Spring 2024

Cover Story

Participants in a Wisconsin Bumble Bee Brigade event observe and collect data for submission to the citizen science project. The event was hosted by the Insect Ambassadors, an outreach group led by CALS graduate students. Photo by Romulo Ueda


It’s a summer evening in early July, and the sun is sinking into Lake Mendota. Along University Bay, the windows of campus buildings bathe in a golden glow. But across the water, a spectacle of a different kind is beginning to twinkle among the trees on Picnic Point. First one, then two, then dozens of fireflies wink and blink into action. And based on the oohs and aahs coming from a small crowd armed with nets and petri dishes, you’d think it’s a Fourth of July fireworks show. Instead, it’s Firefly Night, an event organized by a group of entomology graduate students called the Insect Ambassadors.

“I got one!“ exclaims 4-year-old Zongyi Shen as she hands over her wiggly prize to Eliza Pessereau, a master’s student in entomology and agroecology. Zongyi’s firefly is measured, photographed, and documented for the Firefly Atlas citizen science project. Next, Zongyi, the daughter of UW engineering graduate student Weijun Shen and his wife, Qing Xu, carefully lifts the petri dish lid and releases her flashing friend back into the evening sky.

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Firefly Night is one of seven Community Science events the Insect Ambassadors coordinated for summer 2023 with funding from the Lakeshore Nature Preserve. The insect-centric events introduce kids and families to citizen science programs that monitor monarch butterfly larvae, bumble bees, and dragonflies or focus on garden pests and beneficials.

Pessereau is not the only ambassador on site on this particular evening. Ph.D. student Jade Kochanski BS’16, MS’20, who works with Pessereau in the lab of entomology professor Claudio Gratton, mingles among the participants. Kochanski is studying bumble bees for her doctoral research, but she has a side interest in fireflies. Celeste Huff BS’20 is also on hand. She’s a master’s student in entomology who works in the lab of Leslie Holland, an assistant professor and extension specialist in plant pathology. Huff spent the past summer studying pollinators in the cranberry bogs of central Wisconsin.

All three graduate students have gathered on Picnic Point alongside 20 other people ranging in age from preschoolers to seniors. They’re waiting for the summer sunlight to fully fade so the “stars” of the evening can begin to flash.

As they cool their heels, Kochanski talks up the tiny celebrities. There are about 2,000 species of fireflies in the world, she explains, and about 24 of them are found in Wisconsin. These insects are typically referred to as fireflies in the northern U.S., but down South, they’re more likely to be called lightning bugs. And there are many other names for this fascinating member of the beetle family: candle flies, firebobs, firebugs, jack-o-lanterns, lamp bugs, peeni wallies, and will-o’-the-wisps, depending on your region of the country. (Read more in Five Things Everyone Should Know About Fireflies, Grow, summer 2018.)

Entomology graduate student Celeste Huff (right) discusses a field guide for bee identification with a participant during a Wisconsin Bumble Bee Brigade event hosted by the CALS Insect Ambassadors in summer 2023. Photo by Romulo Ueda

According to Kochanski, when we spot a firefly on a Wisconsin summer evening, we’re only glimpsing a short phase of its one- to two-year lifecycle. The insects spend a week or two flying around, flashing their lights to attract mates. The eggs they lay will mature for about a week and then spend a year or two in the soil as larvae and pupae, phases during which they also emit light (hence, yet another name for these insects: glowworms).

“Not all the adults light up, but all the larvae do,’’ Kochanski explains.

After the introduction, Kochanski hands out guide sheets from the Firefly Atlas with visual depictions of the flash patterns that identify the different species most likely to be seen in Wisconsin. The flashes range from warm amber to yellow green to neon green-blue, and the patterns they take on can be described using terms such as crescendo flash (building, then ending abruptly) and flash-train (a multiple flash sequence that repeats), and by the intervals between flashes. And many species engage in what’s known as “flash dialogue” between males and females, a sort of disco version of a mating dance.

“On a warm night, they’ll blink faster than a cool night because of the chemistry involved,’’ Kochanski says.

A close-up of the Wisconsin Bumble Bee Brigade “Field Guide to Females.” Photo by Romulo Ueda

At the end of the night, the Insect Ambassadors collect forms and ship them off to the Firefly Atlas, a citizen science project that tracks the health of this popular yet dwindling species.

The Insect Ambassadors don’t stop with fireflies, either. Later in the summer, they will host another community science event at the Lakeshore Nature Preserve where participants collect data to be submitted to the Wisconsin Bumble Bee Brigade, another citizen science project that tracks the health of the state’s native pollinators. The Lakeshore Nature Preserve events occur during summer, when Wisconsin’s insects are easier to find, but the Insect Ambassadors plan events throughout the school year, presenting in classrooms from elementary schools to high school Advanced Placement biology courses.

