Bug lover, science policy advocate, and hiking enthusiast are some of the things that make Kara an incredible scientist and community leader.
Kara Fikrig is a second-year Ph.D. student in the Department of Entomology at Cornell University in Dr. Laura Harrington’s lab. She studies ecology and behavior of Aedes albopictus and Aedes aegypti mosquitoes, both of which are important vectors of numerous diseases including Zika, dengue, and chikungunya. Devoted to expanding her knowledge out of research, Kara has worked as a teaching assistant, served as Outreach Committee chair for the Entomology Department, and worked to develop skills as a science policy advocate through a class and a trip to Washington DC.
“My first project was about the feeding ecology of Aedes albopictus in Long Island, NY. I spent last summer collecting mosquitoes in people’s yards and farms with the help of 5 undergraduate field assistants. We have found that this species feeds on a lot of different animals, including humans, cats, opossum, and horses. After we finish with the lab analyses, the next step will be to write a paper so that we can share our results and hopefully provide additional information for evidence-based decisions in vector control for Long Island. I will be moving on to my second project soon, which will be investigating the introduction and establishment of Aedes aegypti mosquitoes along the Ucayali and Amazon Rivers in Peru.”
As long as Kara can remember she has always been fascinated by insects. She was the kid in the class that insisted that no one kill the spider! Finally, when Kara started her undergrad education at Yale University, she took her first Entomology class and instantly fell in love. She decided to keep exploring the bug world and the following summer she worked as an intern at the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute in Panama, where she researched the natural history of a species of Chrysomelid beetle. Kara loved the complexity and diversity of tropical entomology, but she wanted to work towards something more applied that would have a more direct impact on people’s lives. That’s when she decided to apply for a Master's of Public Health program and started the course work for the masters during her senior year.
In only five years, Kara finished a Bachelor's degree in Ecology and Evolutionary Biology and a Master's in Public Health. After those intense years, Kara took a year off and work in a ranch in Wyoming and Argentina. After her international adventure, Kara transitioned back into academia starting her Ph.D. in Entomology in Dr. Laura Harrington's lab. The transition to grad school wasn't easy for Kara as it isn't for any of us.
“The transition to graduate school is difficult. For most of our lifetime, our education has involved meeting externally set expectations and deadlines and receiving regular feedback in the form of a grade. In contrast, graduate school is largely self-driven. You have to decide what goals you need to meet and it can be difficult to determine what expectations are reasonable, which is a learned skill. You also have to become comfortable with assessing your success as you go. These things don’t happen overnight, and it’s important to allow yourself time to adjust!”
Kara says that it is crucial to be proactive about trying to find someone who seems willing to put energy and time into helping you progress as a scientist. “The mentors that I had throughout college and MPH were pivotal in helping me to navigate the complexities of finding funding, crafting research plans, and executing them in a relatively short time. Looking back, I have so much gratitude for the guidance and support of each of these mentors.”
In her free time, Kara enjoys playing in a community polo league, playing in a women’s and co-ed soccer league, and rock climbing. “I also have the world’s best dog, so I get out every day to walk or hike with her. Having a pet as a grad student can be hard, but I appreciate the pressure to maintain a healthy work-life balance and stay active, and I honestly can’t imagine it any other way now!” Kara also co-founded a division of the Cornell Outing Club for graduate students and is working towards increasing access to composting in Collegetown!
Kara's future goals include going into academia and finding a job that would allow her to do research, teaching, and be involved in advocacy. She believes that science is for everyone and that we need to keep encouraging women to study science in higher education, to apply to science PhDs, and to continue climbing the ladder.
“Women are still under-represented among the highest levels of science, and this is something that has to change. We all deserve to be at this table!”
Most importantly she believes in highlighting minority women in agriculture science and in general because representation really matters. “Seeing some aspect of yourself, whether it be in terms of race, gender, sexual identity, or otherwise in your peers can help to establish a sense of belonging, which in turn can influence happiness and success in a program.”
Kara’s role models are her amazing mother, a conscientious doctor at an HIV clinic in New Haven, and her advisor, Laura Harrington.
You can reach out to Kara Fikrig at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow her on twitter @KaraFikrig.
This article was written by WAGS co-founder Marlia Bosques-Martínez.