Conservation Matters at UNCG! Enter the World of Honey Bee Reproductive Health
For the graduate students at UNCG, the phrase “finding your way here” often holds different meanings. But one common understanding seems to be that students want to make an impact on the world around them, and one path to this audacious goal is undertaking important and life-changing research.
The UNCG Graduate School oversees the welfare of 3,600 students from a diverse range of backgrounds. The efforts of graduate students who utilize research opportunities during their enrollment are supported by numerous funding mechanisms and countless resources, including writing workshops and competitions like Three-Minute Thesis. Because graduate student research matters, and our faculty and staff are committed to directing students down the right path.
For students like Lexi Hoopman, these opportunities have sustained a life-long interest in science. She even tells us that she followed insects around her backyard when she was young – a talented observer in the making.
Therefore, it seems like she has always had a long-standing commitment to conservation, and her journey has only just begun!
Lexi Hoopman is a fourth-year PhD candidate in the Environmental Health Sciences Laboratory of Dr. Kasie Raymann here at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. Her research interests started during her junior year of college at North Dakota State University (NDSU). She completed her undergraduate studies there from 2014 to 2018 and obtained a Bachelor’s of Science in Biology with minors in Chemistry and Psychology.
Recently, Lexi has been awarded a predoctoral fellowship in the AFRI-EWD program from the National Institute of Food Agriculture (NFIA) in the United States Department of Agriculture. Lexi will receive $180,000 for the three-year fellowship that will help support her research and dissertation efforts.
In support of her research, the Graduate School reached out and asked her several questions about her predoctoral fellowship and how the award will further her goals and aspirations.
Tell us more about your predoctoral fellowship. How does that change the trajectory of your career path? Where will it take you?
“My predoctoral fellowship will fund my salary, tuition, research supplies, travel, publication costs and more for the next three years. Being a National Institute of Food Agriculture (NIFA) predoctoral fellow [means] I have the chance to share my research with a broader audience. In the future, this fellowship will open more doors for me after graduation.”
Commitment to Research
What has led you to pursue a PhD at UNCG?
During her undergraduate studies at North Dakota State University (NDSU), Lexi explained that the school’s Biology curriculum was re-evaluated and changed to include a required research course. This unexpected change led her down an interesting path, and she proposed a research question that resulted in a newfound focus on the honey bee as a model. This transformation evolved into joining a research lab at NDSU: “I was employed by NDSU and the local USDA to research the impact of Glyphosate (the active ingredient in Roundup) on honey bee sperm. I was presenting my research at a conference in San Francisco when I met other researchers who guided me to Dr. Kasie Raymann.”
From there, Lexi moved to Greensboro to start her PhD program.
Of course, the Graduate School was also interested to learn more about Lexi’s research interests. Where did they come from? What has inspired her to pursue this important subject matter?
Tell us more about your research background.
Lexi’s research interests revolve around reproductive toxicology and microbiology. Her undergraduate research focused on these topics, so she was able to formulate her dissertation based on the knowledge she acquired from her undergraduate studies and the influence of her PhD advisor’s interests: “Dr. Raymann is a microbiologist who has studied the impact of antibiotics on honey bee worker gut microbiomes (the bacterial community that lives in the gut), and [I’ve] continued that research and investigated how a commonly used antibiotic affects the reproductive function and microbiomes of honey bees.”
Honey Bee Reproduction
Lexi’s critical research has the potential to change the trajectory of conservation practices as it pertains to protecting honey bee populations. However, there is also the growing concern of overusing antibiotics which could lead to antibiotic resistant bacteria. The implications here are important for casual audiences to understand, so the Graduate School asked Lexi how she might pitch her research to people who aren’t aware of this problem.
First, she discussed the overuse of antibiotics in agricultural animals like livestock, which can lead to the contamination of the products that we often take for granted such as milk and eggs. Tragically, these instances of antibiotics being found in places they shouldn’t be, has resulted in a problem that could have long-term consequences: “This mass use of antibiotics has led to the spread of antibiotic resistance in bacteria.”
