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Catherine Raffin poses in front of a bush of vibrant pink flowers.

The field where ‘everything matters’: Biology senior chases an insect dream

By Elana Roldan

Many people grow up with a fear of bugs, and above all else, a fear of spiders. Oregon State biology senior Catherine Raffin was just the same. The sight of eight spindly legs and a pair of fangs made her skin crawl, so she did the only logical thing: purchased a pet tarantula.

“From a young age I was always morbidly fascinated with the insects everybody fears,” she said. “I thought it was crazy how something so small can be so terrifying.”

To overcome her fear, Raffin decided she would learn all she could about the tiny, often vilified creatures. Buying a spider became the tip of the colossal iceberg that would be her insect collection. Fear morphed into curiosity and curiosity into a strong passion, and Raffin soon found herself knee-deep in a field that would grip her interest for years to come.

Busy as a bee

Entomology, as Raffin describes it, is nearly as diverse as the organisms it examines. Any study of insects falls under its domain, which can range from taxonomy and identification to species surveys done to determine an ecosystem’s health. Despite the field’s range of opportunities, Raffin had been skeptical that she would find employment in the future.

“I thought entomology was a lot of fun, but that I’d never be able to make a career out of it,” she said. With this mindset leading her forward, her college experience began south of Oregon State with an anthropology major and a different university altogether — the University of Oregon. Luckily, a pleasant surprise waited for her.

“Lo and behold, I got to college and discovered that entomology is a huge thing and that there are tons of other people out there studying bugs. They didn’t offer a program at the University of Oregon for entomology, so I chose Oregon State.” Switching out her anthropology major for one in biology, the pieces began sliding into place for her. “It felt like a new home.”

Raffin stands in a beekeeping suit holding a slat covered by a mass of bees.

Raffin in a beekeeper suit holding a slat covered by bees during her time assisting in the investigation of certain sprays' effects on honey bees.

Raffin was eager to get hands-on experience with the creatures she had spent most of her life hoping to study. During her junior year, she found that experience in the form of an entomology lab on campus. The lab works in association with the USDA Agricultural Research Service and its ultimate goal is to create alternatives to chemical pesticides. In the many expectations she had for her new job, she never anticipated studying bugs four times smaller than a single grain of rice.

“The work that I’m doing is with western flower thrips. A lot of people haven’t heard of them before, I hadn’t until I started working with them. They’re pests in everybody’s garden and in almost every flower you come across,” she explained.

Her lab seeks to create new pest management tools utilizing substances already in the bodies of the insects they’re aiming to suppress. Raffin’s research focuses on neuropeptides, biological compounds used as signals to control muscles and nerves within the thrips. By applying different neuropeptides to the bugs, she can discover how the signals impact their bodies and which can be used in the pesticides they create.

“It feels good to know that you’re contributing to the greater world of science.”

Such small subjects require equally small equipment to perform the nano-injections Raffin regularly carries out.

“We have to make these really tiny needles that you need a microscope to see the tips of,” she explained. “Then we use them to inject the thrips with around ten nanoliters of whatever peptide we’re researching. It’s such a small amount of liquid that you can’t see it without the microscope, so we’re talking insanely precise movements.”

Mechanical wheels help to control the needle, and once the substance has been injected, the thrips are painstakingly monitored for up to 72 hours. For Raffin, working in a lab has breathed life into the concepts of science she’s learned as an undergraduate.

“It’s very fun to enact a real-world experiment the way we always talk about in classes,” she said. “It can be a struggle sometimes, but it feels good to know that you’re contributing to the greater world of science.”

Connecting and collecting

Over her time in college, Raffin dove into more than just the laboratory. She attended events held by Out in STEM, a club dedicated to LGBTQ+ students in science, and worked as an employee at the Pride Center on campus. As a member of the transgender community, Raffin helped create a trans sex education event to bring more awareness to subjects typically overlooked in such classes.

“We went through the more taboo topics that don’t get talked about when you go into high school sex ed,” she said. “They don’t talk about how taking hormones affects your body, for instance. That was one of the events I was the proudest of participating in and supporting because I feel like our community needs more support to get trans people to feel comfortable participating in community events.”

The Women’s Center, another cultural center on campus, was also a space Raffin became involved in. “The center had a lot of trans-centered conversation circles that I went to which were really nice for connecting with other people, especially other trans women. Having a space that’s very women-centered, especially being a woman in STEM, felt good.”

Raffin’s passion for entomology also gave her a community separate from her lab through Bug Club. The club provides a space not only to discuss research and the field as a whole, but also to engage in less academic activities celebrating a shared love of insects.

“There’s a lot of fun events that the club does that are more crafts- and community-focused. We had a night where we all got together and made origami insects, and now I have a wall of origami butterflies,” Raffin shared.

