UNIVERSITY PARK, Pennsylvania – Hoping to increase awareness and interest in public health and medical entomology, Penn State alumnus Alexis Barbarin has created an annual award for graduate students pursuing research and degrees in this field. The BEDBUGS Prize is funded by annual royalties Barbarin receives from a patent for a bedbug pesticide that she helped research while pursuing her doctorate.
Consideration for the BEDBUGS Award, which stands for Expanding Entomological Diversity by Uncovering Graduate Studies, will be given to full-time graduate students pursuing a degree in entomology at the College of Agricultural Sciences who demonstrate excellence in the fields of entomology urban or public health. The awards will be for one academic year, but recipients will be considered for the award in subsequent years if they demonstrate further achievement. Recipients can use the scholarship to fund a research project of their choice, attend a conference, or purchase supplies, among other options.
“Alexis excelled in our program — his Ph.D. the work had a big impact on bed bug control,” said Gary Felton, professor and head of the department of entomology. “This award she created will enable us to recruit and support students working in the important field of public health and urban pest control.
Barbarin, who earned a doctorate in entomology in 2012, is from New Orleans, Louisiana. She and her family were displaced by Hurricane Katrina, but Barbarin was able to complete her undergraduate studies at Xavier University in Louisiana. After being accepted to Penn State, she was to pursue research on spongy moths. However, having grown up in an urban environment and wanting to make a difference for those who fight urban pests, she struggled to feel connected to the work she was doing on forest pests.
“I decided I wanted to work on bedbugs, but I didn’t have the funding,” Barbarin said. “Fortunately, I was honored as both a Bunton-Waller Scholar and a Sloan Scholar. The Sloan Foundation gave me the opportunity to have financial freedom, which is essential as a graduate student! And, it finally provided the funding I needed to research bedbugs.
Near the end of her program, Barbarin was approached to pursue research with Dr. Nina Jenkins, research professor of entomology, on a potential pesticide against bed bugs. The experiment proved successful, and with the support of a University Research Applications for Innovation (RAIN) grant, Jenkins founded ConidioTec and filed a patent to commercialize the research.
Today, Barbarin is one of two public health entomologists in the state of North Carolina, focusing on ticks and tick-borne diseases. She is also an adjunct professor at North Carolina State University, where she completed her second post-doctorate. Thanks to her success, she looks back on her time at Penn State with immense gratitude.
“I’m so grateful the department took a chance on this girl from New Orleans who was essentially homeless and displaced by Katrina,” Barbarin said. “I had to learn so much, but I’m so thankful they took a chance and it worked out. I knew I had to do something to give back.
Since 2017, Barbarin has been collecting royalties on the patent for the pesticide against bed bugs. After initially saving up all the checks to help buy her first home, she knew she wanted to create a prize to help Penn State graduate students.
“I wanted to help graduate students pursue their own projects and fulfill their needs,” she said. “I also hope it will bring more awareness and interest in public health and medical entomology and help students who wish to do research in these fields. I had my chance thanks to financial support , and now I hope it might be someone else’s luck.
While Barbarin funds the award annually for now, she hopes to one day endow it. She also hopes it will inspire other graduates to give back.
“I hope that other graduates will see the value of creating a gift and that students who receive an award now will remember and be inspired to create gifts in the future. There are not many departmental scholarships in entomology, so there is a limit to what the department can help. My price isn’t great, but it’s a good starting point.
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