Mari Irving '20,  recent biology alumna and BHC Scholar, completed her Honors in the Major thesis on the development of painted lady butterflies and how plant-insect relationships change seasonally. Besides her research, she was president of the Botanical Society at UCF and participated in an NSF Research Experience for Undergrads (REU) at Pepperdine University in Summer 2019. This fall, Mari will be joining the University of California Santa Barbara's Evolution, Ecology, and Marine Biology Department as she pursues her Ph.D.

What were you trying to discover with your Honors Undergraduate Thesis, and why were you interested in pursuing this topic? 

My Honors in the Major thesis was on how terpenes (a class of compounds produced by plants that serve a myriad of functions) affect the development of painted lady butterflies (Vanessa cardui). Terpenes are generally toxic to herbivores, so plants produce them to ward off possible predators, in this case, the hungry caterpillar. The goal of my project was to understand how toxic these compounds were, and if that toxicity changed at different temperatures, which is useful in order to understand how plant-insect relationships may change seasonally and as global warming escalates. I was interested in pursuing this topic because I am fascinated by species interactions and how the slightest environmental changes can have dramatic consequences. Also, I love butterflies and wanted experience working with them!

What leadership positions, research experiences, internship experiences, study abroad experiences, etc. did you have while at UCF? What did you learn from them and how do you think they helped you get where you are today?

My two most impactful UCF experiences were being president of the Botanical Society and participating in an NSF Research Experience for Undergrads (REU) at Pepperdine University in Summer 2019. Leading an RSO was probably one of the more challenging experiences, especially since the club was only active for one semester before I became president. This past year we began the plant breeding committee, the goal of which is to create a new datil pepper cultivar that is immune to several common plant diseases. The REU at Pepperdine was an amazing experience and confirmed my desire to pursue a career in ecological research. REUs are wonderful opportunities and I encourage anyone interested in research, in any field, to apply to them.

What is your long-term goal/future plan? What are you doing after graduation? How did the BHC help you to achieve these goals? 

My current goal is to get my Ph.D. This fall I'm joining the University of California Santa Barbara's Evolution, Ecology, and Marine Biology Department as a Ph.D. student and could not be more excited. BHC connected me to my first research group, the cognitive sciences lab. Although this isn't a field I am currently interested in, it jumpstarted me into the world of research.

If all things go right, 10 years from now I will most likely be:

Conducting research on the impacts of climate change on butterflies and working to conserve their habitats and food sources.

Favorite book and why?

Speaker for the Dead by Orson Scott Card. I love science fiction and this book features "xenobiologists" studying life on an alien planet trying to understand and ultimately cohabitate with newfound alien species. There is also a beautiful theme of understanding and being empathetic towards those unlike us. This book is the sequel to Enders Game, another highly recommended read.