Insect collecting has been a long-time hobby of hers, and since joining Bug Club, Raffin has had a dedicated space to share and grow this hobby even further. “Most of the activities we do involve personal collection. If you like learning how to identify bugs and how to start your own little collection, it’s the right place.”

A velvet ant, a fuzzy yellow-and-black insect, sits perched on Raffin's hand.

While searching for insects near Corvallis, Raffin finds a velvet ant, a type of wingless wasp.

Collecting sometimes requires more equipment than just a quick hand, as Raffin is keenly aware. Years of practice have honed her net-swinging for capturing bugs in flight and on land. While gathering the insects is an art in its own right, a potentially more creative outlet comes after. “You can organize the bugs and make them look nice. You can make some really pretty framed artwork out of them, which is kind of what I’m doing now. It can be whatever you want it to be.”

Shot in the dark

Nature has always been Raffin’s happy place, whether she was out collecting specimens for her collection or pitching a tent to spend the night in. As much as she enjoyed the lab, she found herself craving hiking boots instead of a lab coat.

“Recently I learned that working in a lab doesn’t totally fill my cup,” she said. An open position for a stream survey technician was the last push she needed to seek out a new work environment. The job description was an ideal blend of nature and science, seeing her camp at different stream sites across the Pacific Northwest.

“Every day you get to hike out, look at the different biotic and abiotic factors that make up a stream’s health and ecosystem, record what you find and come back. I was like, ‘Camping for eight days, getting paid to do it and contributing meaningful scientific research about the place where I’m from? That sounds like an amazing opportunity!’” she said.

Raffin stands, camping equipment in her arms, outside of a camping tent in a snowy forest.

Raffin camping in the Siuslaw National Forest during spring break.

Her excitement still didn’t prevent the leap from being as daunting as it was. Luckily, she had others who encouraged her to take it, including her lab technician Briana Price. “She’s always been a good lab manager, making sure we feel welcome and supported. Another huge part of that was giving us advice and letting us know that research opportunities are really great, but also don’t lock us into a specific field,” Raffin said. “When I told her I didn’t want to keep doing agricultural entomology and focus more on forest entomology, she was very supportive. I hope that other people are able to have someone like her in their labs to help guide them because I feel like it was such a huge blessing.”

“You’re going to miss all the opportunities you don’t apply for, so if you are interested in something just take that shot in the dark.”

Pushing through her doubt and submitting her application, Raffin was elated to see that she had been accepted for the job. The experience has emphasized to her the importance of taking chances that come her way.

“It was really scary to apply for that because I had no experience with fieldwork,” she said. “But you’re going to miss all the opportunities you don’t apply for, so if you are interested in something just take that shot in the dark. It’s always going to be a good experience — even if you don’t like it, that tells you something about yourself.”

Appeal of the unknown

After years of studying insects, it’s easy to think certain species would stand out to Raffin. Maybe ones so alien they seem to be fiction, or ones so rare that only a handful have ever laid their eyes on them. Although she would love to say her favorite is one of these, a more unassuming creature holds that honor.

“My actual favorite insect would be the common western yellow jacket,” she said. “They’re special to me because of how scared I was of them when I was a kid. It’s a very basic insect, and sometimes I feel a little embarrassed that I don’t have a super exotic favorite, but they hold a soft spot in my heart because they got me into entomology.”

Wasps in general were a jump-off point for Raffin’s interest in her field, especially during the later years of her education before college. Their unique evolution stood apart from the rest, and the further she delved into wasps, the more she wanted to learn.

“There are so many countless tiny ones that are parasitizing other creatures we don’t know about,” she said. “There are ones making galls — swellings on plants that hold eggs — that never get any recognition. There are ones that eat spiders, huge ones like tarantulas. They’re absolutely everywhere, and they’re stunning.”

Raffin felt that she could express her love of wasps and insects in the most satisfying way through biology, and the person who guided her toward this path was her mom.

“Biology feels like the field where everything matters and so much is still unknown.”

“She is the person who always encouraged me to keep learning,” she said. When her mom heard of Raffin’s interest in biology, she bought her books on insects and other animals to motivate her to continue. “Those experiences are what led me down the course of studying science because I was encouraged to ask why something was the way that it was.”

The final deciding factor for her career came from her classrooms. “As I became more diversified in my education, taking courses in physics and chemistry, I always found myself coming back to ask questions about biology because we didn’t know the answers. In physics, it was easy to say why one thing swung this way and not the other because you can measure air resistance and find other equations. But when you ask why a cell knows how to get a specific protein to a specific area, sometimes the answer is that we don’t know yet.”

Raffin’s curiosity continues to drive her as the lab-experienced, outdoorsy, wasp-loving scientist she is today. “Biology feels like the field where everything matters and so much is still unknown.”

To learn more about being a biology major, visit the department’s website here.