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By Dara Stockton
  • Cornell AgriTech
  • School of Integrative Plant Science
  • Department of Entomology
  • Food
  • Plants
  • Animals
  • Entomology
  • Environment

Dara Stockton—a postdoctoral associate working in the lab of Greg Loeb, professor of entomology—researches spotted-wing drosophila (SWD), an invasive vinegar fly that reproduces in berries and other small fruit. Stockton’s research is helping identify pest management techniques to boost yields and profits for New York berry growers. Here, she reflects on how the pandemic has shaped her research.

What motivated you to start doing research in this area?

I have a long-term interest in how invasive species establish in environments, using the resources available to them to survive and reproduce. In New York, the ability of SWD to adapt to harsh conditions is really remarkable and it is precisely this ability to respond to novel environments opportunistically that we think enables SWD and other invasive pests to be successful. Studying invasive pests in other areas of the country, this is a common thread in all of my research and keeps me excited about each new project that comes along. I think the SWD’s biology and propensity for changes in genetic expression due to changes in the environmentis incredible. I may be one of the few folks in agricultural research that gets excited about new invasive species.

What do you think is fun, unusual or ambitious about your current project? 

I was recently awarded a USDA Agriculture and Food Research Initiative fellowship to use gut contents analysis to study other potential dietary resources in the landscape including fungi and bird manure. If we are successful, this will be the first time we will have a good glimpse into the movement and dietary habits of these flies in the field at times of the year when they are most vulnerable; this is critical for interrupting overwintering populations. Unfortunately, that means that we have to sort through some gnarly “diets.” For instance, we now know that goose manure is acceptable diet for these flies, meaning that it goes on the list of diets to screen for. It’s a dirty job, but someone has to do it.

Pre-pandemic, what did a typical day in the lab look like for you?

A typical day was broken up into at least three parts: writing, snacks and experiments. I would try to get in two-to-four hours of writing in the morning when my brain was revved up and fully caffeinated. Then, I would participate in a meeting or two before heading off for lunch. Pre-pandemic I would try to gather colleagues to head to Wegmans or Char Burrito in Geneva, NY to grab food. In the afternoon I would run assays, check existing samples or plan new experiments.

One of the things I love most about research is the diversity of people you get to interact with in a single day ranging from growers, to other scientists, students and staff. I miss the people I work with from staff and students, to fellow postdocs and all the different faculty members I would interact with on a daily basis. We like to think of research as a solo sport—imagining the lone introvert with a pipette—but in reality it takes a team to make research happen.

How has your lab adapted during the pandemic?

So much has changed in the last few months. In some ways it has been good. Like many people, I set up a remote work station at my dining room table and settled in to the new normal.  I’ve had more time to write and get projects wrapped up that otherwise would have taken much longer to publish.

As a team, the Loeb Lab has learned to adapt to life on Zoom. As exhausting as Zoom can be after hours of meetings, I feel very fortunate that this technology even exists. I can’t imagine if this pandemic occurred 10 years ago. It would have made things that much harder. At least our technology has allowed us to remain in touch and keep up with lab meetings, etc.

In the past month, we have started to get back into the lab, although much more slowly to due to social distancing limitations. We can’t have five-to-six people in the lab checking samples at the same time or piling into a work vehicle to head out the farm together. Now we all ride in separate cars and work alone most of the time.

If you could warn your February 2020 self that this pandemic was coming, what would you tell yourself to better prepare?

I’m not sure there was anything I could have done to prepare. I think as a scientist you learn to roll with the punches, so to speak. You get good at shifting gears quickly as data reveal things, or the field season throws curve balls. I try to focus on what I can do any given moment and do that thing. With this pandemic, that has meant getting writing done and planning what research I could do to the best of my ability.

Header image: Dara Stockton, postdoctoral associate, brings in spotted winged drosophila traps from a Cornell AgriTech field. Photo provided.

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