Graduate Research Spotlight: Avery Pearson | College of Science
February 14, 2024

Graduate Research Spotlight: Avery Pearson

Meet Avery Pearson, a UNT biology graduate student working in the lab of Dr. Elinor Lichtenberg, where she studies plant-animal interactions from ecological perspectives. For her research work, Avery spends a lot of time visiting local rangeland sites across North Texas, collecting data on the composition of the vegetation and local pollinator communities.

"These rangeland sites are managed under different grazing management practices, so I'm investigating how grazing management impacts the types and frequency of plant-pollinator interactions at these sites," she explained. "I'm also looking to see how pollinator traits (sociality, body size, what they feed on, etc.) play into how pollinators respond to changing resource availability at each site."

Ever since a young age, Avery was interested in ecology and conservation, but her earnest investment in pollinator research was sparked during her undergraduate thesis work at the College of Wooster in Ohio, where she obtained her B.A. in Biology in 2020.

"I looked at how effectively different bees moved a native prairie flower's pollen from the plant's male fitness perspective. This experience introduced me to the world of native pollinators and showed me how much I enjoy the research process," she said. "From there, I went on to take a seasonal tech position in Montana where I assisted on research projects focusing on plant-pollinator interactions from the pollinator perspective, which only heightened my enthusiasm for research in this field and inspired me to apply to grad school!"

For her graduate degree, Avery hoped to find a lab that focused on native pollinator research so she could continue her investigation into pollination networks. She was excited to discover Dr. Lichtenberg's lab at UNT, where faculty and students study a variety of plant-animal interactions, insect foraging, and insect biodiversity.

"Dr. Lichtenberg seemed like an advisor who would really support me and push me to take advantage of opportunities to further my development as a scientist. The lab culture also struck me as especially welcoming and supportive, which seemed like an ideal environment to help me grow," said Avery. "I've been proven right on both counts and this lab has been a wonderful environment for me to continue to mature as a scientist."

Avery cites Dr. Lichtenberg's mentorship as an important catalyst for her success as a graduate student.

"She's coached me through the process of grant-writing, made sure I'm aware of professional development opportunities and encouraged me to apply for them, made countless introductions for me with experts in the field, and pushed me to hone my leadership skills," she said. "Her feedback has helped me make huge strides in my scientific communication skills."

At the encouragement of Dr. Lichtenberg, Avery recently represented UNT at the Entomological Society of America conference last November, presenting her research in a talk titled "Synergies and tradeoffs in conserving diverse pollinators: a traits-based approach." She was awarded the President's Prize in the Plant-Insect Ecosystems: Biodiversity and Ecology section of the student competition for her presentation.

"I felt super honored to receive this award!" she said. "The session had a lot of stellar talks given by other promising up-and-coming researchers in the field, so to be singled out for an award was a huge honor. It helped boost my confidence as a scientist and combat some of the imposter syndrome that I struggle with."

Avery's undergraduate research was published last summer in the American Journal of Botany, the first of hopefully many publications. She's already collected most of the data she will be using for her graduate thesis and is looking forward to digging into insect identification this semester.

"Entomology research takes a long time because all the insects collected need to be identified before you can perform any data analyses, which involves tedious microscope work," she said. "However, this has been a skill I've been wanting to improve for a while now, so I'm excited to start tackling it. Plus, it will be really neat to get a better picture of what exactly our local pollinator diversity looks like in north Texas!"

In the long run, Avery hopes to turn her research into a career that will help improve our understanding of how local pollinators interact with their surroundings and inform more sustainable practices in agriculture and land management.

"As more and more land across the world experiences land use change, I hope that understanding these responses will help us to better protect and support our pollinators. There's still a lot to be learned about our native pollinators, so I hope my work can contribute a small piece to that puzzle."

Learn more about Dr. Lichtenberg's lab at: