By Mike Haen
Earning her MS in agroecology and entomology (2009) and her PhD in entomology (2015) from the University of Wisconsin–Madison, Rachel Mallinger currently studies attraction—the kind that involves bees and flowers, and which is especially consequential for farmers in the state of Wisconsin and beyond.
Mallinger works at the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) as a Research Entomologist, where she conducts applied agricultural research on sunflower traits (e.g. flower color and shapes) in North Dakota. “I am looking at plant traits and how they affect how attractive the plant is to native wild bees and other pollinators,” Mallinger explained. This work is very important for farmers, who might be able to produce higher crop yields if researchers like Mallinger can identify and replicate sunflower traits that bees find most attractive.
When she started her undergraduate education at Kalamazoo College in Michigan, Mallinger was interested in biology and considered pursuing a career in the medical field. However, an undergraduate research project on pest control, specifically on moth species in fruit orchards, cultivated her passion for agricultural entomology research. Reflecting back on this undergraduate experience, Mallinger noted that she “really enjoyed the scientific process, being outdoors, and doing work in natural ecosystems and agricultural ecosystems.” After this introduction to agricultural entomology, she explored graduate programs and was interested in UW–Madison because of its unique agroecology master’s program, which at the time was one of the few programs of that type in the country. As she neared the completion of her master’s, Mallinger decided to stay at the university to complete her PhD.
As a PhD student, Mallinger’s research interests and focus were slightly different. “I was looking at how factors, like pesticide use and various landscape types, affect the abundance and diversity of native wild bees, particularly in orchards,” she explained. While at Madison, Mallinger also dedicated her time to mentoring five undergraduate students, who were either completing a senior thesis or doing an independent research project for a large biology class. She also worked as a Teaching Assistant for for the course General Ecology and for Biocore, in which she taught the lab portions of ecology, evolution, and genetics courses.
A final highlight of her graduate career involved working with thirty different farmers (apple growers) across the state of Wisconsin, while she researched native wild bees in orchards. She explained that, “Working with those farmers cemented my desire to do applied agricultural research. Presenting my research to them was very informative in terms of improving my ability to communicate research to broader audiences.” In the future, Mallinger wants to continue doing scientific work that will have applied and immediate impacts on the agriculture industry.