Posted: April 3, 2024

The associate research professor in the Department of Entomology is at the forefront of efforts to halt the spread of the invasive spotted lanternfly

Photo credit: Michael Houtz

Photo credit: Michael Houtz

I was born and raised in Toledo, Ohio, and earned a bachelor's degree at the University of Dayton and a doctorate in human factors psychology from the University of Central Florida, with a research focus on military team performance. Upon graduation, I accepted a tenure track faculty position in psychology at Dowling College in Long Island, New York.

In teaching the history of psychology, I encountered the field of behavioral ecology, which brings an evolutionary perspective to the study of behavior, and it blew my mind. When teaching this material in class, I heard myself say, "If I had to do it all over again, I would study this" — "this" meaning evolutionary biology. I knew what I had to do but didn't know where it would lead. I resigned from my faculty position of four years. I could do so because my husband, Kevin Kinser, had just completed his doctorate in higher education and was offered a faculty position at Louisiana State University.

For two years, I taught psychology as an adjunct at Southeastern Louisiana University while taking undergraduate science classes at Louisiana State. Then, Kevin got a position at the University at Albany. To provide additional context, my desire was to work in a DNA laboratory. As luck would have it, the lab in evolutionary genetics belonged to an entomologist, Jason Cryan, at the New York State Museum in Albany. He was starting a project on planthoppers — sap-feeding insects that not only "sing" via substrate-borne vibration, but also display many fantastical and unexplored features, such as elaborate wax plumes, elongated head structures and a "fairyland of symbioses" with multiple bacteria and fungi.

Up to that point in my life, I had never voluntarily touched an insect. But planthoppers had me immediately hooked, and still do. Fast-forward five years: In 2008, I was awarded a doctorate in evolutionary biology, focusing on planthopper evolution with a special emphasis on the family Fulgoridae (aka lanternflies).

I was in my first science job at the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences in Raleigh in 2014 when I learned that Lycorma delicatula, the spotted lanternfly, had been detected in the U.S. in Berks County, Pennsylvania. I was asked to serve as an adviser on the spotted lanternfly for the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service and the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture, and I continue in that role today. In 2016, I had the opportunity to join the Department of Entomology at Penn State, where I've been leading several large, collaborative grant projects on spotted lanternfly research and outreach.

I found the balance and passion I sought in my museum work and work at Penn State. Studying the basic biology of lanternflies and other understudied planthoppers is hugely rewarding because there is so much to discover. That discovery process fuels my passion to share what I've learned in my teaching, mentorship to the students and postdocs in my lab, and to growers and public science audiences.

For the first time, I can see how our work directly impacts growers, who are a new audience to me. This has required me to shift my basic evolutionary biology research to more applied pest management research. But the most important thing I have learned is that in science at any level, it is OK not to be knowledgeable about an area. Success and progress come from a constant willingness to learn more.