Portrait of

Insect Ecology

Dr. Michelle Tseng, an assistant professor in the UBC Department of Zoology, talks about her research on how insects are adapting to global warming. She also shares a project that she and her students completed in a fourth year Insect Ecology class.

Hi! My name is Michelle Tseng, and I'm an assistant professor in the departments of Botany and Zoology at UBC, and our lab is situated in the Biodiversity Research Centre. My lab group does a bunch of things in ecology and evolutionary biology. We study insects and aquatic organisms and how they respond to different temperatures, and more broadly how these communities are responding to increased temperatures around the world.

At UBC, I teach two, sometimes three classes. The two main classes that I teach are a second year ecology class called Fundamentals of Ecology and then a fourth year class called Insect Ecology. We do a lot of research projects in Insect Ecology - the whole class together. We brainstorm ideas and we come up with projects. One of the projects we did was we used the beetle collections at the Beaty Biodiversity Museum to see if beetles in British Columbia have been shrinking in size with climate change. We sort of expected them to because when you grow insects at warmer temperatures they tend to come out as like as smaller adults, but we didn't know if this was happening in nature. So we measured, the students measured thousands and thousands of beetles. Then we ran a whole bunch of stats and we found out that they have been shrinking with climate change, which is a really interesting result.

How did you choose to study biology?

So a lot of people ask me, you know, how did you get to where you are today? Like was there a certain moment in your life where you decided that "Oh yeah! I wanted to be an insect biologist!" or, I wanted to study ecosystems. I didn't really have a set time. There was no like "Aha!" moment. I was really lucky that ever since I was an undergrad, I was involved in a lot of really cool research projects. Like as an undergrad at University of Toronto, I got to study the world's largest water strider, which is  really unique. Water striders are those... they look like spiders, but they're six-legged insects that walk on top of the water. The one I studied was about the size of my face. So that was really cool. I got to study them both in the lab as well as in their native habitat in Southeast Asia.

What advice do you have for young students?

So those of you who are really interested in nature and you really like being outside and you wonder a lot about, you know, why are these animals here? Why are these plants here? And what are they doing? I would really encourage you to stick with that topic, and that's because as humans we are totally surrounded by nature and we actually know very, very little about how nature works. I could use a lot more of you helping me to figure out all these different mysteries! There's definitely many careers worth of mysteries to figure out, so hopefully you'll join me in a few years...

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