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  • Cornell AgriTech
  • Entomology
For Camila Filgueiras, research associate at Cornell AgriTech, the COVID-19 closures have been an opportunity to get creative.

Filgueiras works in the Applied Chemical Ecology Technology (ACET) program with Denis Willett, assistant professor of entomology, to develop biological control strategies to control soil pests — normally work that requires the use of laboratory facilities. When Cornell AgriTech began implementing social distancing strategies and closing lab spaces in March, she and the ACET group wondered how they could maintain critical projects while making sure they minimized the use of lab spaces and contact with other researchers.

The solution: Filgueiras moved part of ACET lab to her basement. Fortunately, her basement is ideal for some of her work.

“I work a lot with entomopathogenic nematodes which do best in a specific temperature range,” she said. “Fortunately, my basement naturally has stable temperatures in that range.  Our lab manager Bo has really helped us get set up well and keeps us stocked supplies including soil.”

Her work thus far has focused on maintaining a library of entomopathogenic nematodes from around the world. “These nematodes can be really successful in controlling soil pests without the need for pesticides, but they can be very specific,” said Filgueiras. “Certain species do best against certain insects in certain environments — it helps to have a bank to choose the most effective option for our stakeholders in New York.”

Right now, Filgueiras actively screens her bank of insect-targeting nematodes against a variety of pests in upstate New York, and she is beginning to identify the perfect combination of nematode species and environment to combat pests.

Now, the ACET bank is looking to get another deposit, and Filgueiras is excited. She is working in conjunction with Entomology Professor Brian Nault and his lab to isolate and develop a new strain of nematode that looks to be particularly effective against soil insects in muck soil.

“Muck soils are this really unique environment in New York with some heavy below-ground pest pressures. So far, this new strain looks to be really effective against these pests and is extremely prolific in this environment,” she said. “I’ve never seen anything like it in 15 years of working with these organisms.”

While this promising new species excites Camila, she is no stranger to adapting to changing circumstances. She said, “Moving the lab to my basement was a no-brainer for me. People depend on us to develop better strategies for pest control, and maintaining this is important.”  

In the past she has relied on personal creativity to ensure experiments get done. “A few years ago, I was setting up PVC pipe bioassays in my apartment when my landlord walked in. It took some explaining, but he was finally convinced they were not pipe bombs,” Filgueiras laughed.

This passion and willing to do research with limited resources has made her view the world a bit differently. “In Brazil, where I got my PhD, there were often not enough resources to purchase supplies so I used my salary to purchase construction materials and build my projects,” she said. “Now when I go to Lowe’s and walk down the aisles, everything becomes lab equipment.”

The move to the basement has also been an opportunity to involve the whole family. Filgueiras said, “My daughters have really been amazing. My oldest has had a lot of lab experience and helped me through my schooling, and it has been fun to see my youngest engaging with the ‘metatodes,’ as she calls them.”

a young girl stands on a chair and looks through a microscope
Filgueiras' 3-year-old daughter looks through a microscope and helps identify nematodes. Photo provided.

While moving the lab to the basement has been a great way to continue research, Filgueiras is looking forward to returning to AgriTech as social distancing eases.

“It is really great to be working at a place like ACET lab at Cornell AgriTech where I have the opportunity to adapt in order to continue doing my research,” she said. “This work has a lot of potential to really improve how we effectively control below-ground pests in an environmentally friendly way without pesticides. I can’t wait to return to testing these ideas on a larger scale.”

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