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Alexis Barbarin, Ph.D.

NSF Fellow at North Carolina State University

Dr. Alexis Barbarin specializes in entomology, molecular ecology, pesticide efficacy and human social network analysis. She earned a B.S. in biology from Xavier University of Louisiana, and an M.Ed. in Agricultural & Extension Education and Ph.D. in Entomology from Penn State. Her previous positions include a postdoctoral research scholarship at the University of Pennsylvania, where she studied the persistence of Methicillin-resistant Staphyloccoccus aureus in the common bed bug, and an adjunct faculty position at Wake Technical Community College in Raleigh, North Carolina.

Q: Tell us a little bit about your current work.

A: I study entomology, bed bugs in particular, especially in urban areas. I study their dispersal and migration patterns through multiunit facilities, and I also look at human social networks and whether bed bugs spread along those social networks. My NSF grant provides three years of research funding and nine months of teaching funding, so right now I am writing up my research and teaching at St. Augustine University, which is one of the oldest HBCU's in the United States.

Q: How did you get to be a bed bug expert?

A: Well, I wasn't always interested in bugs. Originally I thought I wanted to be a gynecologist, but I switched gears when I was able to get into a minority research program at Xavier University. I worked on projects from microbiology to plants to butterflies in undergrad. I realized that bugs were kind of cool. When I began my graduate program at Penn State, I planned to study gypsy moths since they were a problem in PA at the time. But after returning to New Orleans for Mardi Gras my first year (because no self-respecting New Orleanian would miss Mardi Gras), I saw a homeless man looking in a trash can for food. I realized that what I really wanted to do was study something that would benefit people in urban areas, like New Orleans. This was right around the time bed bugs were becoming a hot topic, so I decided to study them.

Q: What have you done towards that goal and what are your goals for the future?

A: As a graduate student, I was able to work with extension agents and focus on integrated pest management to study bed bugs. Many of those bed bugs were collected in Philadelphia and brought back to the Headhouse here at Penn State. We developed and patented a biopesticide that is 95% effective against bed bugs before I went on to my first postdoc at U Penn. There, in the School of Medicine, I looked the ability for bed bugs to vector MRSA (which turns out to be rather unlikely), and I also wrote a grant to study bed bug migration and dispersal using genetic tools and human social networks. In the future, I would like to be a medical entomologist in North Carolina and develop programs to combat the Zika virus. I hope to continue to teach and educate people; I love research, but I love teaching and extension even more.

Q: What activities and experiences have helped you stand out and find your way?

A: In addition to my research experiences, I was president of the Black Graduate Student Association at Penn State and participated in MANRRS (Minorities in Agriculture, Natural Resources and Related Sciences) as a national officer and member in the Penn State Chapter. I was and still am a member of the National Pest Management Association, Pi Chi Omega pest management fraternity and the Entomological Society of America, all of which helped me build social and professional networks. I also received a Master's of Education while I was doing my Ph.D., which allowed me to hone in on my teaching and program development and evaluation skills, which I particularly liked.

Q: So what advice would you give to someone who wants to be successful in research, teaching or extension in entomology or a related field?

A: The best thing to do is to figure out exactly what you want and who you want to be, professionally. Then you put together a framework of how to get there and do everything you can to make yourself stand out in that field. You want to make yourself marketable by creating your own niche, so you are the best and brightest at that one thing and the only one other people can go to for that knowledge. If you've done that, you can write your ticket anywhere, and people will look to you for expertise. Once you perfect your skillset to a point that people can't live without you, you're in a very good place.