtails -- small soil-dwelling insects which inhabit the park.
However, for her Ph.D. in forest entomology, Oten chose NC State because she believed us to be top in the field ". . . not only in entomology, but in the forest entomology program, led by Dr. Fred Hain." And her choice of forest entomology encompasses what she loves about the study of insects -- ". . . the ability to conduct research in and preserve our natural resources while embracing my child-like love of insects and the outdoor world."
Oten's doctoral research focuses on the hemlock woolly adelgid (HWA), a small, plant-sucking insect that was introduced into the eastern U.S. in the 1950s from Japan. Thirty years later, there was ". . . massive mortality of hemlocks as HWA spread throughout their range." Today, HWA has invaded 18 eastern states and continues to spread. In its native range, HWA does not kill its hemlock host, but hemlock trees here seem to be susceptible. This is attributed to innate resistance and insect predators that feed on HWA. Oten explains that recently, individual trees and stands of trees in the eastern U.S. appear to show some resistance to HWA and are surviving in otherwise devastated areas. Her research investigates why this maybe be occurring.
Oten says that what is unique about this research is that host plant resistance of the hemlock could be the "last resort" of HWA control. To date, much of the research focuses on biological or chemical control methods. Interestingly, Oten's study reveals variability in resistance of the hemlock both between the nine species that occur worldwide and within individual species. Currently, the research is focused on how HWA feeds to " . . . ascertain feeding mechanisms of the insect and how it interacts with its food source." Oten is also looking at the chemistry of the plant to determine if there are any chemicals which may act as feeding stimulants, making some hemlocks "tastier" to HWA than others. Since the mouthparts of HWA use a sheath material to increase sucking power for the insect and protect the insect against plant defenses, further research will test the chemistry of the trees and correlate chemical profiles to infestation levels.
The symposium poster was Oten's second poster presentation on her research, in addition to more than 10 oral presentations. Using a poster as a communication tool taught her to explain her material with pictures and graphs rather than text or verbal communication. And the need to condense so much research caused her to focus more on the 'take-home messages' of her research. "It also caused me to see other researcher's posters with a new perspective—that a simple graph is often the product of a considerable amount of work."
When she isn't exploring the world of insects, Oten enjoys travelling with her husband, reading, running, and spending time with family and friends. She also likes cooking, especially experimenting with new recipes and trying international cuisine.
Her advice to her fellow grad students? She says that ". . . you are in charge of your own graduate program -- it's yours to create." No one tells you what to do in graduate school, and in this self-taught process, ". . .it will only be as good as you make it."
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