Under the Lens: Amanda Henderson

“Especially when I started learning about environmental justice, so that’s kinda why I got interested in science— just to tie that back in to something that I can relate to— which is really different from biology, chemistry, physics, and things like that. So, I found the science that would directly relate to something I was interested in, which was the community that I came from.“

“Especially when I started learning about environmental justice, so that’s kinda why I got interested in science— just to tie that back in to something that I can relate to— which is really different from biology, chemistry, physics, and things like that. So, I found the science that would directly relate to something I was interested in, which was the community that I came from.“

Amanda Henderson is a Ph.D candidate in the Department of Biological Sciences Ecology & Evolution group, studying the effects of resources on mite communities. She has a passion for tiny arthropods, teaching, and outreach. We chatted on Giving Tuesday in the basement bunker in the lab of her advisor, David Wise. This interview had been edited and condensed for clarity.

How did you become interested in science and microarthropods?

How I became interested in science is different from how I became interested in microarthropods. I guess my interest started when I was in high school, I joined an environmental science club just to get some school involvement on [my resume], y’know. In my high school they were really big on college prep-- that was the goal. Preparing for college because most of the students there would be first-generation college students. They were always like “do some activities!” so I joined a bunch of clubs. And one of the things was this environmental science club which was really new to me.

I didn’t know anything about the environment, and I didn’t care about it. Not because I didn’t want to, but I just wasn’t aware. So I joined the club then-- long story short-- when I started applying for colleges I saw this program at DePaul-- that’s where I went for undergrad. They had an environmental studies program, so I was like “okay, cool! I’m really, really interested in this”. Especially when I started learning about environmental justice, so that’s kinda why I got interested in science-- just to tie that back in to something that I can relate to-- which is really different from biology, chemistry, physics, and things like that. So, I found the science that would directly relate to something I was interested in, which was the community that I came from.

So then when I got to DePaul, I switched from environmental studies to science because for whatever reason [environmental] studies just didn’t hit it for me. It just was too theoretical, and I really wanted some data-driven work. My undergrad advisor-- I found out he was doing some research, and I was really interested in getting involved and getting some research experience. I literally stalked him down [laughs]. This is a true story: I called his work phone, I emailed him, I showed up at his office multiple times before he got back to me. It was ridiculous. I was like “why did I have to do all this?”

I said “okay, I’m interested in doing some stuff. I don’t know what I should be doing.” So he was like “okay, what are you interested in?”. I said either water or soil, and I ended up going with soil. He worked with mites, and I didn’t know what a mite was at that time. This was I think my second year there. I started doing some urban work with him because, again, I was really interested in [urban ecology]. I wanted to be an urban ecologist; that’s what I wanted to do. I went into his lab and was doing that, so that’s really how I got interested in microarthropods.

What really took it over the edge is I did an REU program in my undergrad, and I was able to go to Puerto Rico. I was thinking “oh my goodness, I can travel with this?”. Then I started working with ag-systems there-- not so much soil-- and I just really fell in love with mites because they’re so diverse, and they’re a part of every part of our life. I thought that was really cool.

What led you to UIC?

After I came back from Puerto Rico I wanted to start another research project and started working closely with my undergrad adviser Liam Heneghan. Liam is really good friends with my current advisor David Wise. I was in the lab there at DePaul just doing some work. I wasn’t even supposed to be there-- I really wasn’t [laughs]. But I was like “y’know, why not?”. He was just showing David around the lab, and David walked in. He was like “oh, hi, how are you? Who are you?” so I introduced myself. I didn’t really want to go to grad school-- I didn’t have that idea in mind. I wanted to go off and do some volunteer work; that was the goal. But then I kept talking with David, and I learned about his program. I was like “y’know, why not?”. I do want to eventually do some teaching, and I was like “I think this is the way to go: go to grad school if you want to do teaching.” So I kept in contact. I applied to some programs, and then I came here.

I was really interested in the way [David and I] meshed. His teaching style was very similar to my previous advisor, so I was like “okay, I think this could work.” That’s kind of how I ended up here at UIC. And I’m from Chicago, so I didn’t want to leave.

How would you explain your research to a general audience?

I have thought about this before-- one of my advisors on my committee asked me this during my prelim, and I didn’t have a good answer then at all [laughs]. Now I think I would say, because it’s evolved a bit, that I’m really interested in how resources affect mite communities. My resources for me are fungi, nitrogen, carbon. How are they changing a mite community?  

It’s no different from someone in public health looking at how resources in a community change child development. Are there grocery stores there? Are there fresh food stores there? How’s the education? How’s the economy in that area? How that affects a child’s growth, and how that population might change depending if you’re on the north side of, let’s say, Chicago or the south side or a rural area. The population is very different. So that’s sort of what my research is like.

How does the nutrient economy, if you will, change microarthropod communities? So do you see mites or individual bugs that are feeding on very rich nutrients or very poor nutrients because that’s just what’s around? Is it a very populated, dense area or is it a very low population density?

