Clarksville, TN – Going into the summer, Austin Peay State University (APSU) biology graduate Jessie Verrillo had simple plans – find a temporary waitressing or grocery job and volunteer to care for the beetles at Austin Peay’s Sundquist Science Complex.
But through good luck and hard work, she transformed her summer into something much bigger than she had expected.
In addition to spending time with the beetles in Dr. Kyle Benowitz’s research lab, which included a trip to the University of Georgia to learn extra molecular biology skills, she also accomplished the following:
- Served as an ambassador for Austin Peay State University’s corpse flower plant lovingly named Zeus, which bloomed in early July under the care of APSU’s Dr. Carol Baskauf.
- Served as a wildlife field technician in a comprehensive Austin Peay-Fort Campbell bat research project, led by APSU’s Dr. Catherine Haase.
- Interned at Walden’s Puddle Wildlife Center of Greater Nashville providing care to sick, injured or orphaned Tennessee wildlife.
And this fall, Verrillo – who graduated in May with a Bachelor of Science in Biology – is joining Benowitz as a full-time research lab manager tasked with grant-supported research using the roundneck sexton beetle.
“I still haven’t figured out what I want to do (for a career) because I want to try it all, and I want to learn it all,” she said. “I want to experience it all.”
We sat down with Verrillo for a 30-minute interview to discuss all that she accomplished this summer – and what lies ahead for the recent Austin Peay State University graduate. The following Q&A is edited for length and clarity.
Going into the summer, what did you expect was going to happen?
People were asking me for weeks, “Hey, you’re graduating soon, what are you going to do?” I had no idea. I had a few options, but I was just planning on trying to find a place to work – grocery stores, waitressing. Then I walked across the stage, and Dr. Haase said, “By the way, I have a job opening for the summer if you want it.” Yes, please!
I also continued to help with the Sundquist beetle lab because we can’t do research without beetles. And then I started interning at Walden’s Puddle. Yeah, I did not think my summer was going to be this busy (including a beach vacation with her family).
You mentioned your job with Dr. Haase. What’s the job specifically?
Wildlife field technician, so I’m one of her bat technicians. We set up mist nets, and we catch the bats and take data – species, weight, measure their forearm length – and we use all of that information for research. It’s been a great opportunity to get that kind of hands-on experience. Having that hands-on experience working with bats and doing actual field research has been great.
A lot of the jobs that I’ve looked into require a minimum amount of experience working with certain animals. A lot of the preferred skills that I’ve seen have been things like mist-netting (and tracking bats), which I wouldn’t have had the opportunity to learn without Dr. Haase. She has also helped me with a lot of other skills.
You’re still trying to figure out if you want to pursue a graduate degree?
It was the fall of 2019 when I returned to school. My son had just started preschool, and my daughter was in third grade. I really lost a lot of time with them over the last 2 ½ years with all the studying that I had to do. I had to relearn how to learn. I had to relearn how to take notes. It had been nine years since I had been in school, and I forgot how to be a student.
I was 30 and going back to school with these 18- and 19-year-olds who seemed super-intelligent. I struggled. But, you know, I also showed my kids that this is the kind of work that you have to put in to reach your goals and to do the things that you really want to do. But I lost time with them, so I’m taking the next two years to work and get that experience while I also get to spend time with my kids.
You started the summer as a wildlife field technician for Dr. Haase. When did you get involved with the corpse flower?
I was in the beetle lab feeding beetles when Dr. (Carol) Baskauf came over and announced that Dr. Benowitz wanted to collaborate and experiment with the carrion beetles and the corpse flower because they’re naturally attracted to the flower. She introduced me to Zeus and up until that point, I honestly didn’t know the corpse flower was there.
I’m very much a people person. I really do like sharing knowledge and teaching people about things that I find interesting, especially when it comes to nature. I did have a couple of nights where I helped with Zeus during the day and went out for mist-netting at night.
What have this summer’s experiences meant to you?
I love learning new things, and I love having interesting and important knowledge to share. Everything that I’ve learned with the bats, everything that I learned interning at Walden’s Puddle, everything that I learned going to Georgia, it’s just been a summer of growth. I think that’s probably the best way to describe it. It’s been a lot, and I’ve loved every second of it.
A lot of people sometimes find themselves in similar situations as you were in May where you didn’t know what your summer was going to bring. Do you have any advice for them?
I think the biggest thing is just networking, talking and getting to know people, especially in biology. In the biology department, all the professors are incredible. They want you to be successful.
They want you to find what you love and what you’re passionate about. And they absolutely want to help you. Professors aren’t here just to lecture and give you tests. They genuinely want you to find your passion and be successful.
What’s your biggest lesson from the summer?
I think it always falls back on being willing to learn new skills any chance you get. Never stop wanting to learn and grow. Take the internship at Walden’s Puddle, for example, I have learned so much in the two months I’ve been there just listening and talking and asking questions. Just because it’s not the school year doesn’t mean you should stop learning and stop pursuing new knowledge.
This fall semester, Verrillo will start her job in Benowitz’s lab. The research will investigate a wild population of the burying beetle Nicrophorus orbicollis, commonly known as the roundneck sexton beetle.
The research’s objectives are to:
- Find the alleles with direct genetic effects on multiple aspects of parental care behavior and offspring fitness.
- Find the alleles with indirect genetic effects on offspring fitness traits.
- Estimate the genetic correlation between direct and indirect genetic effects and the alleles underlying such correlations.