From a young age, Roni Gross had a goal of setting an example for young women looking to pursue a career in the fields of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM). “Women have always been underrepresented in this field,” said Gross. “I think it’s important to show other ambitious women that STEM is for everyone!”
Inspired by her own female science teachers, and driven by her passion for understanding the world through science, Gross began pursuing her STEM career at Northern Arizona University. She earned her bachelor’s degree in criminal justice and biology in 2017, followed by her master’s degree in biology from New Mexico State University in 2019. After graduating, Gross spent time learning new scientific techniques and honing her laboratory skills as part of the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Agricultural Research Service (ARS) Research Participation Program.
The USDA ARS Research Participation Program provides opportunities for students, postgraduates, established scientists and faculty to participate in programs, projects and activities at ARS facilities or university partners to help ARS solve agricultural problems of high national priority. During her appointment, Gross was stationed within the Pest Management and Biocontrol Unit in the Arid Land Agricultural Research Center located in Maricopa, Arizona. Under the guidance of her mentor, Joe Hull, Ph.D., she conducted research on Lygus hesperus, an agricultural pest more commonly known as the Western tarnished plant bug.
Lygus hesperus is a serious pest that causes millions of dollars in crop damage in the U.S. each year, targeting crops such as cotton, strawberries and alfalfa. Though there are several methods used to control the pest population, most are expensive, only partially effective or pose risks to other aspects of the environment. Through her research, Gross sought to identify new ways to biologically control and reduce Lygus hesperus population size.
In contrast to other methods of pest control, such as pesticides, biological control relies on the use of a pest’s natural predators or the manipulation of natural mechanisms in the organism or the environment.
“An example of biological control would be to make the male insects sterile by editing their genome and then releasing them into the population,” explained Gross.
Gross’ research focused on two specific projects that sought to identify new and effective methods of biological control. Her first project examined cloning and expression profiling of genes encoding neuropeptides in Lygus hesperus, which provided a baseline for studying how those genes impact critical physiological processes. Her second project involved assessing the utility of electroporation for inducing the uptake of double-stranded RNA in Lygus hesperus eggs and nymphs, which would provide a more efficient means of inducing knockdown of a gene than current microinjection-based methods.
“This was never done before in Lygus, so it was a learning curve but a very fun project,” said Gross. “It was an amazing opportunity, and I really recommend this appointment to anyone who is looking to gain experience in a lab with great people and interesting research.”
Following her appointment, Gross joined USDA ARS as a biological science technician and has continued her research on Lygus hesperus. She credits her fellowship with allowing her to gain valuable experience and learn new skills that strengthened her abilities as a researcher.
“My time with ORISE paved the way for the job I have today,” said Gross. “I am very thankful for the opportunity ORISE gave me and I couldn’t imagine myself on any other career path right now.”
Her advice for early STEM professionals?
“Don’t stress yourself out too much. Priorities can change in the lab frequently, especially when you’re not ready for them,” she said. “Learn to stay calm and be able to switch gears when needed. A ‘go with the flow’ mentality is a great start.”
The USDA ARS Research Participation Program is funded by USDA and is administered through the U.S. Department of Energy’s (DOE) Oak Ridge Institute for Science and Education (ORISE). ORISE is managed for DOE by ORAU.