Mapping out Bed bugs: Meet Ifeoma

By Charuni Pathmeswaran

Ifeoma Ugwuanyi is a biology PhD candidate at the Tree of Life lab at UNSW. Ifeoma is an accomplished UNSW Woman in Maths and Science Champion who is passionate about science communication and engages with the public on issues related to insect and disease management and control. Ifeoma has worked on projects involving insect vectors, tropical disease control, pest management, and taxonomy. 

A biologist by training, Ifeoma specializes in Entomology (the study of insects) and Parasitology (the study of parasites). For her PhD, she is currently focusing on insect systematics, which is the science of classifying and naming insects. Specifically, Ifeoma is analyzing the DNA of bed bugs (infamous for their agonizing bites) and their relatives to see where they sit in the true bug tree of life. She is also looking at the evolution of traumatic insemination. This is where the male using its sharp genital penetrates the female during copulation and ejaculates into her blood system. The final part of her PhD will be using AI to identify different species of bed bugs.

A day in the life of Ifeoma 🙂

Prior to her PhD, Ifeoma was primarily working on the control of insects that transmit diseases to humans and plants. She has also done research on the control of tropical diseases (eg: malaria, river blindness, sleeping sickness). Growing up, she didn’t see herself doing research on insects and tropical diseases. She didn’t know any Entomologist or Parasitologist. But as luck will have it, she found herself doing a degree in Parasitology and Entomology as an undergrad. At first, she didn’t fully embrace the course as she earlier wanted to study medicine. However, when she started doing specialized courses on insects, she was amazed by forensic entomology (how insects are used to solve crimes)! This is how she found herself enjoying the work she does on insects, both the beneficial ones like the honeybees as well the harmful ones, alongside doing research on tropical diseases.

Seeing the impact of her research and how it helps improve lives, Ifeoma continues to stay passionate and motivated about her work. A few years ago, Ifeoma was part of a team of Entomologists engaged by the World Health Organization to collect and identify black flies in Africa. This fly transmits a parasite that causes river blindness in Africa. Their efforts were part of the success that brought river blindness under control in Africa.

Ifeoma enjoys dancing during her spare time. She (cheekily) claims she’s not a good dancer but says it helps to destress, along with some good music.

When asked what words of advice she had for girls interested in pursuing a career in STEM, Ifeoma had this to say: “Just do it; strive to be good at what you do so that you cannot be ignored.”

To find out more about Ifeoma’s research, follow her on Twitter.

Climate change and communication: meet Charuni Pathmeswaran

Charuni Pathmeswaran is an environmental science PhD candidate at the Climate Change Research Centre (CCRC) (affiliated with the ARC Centre of Excellence for Climate Extremes) at UNSW. Charuni is an accomplished UNSW Woman in Maths and Science Champion who is passionate about science communication and regularly engages with the public on issues related to climate change.

Charuni has always loved spending time outdoors. As a young child, she had a great curiosity in the environment. This interest led her to pursue studies in climate science. Charuni obtained her undergraduate degree in environmental science at the University of Colombo in Sri Lanka. During her degree, she undertook research on the impact of extreme weather events on coconut productivity. She then received a competitive Commonwealth scholarship to complete a Masters degree in climate change science and policy at the University of Bristol in the UK. Following her Masters, Charuni moved to Sydney to commence her PhD at the CCRC, where she is investigating potential links between co-occurring terrestrial and marine heatwaves. 

Charuni’s research in climate science could not be more topical. Charuni enjoys discussing her research with the public and has always had an avid interest in communicating science in simple yet effective terms. During her undergraduate degree she contributed science communication articles to a university-run blog and often received positive feedback from her peers who enjoyed reading her posts. Along with many other scientists, Charuni now regularly uses Twitter to communicate her science. As Charuni is a climate change expert, I asked if she had advice for individuals wanting to lead more eco-friendly lives. She emphasises that one of the most effective ways for individuals to take action is by voting for sustainable policies.

Charuni explaining climate change to a classroom of primary school students

During her free time Charuni explores the outdoors through coastal and bush walks. She also enjoys reading books and trying new recipes. 

I finished our interview by asking Charuni if she had any words of advice for young women interested in pursuing a career in STEM. She recommends making the most of any and every opportunity that comes your way. Charuni explains that she has had some of the best experiences of her career when she has pushed herself outside her comfort zone.

To find out more about Charuni’s research, follow her on Twitter.