Posted: August 17, 2022

With the hopes of increasing awareness and interest in public health and medical entomology, Penn State alumna Alexis Barbarin created an annual award for graduate students funded by yearly royalties she receives from a patent.

With the hopes of increasing awareness and interest in public health and medical entomology, Penn State alumna Alexis Barbarin created an annual award for graduate students pursuing research and degrees in that field. The BEDBUGS Award is being funded by yearly royalties Barbarin receives from a patent for a bedbug pesticide she helped research while pursuing her doctorate.

Consideration for The BEDBUGS Award, which stands for Broadening Entomological Diversity by Unearthing Graduate Studies, will be given to full-time graduate students pursuing a degree in entomology in the College of Agricultural Sciences who demonstrate excellence in the areas of urban or public health entomology. The awards will be for one academic year, but recipients will be considered for the award in subsequent years if they demonstrate further accomplishments. Recipients may use the award to fund a research project of their choosing, attend a conference or buy supplies, among other options.

“Alexis excelled in our program — her Ph.D. work has had a great impact on bedbug control,” said Gary Felton, professor and head of the Department of Entomology. “This award she’s created will help ensure that we can recruit and support students working in the important area of public health and urban pest management.”

Barbarin, who graduated in 2012 with a doctorate in entomology, is a native of New Orleans, Louisiana. She and her family were displaced by Hurricane Katrina, but Barbarin was able to complete her undergraduate degree from Xavier University of Louisiana. After getting accepted to Penn State, she was to pursue research on spongy moths. However, having grown up in an urban environment and with a desire to make a difference for those dealing with pests in urban areas, she struggled to feel connected to the work she was doing on the forest pest.

“I decided I wanted to work on bedbugs, but I didn’t have the funding,” said Barbarin. “Thankfully, I was honored as both a Bunton-Waller Fellow and a Sloan Scholar. The Sloan Foundation afforded me the opportunity to have financial freedom, which is paramount as a graduate student! And, it ultimately provided the funding I needed to do research on bedbugs.”

Toward the end of her program, Barbarin was approached about pursuing research with Dr. Nina Jenkins, an entomology research professor, on a potential bedbug pesticide. The experiment proved successful and with the support of a RAIN (Research Applications for Innovation) Grant through the college, Jenkins founded ConidioTec and filed for a patent to commercialize the research.

Today, Barbarin is one of two public health entomologists for the state of North Carolina, focusing on ticks and tick-borne illnesses. She is also an adjunct professor at North Carolina State University, where she completed her second post-doctoral position. Through her success, she looks back on her time at Penn State with immense gratitude.

“I am just so thankful that the department took a chance on this girl from New Orleans who was essentially homeless and displaced by Katrina,” said Barbarin. “I had to learn so much, but I’m so thankful they took a chance on me and it worked out. I knew I needed to do something to give back.”

Since 2017, Barbarin has been receiving royalties from the patent for the bedbug pesticide. After saving all the checks initially to help her purchase her first home, she knew she wanted to create an award to help graduate students at Penn State.

“I wanted to help graduate students pursue their own projects and fill needs that they have,” she said. “I also hope it brings more awareness and interest to public health and medical entomology and will help students who want to do research in those areas. I had my chance thanks to financial support, and now I hope this can be someone else’s chance.”

While Barbarin is funding the award annually for now, she hopes one day to endow it. She also hopes it inspires other graduates to give back.

“My hope is that other graduates will see the value in creating a gift and that students who get an award now will remember that and be inspired to create gifts in the future. There are not a lot of departmental awards in entomology so there is a limit to how much the department can help. My award isn’t big, but it’s a good starting point.”

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