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Alina Avanesyan


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  • Organization
    University of Maryland, Department of Entomology

  • Role
    Scientist Mentor: I will mentor teams of students online

  • Teaching Since
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  • Describe your teaching experience and interests in a brief public biography (200 words)
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  • How often do you allow your students to generate their own research questions and design their own investigations?
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  • How often do you lead students in extended investigations lasting more than a week in duration?
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  • How did you hear about PlantingScience?
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  • Research Interests (300 words)
    My overall research interests span the fields of evolutionary ecology (primarily species interactions), organismal biology, and molecular biology. My primary interest is in plant-insect interactions within the context of invasion ecology, which was the focus of my doctoral and postdoctoral work. I am curious how prior coevolutionary history between native and exotic species (both plants and insects) affects successful establishment of exotic species in the introduced range. Specifically, I am interested in how plant responses to herbivory (plant resistance and tolerance) differ between native and invasive plants, and whether native insects have feeding preferences with regard to native vs. exotic plants. I am also interested in investigating various invasion hypotheses and exploring their usage in controlling invasive species. Previously, I have also conducted research on population genetics, phylogenetics, and host-parasite interactions.

  • Profile Question 1
    What is best about being a scientist?

  • Answer the question you selected for profile question 1 here (300 words):
    The best part about being a scientist is discovering a lot of new things which people do not know yet. No matter what you do in science – growing plants, catching butterflies, or digging up fossils – everything is fascinating and you never know what you could find. Most importantly, anything you discover as a scientist could be extremely useful for people and the environment: we can save animals, plants, or discover a new vaccine. Besides, science is a lot of fun: to me, being a scientist means that I will never be bored. When you are a scientist, something new happens every day: I conduct my experiments and every day I observe or measure something different from what I did yesterday; or I read the literature and learn something new, or I go on a field trip and meet amazing creatures... My favorite part is conducting experiments. It feels like I am a movie director: I can pick my study organisms, I can change light, temperature, humidity and see how my organisms respond; I can design a new insect trap or an experimental cage; I can even make my plants grow more leaves or more roots, or compete with each other, and see what will happen… Then, of course, I can share my experimental results with a lot of people and see what they have found in similar experiments, and together we can learn something new about the world around us, and then use our new knowledge to make it better and healthier, which is really cool!

  • Profile Question 2
    What was the first science experiment you ever designed? How did it turn out?

  • Answer the question you selected for profile question 2 here (300 words):
    I am sure I did my first science experiments in either secondary or high school, but unfortunately I don't remember the details. So I thought I would share my first research experience during my doctoral studies at the University of Cincinnati: during that time I started my research on a new topic, in a new lab, and in a new country - so it really felt like one of the first science experiments I had ever designed. This experiment was on host-parasite interactions between grasshoppers and flies. I wanted to determine whether flies are host specific (prefer to infect only one grasshopper species). I designed special cages with a mesh frame instead of the "floor": if a grasshopper is infected then fly larvae would emerge out of a grasshopper's body and would fall through the mesh frame to a container. I planned to rear adult flies from larvae, then identify and match them to grasshopper species. I went on multiple field trips to collect grasshoppers: I went to Ohio, Iowa, and Montana. I collected more than 200 grasshoppers and shipped them to the lab. One of my lab members (who received the boxes) told me that when he opened the box all the grasshoppers flew out and he had to run around the lab catching them. But he caught them all! I maintained grasshoppers in the lab for about 2 months until they all died. None of them were infected! I was shocked: the whole experiment including building the cages, species collection, and observations of grasshoppers took about 5 months and led to zero results.. I had no idea about what I did wrong. Later I learned that natural infestation rate in grasshoppers might be quite low (about 2%) – so apparently all of grasshoppers I caught were simply very healthy!

  • Profile Question 3
    What is the coolest thing you have discovered or learned about plants?

  • Answer the question you selected for profile question 3 here (300 words):
    When I studied plant responses to herbivory during my doctoral studies I was curious how plants defend themselves from being eaten, and specifically whether or not they can avoid it all. While searching for relevant studies I found an interesting example of such resistance to herbivory in tall goldenrod (Solidago altissima). I learned that this species has a unique way of protecting the top part of the plant from being eaten. This type of resistance is called "ducking": some plants have normal stems, while others have "candy-cane" stems which nod at the top during plant growth. Researchers showed that the "candy-cane" stems are temporary and that the "ducking" coincides with the oviposition of certain insect herbivores which especially prefer to feed on the top part of the plant. So basically the plants hide their top parts from the insects - very cool defensive strategy!

  • Availability
    I am currently available for mentoring, please send me team match invitations

  • Biography (300 words):
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  • Please describe your involvement with the PlantingScience program (300 words):
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  • How many teams at a time are you comfortable working with?

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