What are some of the challenges you’ve experienced in your research?

A little bit about mites (I work with more than just mites, but I fell in love with mites so I’ll talk about them more): the soil community is very variable. So if you’re working in, let’s say, a meter square area, inches away-- because these are small individuals-- you can have a population of maybe 100 individuals, and you go 3 inches away and [the population] could be 3,000 individuals. So it’s very variable. If you’re working in a forested system or a really large area, you’re trying to make grand assumptions, but you’re only taking samples from very small areas.

And then [mites] are extremely diverse. I’m trying to make assumptions about a community that’s very diverse, and I’m trying to make it very simple so that someone outside of my field cares. What normally happens in soil fields or soil ecology is one kind of gets pigeon-holed into this one community, and those are the only people that are interested in what’s going on.

One of the challenges that I’ve faced is that it’s so time intensive. I was very ambitious with my project, because I’m trying to do it on a community level when most people in my field focus in on species. They’ll pick, I dunno, 20 or so, and I’m just saying, “I’m going to look at the entire community, and I’m going to answer all these questions!”. That was a challenge: trying to reign it in a little bit.

What’s a typical day for you?

When I first came into the program, a typical day was just reading and getting to know the literature. After that, maybe a typical day was going to the field. These days, I’ll come in, and if I’m having a lab meeting that day I’ll have a lab meeting, meet with the group, and plan for whatever project we’re working on. After that, I’ll probably have an undergrad come in, and I’ll talk with them, because volunteers are very important. They really help a lot. I’ll work with them a little bit. If they’re a new undergrad, I’ll spend some time and make sure they understand what’s going on. If they’re an old undergrad or “seasoned”, I’ll say hello and let them get to their work. After that, I’ll spend hours at the scope just counting my bugs. So that’s what a typical day is. Meeting probably with my lab mates, meeting with undergrads, and then meeting with mites.

Do you listen to a lot of podcasts & things as you’re working?

I do! I listen to everything at the scope because, like I said, I’m sitting there for hours. Now I’ve been listening to this podcast by Amanda Seales called Small Doses. I really like it. It’s not related to science whatsoever. Sometimes I’ll listen to some science focused things-- not ecology science, but like [the podcasts] Hidden Brain or Stuff You Should Know. I listen to some real estate podcasts. I listen to a lot of music. Sometimes I’ll go on YouTube and just look up talk shows like John Oliver or The Daily Show with Trevor Noah, or just like random YouTube videos: dog fails, cat fails, things like that. TV shows, sometimes.  

Have you had results in your research that really surprised you?

At the stage I’m at now, I haven’t done a lot of data analysis. I should be doing data analysis as I’m moving through, but we don’t always do what we’re supposed to do. I have done a little bit. My dissertation is set in two different parts: it’s a gradient of the resources I spoke on earlier, and then the second part is nitrogen addition on the extremes of the gradient.

I’m done with the gradient mite sorting (mite meetings), and I’ve done a little bit of that data analysis-- preliminary things. It was pretty much what I expected with general abundances. But I haven’t dug into differences in families or the community structure. In terms of nutrients, whether there’s more carbon or nitrogen or pH is lower or higher it’s what I expected. I haven’t dug in deep, which is what I’m really interested in. Are the communities changing? Is there an alternate stable state? Is it changing gradually? Is it the same? Does it [the resources] not matter? Is it all over the place? So that’s the really interesting part, which I haven’t done yet.

What’s your favorite microarthropod?

Mites, for sure. Their [taxonomic] divisions are all types of crazy. They have superorders, and then within the superorder there’s an order, then a suborder, and then they have cohorts, superfamilies, families, and kinda-families. It’s all over the place. When I started, the suborder that I liked were Oribatida. They’re mainly fungivores, detritivores, things like that.

Euphthiracaridae, a type of oribatid mite. Photo by  Andy Murray

Euphthiracaridae, a type of oribatid mite. Photo by Andy Murray

Now, I’m more interested in Prostigmata. Prostigs are a little bit different. Some are fungivores, some are parasites, some are predators, some just kinda chill. They’re also very colorful, so you get like hues of red and green. Their life history is all over the place. My history on Prostigs is not as strong as it is with the Orbatids, but I’m okay with that because I’m willing to learn it.

Erythaeidae, a type of prostig mite. Photo by  Andy Murray

Erythaeidae, a type of prostig mite. Photo by Andy Murray

Fun fact: there are mites that are found in water. There are mites that live certain life stages without feeding at all. They’re amazing. They do everything.

Do you have a favorite mite fact?

Sure! In terms of sex, it’s extremely diverse. I would say Prostigs have the most diverse history of sex and celibacy. It can be direct or indirect. Oribatids are pretty vanilla. Most females are parthenogenetic, so they don’t really need males. Not all Oribatids are like that. They can just lay an egg, and if it’s unfertilized, a female hatches, and they keep moving. They’re basically clones.    

