A question & answer session to get to know the 2021 GG Scholar Ariel Tarrand, 1st year graduate student in the Plant Biology Department.

What aspect of genetics and/or genomics most interests you?

I’m interested in everything related to genes, but right now my favorite areas are plant-microbe-insect interactions and gene drive. Gene drive systems take advantage of gene editing tools to push a certain gene through a population, usually to manage pest insects. With gene drive, we can give evolution a nudge in a certain direction. I think it’s amazing that we’ve come so far in only about a century of genetics research.

What (or Who) influenced you to go into your field of study?

I’ve had lots of important mentors along the way. Mark Mandica, an amphibian conservationist, first sparked my interest in biology at a middle school summer camp. In undergrad, I took a class on Darwin where I connected with a computational botany lab that introduced me to the world of plants, and the world of big data. Then I took a plant pathology course and became obsessed with the genetics of plants, pests, and pathogens. But really, it’s nature that makes me most excited about science.

Who or what do you hope benefits from your research?

In general, I’d like to help the people who grow and harvest our food. My current gene drive project will benefit fruit growers by reducing invasive pests that cause serious damage to crops like strawberries and blueberries. I hope to one day develop products that take advantage of biology and genetics to improve agriculture, nutrition, and ecosystem health.

How can your research be used to inform decision makers (e.g. policy makers, resource managers, health practitioners, K12 educators, etc etc)?

I hope my research will show policy makers that genetic tools like gene drive are safe and effective ways to improve the welfare of our society. I want to teach people not to be afraid of science-based solutions.

What do you think is the most pressing issue or problem in your field of study?

I think a lack of public trust and understanding prevents genetics research from being applied to real-world problems. Especially in the area of gene editing, there has been a lot of historic mistrust. People have real concerns, which is why we need to work hard to address the social and ecological implications of our work.

How do you expect the GG Scholars program to impact your work?

Oh, it’s had a huge impact! GGS has already introduced me to new research areas like gene drive, which I’m currently exploring. The interdisciplinary seminars have given me insights into subjects I never considered before. The connections I’m building right now with my cohort will become my network of future collaborators. Most importantly, it’s a community that has had my back since day one.

How would you describe your research interests to a 3rd grader?

There are bugs that like to eat fruits and vegetables just like you. Sometimes these bugs eat too much of our food before we can harvest it, leaving less food for people to eat. I’m working on a way to get rid of some of the bugs without using chemicals, so that we can feed people more easily and more safely.

What’s your dream job?

I don’t have the details yet, only the outline. My dream is to be involved in biology at all levels, from molecular genetics to community ecology, and harness what we know to make the world better. I want to be a bridge between scientific and public audiences, helping people understand some of the amazing research going on around them.