The Ambassadors may look like serious, adult scholars, but they bubble with the same wonder for nature as 4-year-old Zongyi.

“I’ve always been a bug nut,’’ Huff says. “I was the dirty kid; I was the 9-year-old out in the field with a guidebook, trying to identify flowers and bugs.”

So, yes, Firefly Night on Picnic Point is a search for insects flashing their mating signs, but it also helps the bug people find each other.


At a S.T.E.A.M. Saturday science event at the Monona Public Library in August, plant pathology Ph.D. student Evan Lozano uses a whiteboard to walk a young child through a series of questions about how best to care for a tomato plant. (S.T.E.A.M. stands for science, technology, engineering, art, and math.) Like Huff, the Insect Ambassador, Lozano works in the Holland lab. But this event is coordinated by a different group of graduate students called What’s Eating My Plants? (WEMP).

At the S.T.E.A.M. Saturday event, WEMP volunteer graduate student Miette Hennessy assembles a Lego kit showing blossom end rot. Photo by Michael P. King

“Would you feed a tomato a cup of coffee?’’ Lozano asks.

“No!” the little girl responds.

“How about a can of soda


After deciding together that water and sunshine are the best things for tomato plants, Lozano explains that a plant can develop something called blossom end rot when it gets too thirsty. Without adequate water, the plant can’t move calcium to the fruit, causing the far end to soften and start to decay. Lozano tells the little girl, “You need calcium for strong bones, and plants do, too.”

At a nearby table, another WEMP member, Miette Hennessy, who is studying fungal genetics in soil microbial communities for her doctoral work, helps youngsters paint tomatoes while engaging in a spirited discussion on the HBO streaming series The Last of Us with one of the parents in attendance. The premise of the show involves a fungus that turns people into zombies. To the father, Hennessy describes the real-world inspiration: a “suicide fungus” called Ophiocordyceps, which infects ants and sends chemical signals that instruct it to climb to the top of the plant. Then the fungus kills the ant and sends a stalk up through its head, which showers spores on other ants and continues the cycle.

What’s Eating My Plants (WEMP) volunteer graduate student Max Chibuogwu prepares for a S.T.E.A.M. Saturday event at the Monona Public Library where Lego kits could be assembled to illustrate healthy tomatoes and tomatoes exhibiting blossom end rot. The kits were designed by Brian Hudelson, director of the Plant Disease Diagnostics Clinic at CALS. Photo by Michael P. King

Like the Insect Ambassadors, WEMP brings the wonders of the life sciences to many communities. These plant pathology graduate students look to increase scientific accessibility and literacy through outreach, especially for underserved communities and underrepresented K-12 students. And they have cultivated some novel ways for teaching about plants — and what kills them. They recently unveiled a new instructional aide perfect for educating kids about garden plants during Wisconsin’s long winters: Legos.

The children who attended the next S.T.E.A.M. Saturday in Monona, held in December, were the first to try making Lego models of tomatoes. They used a red and green set of plastic bricks to build healthy tomatoes and another set to make a blackened tomato suffering from blossom end rot.

The Lego tomatoes were designed by Brian Hudelson MS’89, PhD’90, director of the Plant Disease Diagnostics Clinic at CALS, using BrickLink Studio 2.0. The software allows him to model plants in 3D and then analyze the Lego bricks needed for the project. He’s worked out models of other diseases, such as cedar apple rust, corn smut, downy mildew, and silver leaf, but not all the bricks are commercially available, so he’s trying to create them on a 3D printer.

Nathan Maxwell and his daughter, Hailey, of Cottage Grove, assemble a Lego kit that illustrates a healthy tomato at the S.T.E.A.M. Saturday event. Photo by Michael P. King

Before the Lego models existed, the WEMP students taught the course by making papier-mâché tomatoes that the kids could paint to emulate the mushy, black blossom end characteristic of diseased tomatoes.

The WEMP students coordinate a number of family science nights and participate in the Saturday Science events at the Discovery Building on the UW campus. During the COVID-19 epidemic, WEMP students produced a series of YouTube videos designed to teach science lessons at home. One at-home activity features coloring pages with plant vascular structures that complement an episode of The Magic School Bus, an animated children’s television series. The effort was lauded by the American Phytopathological Society.

Max Chibuogwu, a doctoral student who studies fungal diseases of corn in the lab of plant pathology professor and extension specialist Damon Smith, attended the Monona library event wearing the “Badger Crop Doc” khaki uniform, part of his work with the extension service that diagnoses Wisconsin crop diseases. Chibouogwu, who is from Nigeria, said he particularly enjoyed participating in a Juneteenth Day festival where WEMP students handed out seeds for cow peas and taught children about food crops that originated in Africa.

