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Improving lives by solving problems in agriculture and the environment

It's cool to be a biology geek!


The CABI summer student experience

by Danielle Fife

Most entomologists I meet tell me they’ve been collecting insects since they could walk and have reared everything from walking sticks to Cercropia moths in their (very understanding) parent’s basements.  My love of insects dates back to my second year of university…about 4 years ago. I took a class called ‘Insect Natural History and Diversity’ and I was hooked! Suddenly I was seeing insects everywhere that I had no idea existed. It’s amazing what you can see if you take a closer look at that goldenrod in your garden or flip over a few rocks in the forest!
It was one of my entomology professors that told me about CABI and encouraged me to apply for a summer placement.Why not? It would be a great way to continue working with insects, learn about biological control (something I had no experience with) and get to travel. I found out I got the job the day before I finished my last exam as an undergrad.  Phew! Off to Switzerland to start a new adventure.


At the end of February I flew into Basel (or Bale in French) and found my way by train to the station in Delémont, a quaint farming town in the French-speaking region of Switzerland which is where the CABI Swiss office is located and where I was greeted by my new boss Dr. Esther Gerber and another recently arrived summer student, Beata. 

When I started at CABI there were only a handful of summer students from various different countries, along with the permanent staff.  It was a good way to get to know people before the rest of the students arrived for the peak season in summer, which is definitely not quiet!    
Since the initial few weeks of getting settled in I've gotten into the swing of things at work.  As I already mentioned, I work for Esther who is a research scientist in the Weed Biological Control section.  Esther is investigating potential biological control agents for garlic mustard and perennial pepperweed.  Both plants are European in origin and are invasive in the United States and Canada.  For garlic mustard we have been investigating three different weevil species to use as potential biocontrol agents and for perennial pepperweed, two weevils and one flea beetle.  These all need to be tested on closely related plant species to ensure the risk of them having a negative impact on native North American plants is low.

The process is similar for both weeds; we offer the insects different plant species from the same family as the target weeds to see if they can complete their life cycle on them.  This involves setting up a lot of plants covered in gauze, releasing adult beetles on them and dissecting plants to look for eggs and larvae.  For perennial pepperweed, this work has to be done in quarantine, because the insects being tested come from Turkey and Russia. Fortunately, the work in quarantine gets balanced out by getting to work outside in the garden or go out on collecting trips around Switzerland and southern Germany.  
The strong social community is something that has made CABI such a positive place to work. I imagine it would vary from year to year, but there really is a great group of people here and there’s always something going on whether it’s a hiking trip on the weekend, filling up on cheese fondue (a requisite Swiss experience), or watching the World Cup at the local bar.  It creates an atmosphere where I actually look forward to going into work.  Of course there are days when I would rather sleep in and not stare at tiny larvae through a microscope though!

I am a little relieved after working for CABI. To be honest I wasn't sure what I wanted to do with my entomology background.  I just knew I wanted to work with bugs! Many of the summer students that come to work here end up coming back as a master's student, carrying out the theoretical work at their university back home and then coming to CABI for the field work component.  This is definitely a possibility I would like to consider.


Now, as the season starts to wind down, things have gotten quieter around here again, it's getting cooler and the leaves are starting to change colour.  Many of the summer students have left and have either gone back home to finish up their degrees or are taking sometime to travel around Europe.  This really has been an unforgettable experience and I would highly recommend CABI to anyone interested in gaining practical work experience in biological control or entomology.  You'll also make some great friends from all types of backgrounds in a place where it's cool to be a biology geek.

For more information, please click here if you are interested in applying for a summer placement like Danielle's

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