Ormyrus labotus
A parasitoid wasp revealed: 1 wasp is actually (at least) 16 species
Sofia Sheikh, E&E PhD student & lead author
Ormyrus labotus, a tiny iridescent parasitoid wasp, seemed to have an unusually expansive life strategy. Typically, parasitoid wasps lay their eggs on or inside other insects and arthropods, and larvae eat their way out when they hatch. While these wasp species tend to prefer just one or a few hosts, Ormyrus labotus had been observed laying eggs in more than 65 different species of insects, including an assortment of galls. “It seemed weird that one species could be sort of effectively attacking all of these different galls,” said Sofia Sheikh, an E&E doctoral student who did research on these wasps while at the University of Iowa (UIowa). Sofia and her UIowa colleagues extracted DNA samples from parasitoid wasps collected from oak trees around the country, and discovered that Ormyrus labotus is a complex of at least 16 genetically distinct species that are indistinguishable to the eye. Their research was published this February in Insect Systematics and Diversity. This paper is the most recent in a string of studies unmasking supposedly generalist parasitic insect species as complexes of many species.                  Sofia and Anna Ward, another UIowa graduate student, spent several years pulling galls from oak trees. Often, this entailed searching iNaturalist, an online network of biologists and other scientists, and then inviting themselves into people’s backyards to collect the galls. They brought them back to the lab, placed them in separate cups in a refrigerator-size incubator, and waited to see if each gall would hatch gall wasps, parasitoid wasps, or both. As the wasps hatched and chewed their way out, Sofia and her team extracted samples of the insects’ DNA to examine the genetic variation among them. While they expected Ormyrus labotus was not a single species, finding 16 to 18 distinct species came as a surprise. “Here are all these species in our small sampling,” Sofia noted. “It means there’s a lot more that we just haven’t captured yet.” Researchers are increasingly certain that even greater hidden diversity lurks in insects that have not been studied for decades. And these examples continue to teach scientists to be suspicious of any parasitic wasp species currently believed to be generalists.
Liz Sander, Data Scientist
Liz Sander (PhD, 2017)
Alumni micro-interview
What is your current job?  I'm a Senior Data Scientist on the Data Science Research & Development team at Civis Analytics. The research part of my job involves studying new methods that could be relevant for our work, and making sure our existing methods are statistically sound. The development side is taking those methods and turning them into software tools data scientists can use, usually as Python libraries. I work with a range of statistical and optimization methods, from causal inference to integer programming. There's a lot of variety, which keeps it interesting and fun. How did the training in E&E help you with your career? A big part of my job is going from a broad question that isn't fully scoped, to a well-defined question and a useful answer. Grad school is a great way to learn how to ask good questions, define an approach, and interpret ambiguous results. The timeline and scope are definitely different in industry, but those core research skills are still very useful! On the practical side, I learned a lot of computational skills in the Allesina lab that still serve me well. Git, Python, R, randomization techniques, heuristic optimization, linear algebra, simulations-- those are just the ones that are top of mind right now! Transitioning from ecology to data science might not seem like the most obvious career move, but my grad school training is actually a really good foundation for the work I do today. What is your fondest memory of your time in the program? Working with the Wootton lab, I was lucky enough to go to Tatoosh Island to check out the study system and measure respiration rates for a couple of barnacle species. I had never done field work before, and I was so struck by the beauty and diversity of the intertidal system. I asked Tim questions about everything I saw, until I'm sure he was completely sick of me. Collecting the barnacle data was a total comedy of errors on my part, mostly because I had no idea what I was doing. I was pretty confident in front of a terminal, but a total novice in the field! It gave me a ton of respect for field ecologists who can successfully plan and execute an experiment, and it also really helped me understand everything that goes into each data point. There's a lot of planning, and also many sources of error, and it's worth thinking about when you're analyzing someone else's data! It was a truly transformative experience for me as a researcher. Huge thanks to Tim for his deep knowledge and infinite patience on that trip, and for not laughing at me when I burned the Sharpie labels off of my samples in the muffle furnace.
Elizabeth Scordato (PhD, 2012, CEB)
Alumni micro-interview
What is your current job?  I just started as an assistant professorship at Cal Poly Pomona. How did the training in E&E help you with your career? UofC taught me how to be an independent scientist. It's a unique place in that students are given broad freedom to develop their own projects. This can feel like trial-by-fire in the early years, but by the time I graduated I had learned how to develop my own questions, obtain my own funding, and run my own research projects. This was invaluable experience as I moved into postdoc and faculty positions. What is your fondest memory of your time in the program? The graduate student community was really great when I was there. Everyone worked hard on interesting projects and did exciting fieldwork. There was a lot of support and camaraderie among the students- particularly over $2 grilled cheese sandwiches and pitchers of Leinenkugel at Jimmy's.
Sidi Chen (PhD, 2011)
Alumni micro-interview
What is your current job?  Assistant Professor, Dept. of Genetics & Systems Biology Institute, Yale University School of Medicine. How did the training in E&E help you with your career? The training at UofC is tremendously important for my scientific thoughts and career. What is your fondest memory of your time in the program? Free academic atmosphere. And the quad.
Mark Novak (PhD, 2008)
Alumni micro-interview
What is your current job?  Associate professor of Integrative Biology, Oregon State University. How did the training in E&E help you with your career? Converted me from a purely empirical/field ecologist into someone who understands enough theoretical ecology to be teaching it and publishing “data free” papers; exactly what I wanted to get out of graduate school. What is your fondest memory of your time in the program? 8am basketball scrimmages with the Dawn Patrol / Box of Dead Rodents.