WEMP students are known for their passionate outreach to families of color, says Amanda Gevens, chair of the plant pathology department, in nominating WEMP for the CALS Equity and Diversity Award. She notes that they produce lesson plans in Spanish and English and have held events for the Latino Youth Summit, Centro Hispano, and “Expanding Your Horizons,” a day on campus for middle school students to learn more about science, technology, engineering, and math research.

Faculty Support for WEMP
Faculty advisors in the Department of Plant Pathology are vital to WEMP’s efforts. Their labs provide resources for WEMP programs, such as supplies, cultures, and other materials. They also offer guidance and time. In addition to the previously mentioned Gevens, Holland, and Smith, CALS professors Caitlyn Allen and Medhi Kabbage and CSU plant pathology professor Amy Charkowski BS’93 help graduate students make WEMP a success.


WEMP was founded in 2012 by doctoral student Alejandra Huerta PhD’15. The daughter of farm workers who moved between California’s Central Valley and Mexico, Huerta is passionate about reaching children of color and exposing them to the science of agriculture.

“When I was growing up, I saw the labor part of agriculture, not the science,’’ she says, adding that she was strongly discouraged from studying science. She remembers having a rough transition between sunny California, where she had earned undergraduate degrees, and frigid Madison. She had failed her preliminary exams and was questioning her future.

Ana Cristina Fulladolsa Palma, who cofounded the What’s Eating My Plants? graduate student outreach group with Alejandra Huerta, works with grade school students during a Science Night event in March 2014. Photo courtesy of Alejandra Huerta

“I had never been in a place where I was the only dark-haired individual in the room,’’ Heurta says. She also felt discouraged from pursuing extracurricular work when she was supposed to be concentrating on her research. That all changed one day when she was eating lunch at the Babcock Dairy Store, and a tall Black man walked in, trailed by about 20 kids of color. The man was Tom Browne, who is now senior assistant dean for climate and engagement at CALS. He introduced Huerta to opportunities to engage with children about science.

Her first events were a long way from the bespoke Lego sets of today’s WEMP. Huerta remembers scrounging dead plants that had been discarded in plant pathology labs and begging colleagues for samples that kids could examine under a microscope.

“Finally, my good friend [fellow grad student Ana Cristina Fulladolsa Palma PhD’15] asked me, ‘What are you doing with all this stuff? Can I come?’ ” Huerta recalls. “So, a one-person thing became a two-person thing. She got excited, too, and we started inviting others to join us.”

Huerta says she named What’s Eating My Plants? with an eye toward what would appeal to children. It appealed to the American Phytopathological Society, too. The organization gave the WEMP team a grant to buy a microscope and other supplies, so they could quit begging for materials and scavenging from the lab trash.

Huerta is now an assistant professor at North Carolina State University (NCSU), where she leads a research team that focuses on how bacterial plant pathogens compete against other organisms. She started the position after doing postdoctoral studies at Colorado State University (CSU). Fulladolsa Palma, who grew up in Guatemala, is now on the faculty at CSU, where she is a plant disease diagnostician and assistant professor.

Other WEMP alums can be found from the University of British Columbia, where Corri Hamilton PhD’22 is a postdoctoral researcher, to the Puerto Rican Agricultural Extension Service, where Sofia Macchiavelli Giron PhD’21 is an assistant extension agent. Tina Wu, who is university relations coordinator with the National Society of Minoritiesin Agriculture, Natural Resources, and Related Sciences, says her WEMP involvement improved her leadership and communication skills and helped her learn how to approach science outreach through a lens of diversity, equity, and inclusion.

Ostin Tu uses a magnifying glass to examine an insect on a flower during a Wisconsin Bumble Bee Brigade event hosted by the CALS Insect Ambassadors in summer 2023. Photo by Romulo Ueda

Huerta says she is leveraging the new-found privilege of her faculty position to broaden the reach of the university to include communities often excluded from STEM. This includes working with Latinx students through NCSU’s Juntos college access program. In her case, getting kids excited about science helped turn her own academic career around. She still remembers the first group of kids she invited to UW’s Russell Labs, a group of middle schoolers who were on campus for the Latinx Summit.

“They would get very excited to see bacteria under the microscope or a nematode swimming,’’ she says. “We had plants that were engineered to fluoresce, and we’d turn off the lights and they’d be very impressed. You would hear, ‘Oh my gosh! Look at that!’ ” And that was the spark she was looking to light.

⊕ Cover Story Sidebar: A Celebration of Curiosity

Learn about the annual Darwin Day festivities organized by the graduate students at Wisconsin Evolution.

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