Digging Deeper into Bumblebee Threats

Melissa Mobley, a PhD candidate in biology and biotechnology, receives prestigious NSF grant

July 17, 2015
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Melissa Mobley, PhD candidate, with Robert
Gegear, assistant professor of biology and
biotechnology.

WPI doctoral student Melissa Mobley has made impressive strides investigating the effects of harmful pathogens and pesticides on the behavior of bumblebees. Now, with a grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF), she will get a deeper look at how these threats impact bees on a molecular level.

Mobley, a PhD candidate in biology and biotechnology, recently received a prestigious NFS Doctoral Dissertation Improvement Grant (DDIG), an award that enables graduate students to pursue new and interesting directions related to their dissertation research.

Each year, the NSF awards about 120 DDIGs in biological sciences for activities including field research experiences, travel to access specialized equipment, and conference trips.

“What’s really valuable about DDIGs is that they let you think creatively without worrying so much about funding, and that’s where innovative ideas often stem from,” says Mobley.

Working with her advisor, WPI assistant professor of biology and biology Robert Gegear, Mobley has already made significant findings revealing what goes on in the brains of bumblebees who have been exposed to toxins. Namely, she discovered that common pathogens and pesticides can drastically impair the cognitive functions needed by bees to forage efficiently for food—and maintain the earth’s biodiversity through pollination.

With funding from the DDIG, Mobley will take her research a step further by collaborating with a lab at MIT to explore how such pathogens and pesticides affect bees at the cellular level.

“I wanted to look closer at the molecular side, or the actual DNA and genes of the bee, and see what was going on inside,” says Mobley. “I will be using a technique called quantitative PCR, which will allow me to measure the transcripts of genes to see which ones are stimulated more in response to a stressor.”

The DDIG will also enable Mobley to attend a conference later this year, and she notes that the experience of writing the proposal for the DIGG was valuable in and of itself.

“Applying for grants can be a bit discouraging, especially when award rates are so competitive, but I encourage all PhD students to apply to at least a few,” says Mobley. “It’s great practice for fine-tuning your writing skills, and submitting that final proposal after weeks of researching, writing, and editing is an amazing feeling.”

She adds, “I remember getting the email one day and literally jumping up and screaming. I am incredibly honored that NSF found my research important enough to fund and excited to get started on my new projects!”