In her research, Lexi focuses on the role of the honey bee queen – the most important member of the hive. Unfortunately, honey bee queen reproductive health has started to decline in recent years. Lexi’s research hones in on reproductive factors, such as mating and overall longevity, that have not previously been considered as leading causes in the decline of these populations. The causation of antibiotic treatments on these populations could also provide clues to uncover the reasons behind declining populations: “I am hoping that my research will highlight a need for antibiotic alternatives and will reduce the use of antibiotics, especially in species with reproductive declines.”
What comes next?
Beyond her research and the important conversation that it invites, Lexi also discussed her time at UNCG and the impact she hopes to leave behind on the Greensboro community.
What has brought you to this place?
Lexi explains that she has been inspired by the like-minded researchers who she has had the opportunity to meet over the years: “I was so lucky as an undergraduate to have research experience. I truly owe it to my two advisors from NDSU and the USDA for preparing me for a PhD program.”
What impact do you hope to have on the community?
Lexi wants to bridge the gap between scientists and the communities that they serve who might not be actively involved in research: “It is important as scientists to broadcast our findings in a way that everyone can access them.”
Lexi was also part of the IMPACTS program hosted by UNC’s Morehead Planetarium & Science Center in the Spring of 2020: “The program supplied us with the training and means to go into schools and teach young students about science. I believe there are many key scientific findings about our world that should be shared with children at a young age and this program allowed me to teach a couple of classes a year.”
The UNCG Graduate School strives to foster a community of its own kind. One that binds everyone together, and allows students to build connections that can last for a lifetime. The kind of influence that can change the lives of graduate students and provide them with opportunities for future success.
How has UNCG made an impact on your life?
“After becoming involved with the Graduate Student Association (GSA) at UNCG, I can truly say I feel at home here. I know that our university officials care about our wellbeing and education. I am proud to be a student at UNCG, and I am proud to be a small part of the change happening here.”
What are some of your favorite memories?
Some of Lexi’s favorite memories from her time at UNCG include traveling with her lab group to conferences where she has had the opportunity to meet with other researchers who shared similar interests. She has also enjoyed volunteering with the GSA in which she serves as Vice President. The GSA has served the campus and Greensboro Community with numerous outreach efforts: “It’s so much fun to watch others get excited about opportunities we can provide for them.”
The Future and Beyond
In looking to the future, we hope that our graduate students will utilize their time at UNCG in the pursuit of achieving long-term goals. Whether that might be teaching at the University level or finding a place in the Greensboro community at large, UNCG has the resources and opportunities to help students along the way. Ultimately, for anything that students accomplish during their time at UNCG, we hope that you look to make an impact and aim to support a better world for everyone.
What is your advice to current and prospective students who are interested in pursuing research at UNCG?
Oftentimes, undergraduate students believe that they need experience to get started with their research careers, but this is not true at all. Students can discern their own interests and reach out to their professors to schedule meetings and discuss whether or not there is an open position in that professor’s lab. Lexi explains that “if undergraduate students begin early enough, they can make advanced leaps in their research by the time they graduate.”
If you could go back in time and have a conversation with your ten-year-old self, what would you say?
“Follow your passions and don’t stick to the mainstream options. There are also people out there very similar to you. Be yourself and eventually you will find your people.”
What impact do you hope your research will have in the future?
In the past, researchers have only studied a handful of factors that could affect reproductive health. Lexi wants to take a holistic approach and search for new possibilities and theories to explain declining honey bee populations. She’s looking at different ways antibiotics are affecting honey bee fertility and survival. Hopefully, this research and methodology can be applied to a variety of situations, including with populations of agricultural animals who are often given antibiotics to help with their health: “I will use my results to make suggestions to both beekeepers and veterinarians about antibiotic use in honey bee hives.”
For more amazing stories like this one, check out the rest of the Graduate School website!