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Power in small things

August 2, 2011


Emerald ash borer.

Lindsey Christianson saw an opportunity and went for it

By Bill Magdalene

The emerald ash borer is so small that most people will never see one. Yet it can devastate forests. The invasive beetle, brought to this country from China in packing materials and shipping palettes, has destroyed tens of millions of ash trees in Michigan, Indiana and Ohio.

Lindsey Christianson, a research assistant in the University of Minnesota’s entomology department, is finding out whether the emerald ash borer could endanger Minnesota’s 930 million ash trees.

So far the insect has been mostly confined to green ash in Hennepin, Ramsey and Houston Counties. Christianson is testing whether the insect’s larvae, which feed under a tree’s bark, could survive the long periods of freezing in Northern Minnesota, where black ash is prominent. “Preliminary data suggests that the emerald ash borer could establish a population there,” she says, “but we need to look at whether black ash will make a difference.”

Searching for a major
During her freshman year at the university, Christianson was very much undecided. She started out leaning toward art or language, but got frustrated with not really knowing what she wanted to do. So she left for two years and got a cabinet-making degree. “After I had time to think,” she says, “I knew I wanted to come back and do something with the environment.”

Growing up in a small farming community in North Dakota, Christianson had always been interested in invasive plants. In high school she took a summer class on environmental systems. “That struck me as something we need to protect,” she recalls. So, once back at the U, she began looking at applied plant sciences and plant biology. An adviser suggested the program in fisheries and wildlife. “I took a couple of courses,” Christianson says, “and knew that was it.”

Advice to undergrads
“If you see an opportunity, even if you don’t think you have enough background, apply for it. See what happens. If it’s something you might be interested in, just go for it. If you end up liking it, you’ll have a path, you’ll have a professor to work with, you’ll have that connection.”

Seizing an opportunity
The first year-and-a-half in the program, she explored different areas. One day she noticed an online posting: two professors were working on a project, their undergrad research assistant had suddenly left, and they needed someone right away. Christianson applied. She got the position.

“I just fell into the project,” she says. “Having the opportunity to do focused research … I loved it. That was the first time I was able to say, ‘This is what I really want to do.’”

After working for a summer, Christianson and her professor successfully proposed a UROP (Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program) project on the emerald ash borer. Her current work will drive Christianson through a master’s degree, and she could develop it into a Ph.D. project if she chooses to stay at the university.

“It’s amazing how much you can learn just through the research,” she says. “You talk to people and go to conferences and listen to other people’s research. I’ve been able to retain a lot more because it’s something I’m really interested in.”

The value of a mentor
Her faculty mentor is an adjunct professor who works for the forest service. “I now know what they’re working on and what’s important once I’m done with school,” Christianson says. “I’ve also been able to work with people from the Minnesota Department of Agriculture. Just having a mentor and his connections, I’ve gotten a feel for the academic side of research and what’s important once I get out in the field.”

She says that without her year-and-a-half of research, including the UROP, graduate school would have been a lot more difficult to get into. “Having backers who say, ‘We know you can do this’ and ‘We want you here in this program,’ that’s a confidence boost. They know people. They went to other schools. And they want you to succeed no matter where you are. Mentors are definitely good to have!”

Related Links

Entomology deaprtment

Research opportunities