Featured entomology alumni Mary Gardiner

posted on March 14, 2017 9:32am

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When did you study at MSU?

I graduated with a PhD in entomology in 2008 with Doug Landis as my major professor. That led me to my current job as an associate professor of entomology at Ohio State University.

Why did you choose entomology?

I liked to collect insects as a kid and loved the outdoors. I had no idea there were jobs studying nature and insects until I was in college. I thought I would become a park ranger, and worked as a summer assistant at the Leelanau State Park during my undergraduate studies in resource ecology and management at the University of Michigan. My senior year I took John Whitter’s Intro to the Study of Insects class and it really grabbed my attention, helping me see entomology as a possible career. I asked how to get into the field and he said, “Well, you go to graduate school.”

After I graduated, I moved to Idaho and got a master’s degree studying spider mite classical biological control in hops. I spent a couple years in Idaho as a lab research technician and that helped me realize I loved the academic setting more than I thought I would. I also realized I wanted to make my own decisions about projects and that meant returning to graduate school.

I knew Doug Landis had a large, successful program in landscape ecology and thought that would give me many opportunities. I contacted Doug, applied for a fellowship and was unsuccessful in securing funding, so I continued with my technician job. The next year, Doug and I worked together to find funding and I came to MSU in about 2004. My thesis studied the newly introduced soybean aphid, the related predator communities and impacts of the surrounding landscape. It was an adventure as I collected data in Iowa, Minnesota, Wisconsin and Michigan.

Anyone with special impact on you and your career? 

I came to MSU because I wanted a big university that would give me diverse experiences and training. Doug taught me so much about the full research process while I was a student and I continue to think “what would Doug do” all the time. I left his lab very well-prepared for my current position. I also learned from many different people through my multi-state project: Matt O’Neal (Iowa), Claudio Gratton (Wisconsin) and Wopke Van der Werf (Wageningen University). Doug also gave me lots of opportunities to gain experience in extension, and I was a teaching assistant for his biocontrol class. My classes were diverse: ecological statistics, population genetics and insect larval taxonomy with Gary Parsons. I valued the Department’s connection with the Ecology, Evolutionary Biology, and Behavior program.

Thoughts for current students?

They probably won’t want to hear this, but I think it is important: You should always be writing a paper. Don’t think about writing a paper as a finite task, rather something you’ll accomplish over time. While you’re doing your research, write your message and think about how you’ll form the introduction. Doug focused on the importance of publishing and I do that with my own students. I try to write something every day and am usually writing several papers at one time.

Looking back, I realize that as students we worry about finding the perfect job or perfect fit or that there won’t be a job. It’s important to look at opportunities. When I was hired at OSU, my position was to focus on landscape ecology and agriculture—it was very broad, which was exciting. A rewarding part of being a scientist is building a lab and making the job your own to match your strengths. Departments want faculty to be successful, so they will work with you. We spend too much time stressing about what the next thing is. Instead, you should be writing! It will be the productivity in your CV that opens doors, not your stress level.

How does your work affect people’s lives? 

My program studies how design and management of urban green spaces influences its conservation value and ability to provide ecosystem services. We frequently interact with people because they are a dominant part of an urban ecosystem. We work where people live, whether we are focusing on wildflower plantings, urban farm ecology or beekeeping. People live and work in these neighborhoods, so you have a ready audience for information. Our extension information has to scale with people’s experience from new gardeners to master gardeners.

Read about past featured alumni in the Alumni Profiles section.