There are different modes of sex transfer. Either the female can drop an egg, and along the way maybe she’s leaving her scent somewhere, and the male would just come by and fertilize it. Boom, it’s done.

And then there are direct modes of transfer. You can use your imagination. But it can get pretty aggressive.

You’re involved in an organization called Desire to Aspire, do you want to tell a little bit about that organization and your role there?

In honor of Giving Tuesday, because that’s what today is, Desire to Aspire (D2A) is a nonprofit organization that was started by a dear friend of mine Stacy Stewart. She’s the founder. She started it in Columbia, Missouri when she was an undergrad at Mizzou. Basically, it’s a mentoring program that’s focused on building social and emotional skills in young adolescent girls. Also, they focus on things like literacy, strong decision-making skills, things like that that are important for any success.

[Stacy] is a psychologist by trade, so she knows building those social and emotional skills and learning how to deal with daily stressors are important, because this is a crazy world we live in. When you go to school, of course you learn the basics in terms of literacy and comprehension, but you don’t really learn how to manage what you’re going through. Especially at an adolescent age, because girls go through a lot. They’re normally just undervalued in comparison to boys and viewed as emotional. Especially with certain minority populations of girls.

In my role, I’m on the board of directors. I don’t go into classrooms as much as I would like, but I’m kinda behind the scenes. What are the goals? How can we hit those action plans? How can we get funding? What type of expansions should we do? What do we want the organization to look like in x amount of years? So I’m really behind the scenes and focused on the growth of the organization and how we can keep it moving and funding.

Desire to Aspire website: https://www.desire2aspire.org/

What are some ways other folks can get involved?

D2A partners with elementary schools and with colleges. We have undergrads at the University of Missouri, Mizzou, that go inside different schools. Here [in Chicago], we’re partnered with Northwestern, and undergrads go to two schools in Evanston. So how you can volunteer now.. Maybe we can start a partnership with UIC? That would be dope.

We have different events that are coming up. We have a fundraising event coming up April 20, 2019 and tickets are currently available online. We definitely could use in-kind donations, donation of time, any resources, share in your network-- that’s extremely helpful, honestly. Donations of course are accepted at any time, but also just along the way. So we do plan on doing mini fundraising events, and that would be amazing to help.

Just check out the website. We normally post a lot of updates or events that we have going on. Another thing that we’re doing: we’re partnering with the Bulogo women’s group in Uganda sometime in 2019. So we’re trying to gather a bunch of materials that we want to bring down there for the women, because mentoring is going to be different here than it is there. We’re trying to format essentially the lesson plan, because it is set up along the school calendar. The sessions that they have in the classrooms are based on facts-- they’re based on data.

If you had to give your past-self some advice, what would it be?

Just make sure you’re happy. It’ll all work out. Just make sure you’re happy, and do what makes you happy.

What are some of your hobbies? How do you make time for them?

I had hobbies that are all dropped [laughs]. I was desperately trying to start hobbies this past year-- none of them panned out. I tried to pick back up tennis. I really want to get back into tennis, but it’s so hard, especially now that it’s cold. I don’t want to pay for a membership anywhere. It was really fun when it was outside, but now it’s a little bit more difficult. So tennis was one.

I have hobbies that I want to pick back up, how about that? Currently, my hobbies when I’m not counting and dreaming about mites or reading about them, I really like TV. I feel like that’s not a hobby, but it is. In a former life, I wanted to do editing for TV and movies and videos. I took a class in it and really enjoyed it, so now when I look at TV, I’m always like structuring and thinking “ahhh, that frame wasn’t quite right”. So I’m very critical with what I watch. I really do like looking at sci-fi, so that is a hobby.

Along with tennis I want to pick up the piano. I used to play, but I’m sure I’m horrible now. I feel like I should say going out hiking, but I’m not doing that these days. I did a lot of that for work. One day I’ll get back to it.

Do you have any pets?

I have two pets. I have Milan, who is a yorkie-maltese mix. She’s 7 years old. She’s extremely active, very hyper. Loves to cuddle. Her favorite activities include digging, cuddling, and licking. In that order. Those are her favorite things.

Milan, the yorkie-maltese.

Milan, the yorkie-maltese.

And then I have Nugget, who is a chihuahua-papillon. He acts like a chihuahua. He’s 10 years old. His favorite things are barking, eating, and earrubs. He’s a simple man. He’s a little vindictive at times. He has a spot like right downstairs. We started feeding him once a day because he was a bit overweight for a couple years, and sometimes if we don’t feed him in time, he’ll go downstairs and just pee. Right by the shoes. We have a shoe rack now because of that. We can’t leave boxes on the ground, because that’s another one of his activities: peeing on boxes.  

Nugget, the chihuahua-papillion.

Nugget, the chihuahua-papillion.

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