Profiles in Diversity

Dora Mwangola

Ph.D. student in the Department of Entomology

Dora Mwangola

Dora was born in Taita-Taveta county of the Coast Province, Kenya, to young parents who later entered professional careers and moved the family to Nairobi. The oldest of two, she attended a female boarding school through high school in Nairobi before moving with her parents to Botswana to complete her A-levels. She said that she really likes the culture and vibe of Nairobi – it is fast-paced and chaotic and incredibly stimulating. She enrolled at Rhodes University at Grahamstown, in the Eastern Cape Province of South Africa near Port Elizabeth, where she majored in microbiology and biochemistry and followed that with an honours degree in microbiology where she worked on the generation of polyclonal antibodies against the VP1 protein of Theiler’s Murine Encephalomyelitis virus (TMEV) GDVII. After completing her undergraduate degree, she interned with the prestigious KEMRI-Wellcome Trust programme, where she worked on a project to assess malaria prevalence in Ganze and Junja in the Coast Province of Kenya. She joined the University of Pretoria to complete a Master’s Degree in genetics in the Forest and Agricultural biotechnology institute on the population genetics of the tree-killing fungus, Chrysoporthe austroafricana in Southern Africa. Her work was to evaluate if this fungal disease was endemic to the southern countries of Africa or if it invaded with the establishment of the exotic eucalyptus trees that had been planted throughout the region. Using microsatellite markers, she found the greatest genetic diversity on native trees, indicating that the fungus was probably a native as well. After her Master’s, she joined the University of Minnesota in the forest entomology lab of Brian Aukema, where she is completing her PhD on the associational protection and potential non-target effects of systemic insecticide treatments against emerald ash borer.

Dora never thought she would work with insects, ever. She stumbled into our field. During her Freshman year, she took a Zoology course that made her kind of interested in insects, but she was committed to microbiology and biochemistry. However, during her internship at KEMRI-Wellcome Trust, she worked in a lab that reared mosquito colonies and developed an interest in working on arthropod vectored disease. Despite whetting her interest, her Master’s research was not at all entomological. The real eye-opener came because her Master’s program required her to participate in a field project, which was under the direction of a graduate student. Dora accompanied this student to the field to study some tree-feeding weevils and she found this to be very interesting and asked questions about insects incessantly. From that point on, Dora was committed to learning more about insects.

Dora joked that she didn’t know she was black until she moved to South Africa. Until that time, she did not know that race was such a major thing, imbued in the culture and affecting all social interactions. She feels that it is even more pronounced in the United States even though her experiences are tempered by being mostly in academic social circles. Nothing is overt, but when some people don’t understand her, they respond by shouting or speaking more slowly, She also confided that, like many of us, she sometimes lapses into imposter syndrome, where she starts to feel that she is not deserving and does not belong. However, she uses behavioral strategies to mitigate these feelings by focusing her efforts to learn from the amazing people she gets to interact with. Clearly, we all can learn something from Dora.

February 17, 2021

 

Sujaya Rao

Professor and Department Head

Sujaya Rao

Sujaya (she, her, hers) was born in Bombay (Mumbai) in India. She is the second child in a family of four girls. She attended Irish missionary convent schools and grew up in four towns in India: Simla, Madras (Chennai), Delhi, and Bangalore. She obtained her undergraduate and master’s degrees in zoology at Delhi University. It was during her master’s degree that she first encountered entomology - students had to specialize in a branch of zoology, and she chose entomology. Her excitement for entomology was sparked by an insect collecting field trip in East India, during which she spent quite some time chasing a cicada; she did not catch the cicada, but she caught the entomology bug!

After completing her master’s degree, Sujaya taught undergraduate zoology at Delhi University. She then worked at a plant quarantine research laboratory (National Bureau of Plant Genetic Resources) where she compiled a catalogue of bruchid seed pests; subsequently she conducted research on pest management of ornamental and medicinal plants at the Indian Institute of Horticultural Research in Bangalore. Sujaya joined Richard Jones’ lab at the University of Minnesota to pursue a PhD in entomology, during which she investigated the attraction of Macrocentris grandii, a braconid parasitoid of the European corn borer, to plant volatiles. She had two postdoctoral positions, first at the University of Delaware where she examined chemical cues that drew European corn borer females to host plants, and then at UC Berkeley where she evaluated biological control of the western tarnished plant bug in strawberries with inundative releases of a mymarid, Anaphes iole.

Sujaya worked as the strawberry Extension Adviser for UC Cooperative Extension before being hired as a faculty member at Oregon State University to work on pest management of grass seed crops. Her serendipitous observation that a particular blue trap did not capture the pest but drew an extraordinary diversity and abundance of native bees led to her expanding her research to bees as well. She took on numerous leadership roles including directing NSF funded GK-12 and REU, and other student-centric programs. These led to her interest in applying for the position of head of the department of entomology at the University of Minnesota, where she was selected as the first alum, first woman, and first person of color for the role. Currently, besides leading the department, she is engaged in teaching courses, and in promoting entomophagy, the practice of humans eating insects as food.

Throughout her career, every position has had opportunities and challenges; what has been exciting about each one was learning something new! Sujaya is very passionate about entomology and had this to say about it: “When you enjoy what you do, there is no boundary between work and fun”.

Sujaya’s contact info: sujaya@umn.edu

March 23, 2021


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