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ASU graduate to lead Smithsonian study

By

Margaret Coulombe

Kate Ihle came to ASU to pursue a doctoral degree in the School of Life Sciences, co-advised by Gro Amdam. In the process of completing her degree, she has become a highly valued scientist and an ambassador for ASU, in the United States and abroad.

“Kate’s scientific studies have created new insights in a range of fields,” said Amdam, an associate professor in the School of Life Sciences. “She has published in high-impact journals, such as the Public Library of Science (PLoS) Biology and PLoS Genetics, and shown how two unique genes are the ‘Yin and Yang’ of food choice in honey bees. She is also the first to down-regulate genes in adult bees to prove effects in social organization. Her skills are very rare in our field. Only one other lab, worldwide, has so far adopted this procedure and used it to study behavior...in a perfect replicate of Kate’s experiment.”

Ihle’s research accomplishments caught the notice of scientists at the Smithsonian’s Tropical Research Institute in Panama. In May, she will travel south with an ASU team composed of ASU faculty members Juergen Gadau, David Pearson, Charles Kazilek and others who are developing educational programs, shared technologies and research programs with Smithsonian experts in biofuels, ecoservices, biodiversity and sociobiology. In Panama, Ihle’s postdoctoral fellowship will support her work with Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute scientists William Wcislo and Mary Jane West-Eberhard. She will study two species of bees, a sweat bee and an orchid bee, with flexible social organizations.

“We are working to understand how social systems adapt to changing environmental conditions,” Ihle says. “This project with the Smithsonian allows me to build on my doctoral work with social insects at ASU and allow me to take my career in new directions.”

"Kate is the perfect person to do this work," says Robert Page, dean of the School of Life Sciences. "Her combination of laboratory skills and passion for field work and behavior will enable her to unlock the physiological mechanisms at the portal of social evolution." 

Ihle’s impact, however, extends far beyond her efforts at the bench. Her peers cite her creativity, helpful contributions to their research, writing, teaching and coursework, and her humor. For example, in connection with ASU’s Darwinfest celebrations, Ihle and Adam Dolezal entered the Darwin Look-a-like Contest, dressed as Darwin (Dolezal) and one of his famous finches (Ihle).

Dolezal, a doctoral student with Amdam, particularly appreciates Ihle’s mentoring: “Kate has offered professional and personal support to students not just at ASU, as well as visiting collaborators from other U.S. universities, as well as Norway and Germany.”

Brenda Rascon agrees: “Some of Kate’s most impressive qualities are that she is helpful and kind, in addition to her skills in bee-keeping and molecular biology.” Rascon, a doctoral student at the Norwegian University of Life Sciences and former master’s student in biology in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, says that Kari-Anne Nielsen, a former student of Amdam’s with the Norwegian University of Life Sciences, could not stop raving about how much Kate had helped her develop her protocols.

Besides advancing her own and others’ platforms for scientific discovery, Ihle also contributed to the larger community connection to science and ASU. She was a writer for the School of Life Sciences Magazine and developed stories that ranged from graduate students’ outreach efforts and undergraduate research in biodiversity to book reviews about Arizona’s pronghorn legacy.

Dolezal sums up Ihle’s contributions, thus: “She is one of the most intelligent, helpful, and genuine people I have met during my doctoral studies, and she will be missed.”