Newswise — During high school in Missouri Valley, Iowa, Abigail Martens went to Washington, D.C., on a 2011 class trip. When she walked through the National Museum of Natural History at the Smithsonian Institution, she thought, “I want to work here.” 

This summer she completed an entomology internship at the Smithsonian, thanks to her senior capstone research project and her adviser, professor Paul J. Johnson at South Dakota State University. “It was like a dream come true,” said Martens, who completed her bachelor’s degree in biology in May and started a master’s program in the Department of Agronomy, Horticulture and Plant Science. She is specializing in entomology.

“I started raising monarch caterpillars as a kid and it just snowballed from there,” Martens said. She transferred to SDSU in 2015 after spending the summer working at the North Central Agricultural Research Laboratory in Brookings, a U.S. Department of Agriculture facility commonly known as “the bug lab.”

On the first day of entomology class, Martens told Johnson she wanted to do her senior research project on parasitic wasps. Johnson supported her work by connecting her with Robert Kula, a USDA research entomologist at the Smithsonian Institution and an expert on parasitic wasps.

“This connection led directly to her success with her senior project,” noted Johnson. Martens placed third in student presentations at the April South Dakota Academy of Science conference, which then opened the door to an internship opportunity at the Smithsonian.

“Abigail has demonstrated a unique level of innate capacity for insightful research for someone so early in her career,” Johnson said.

Martens did her internship research project on parasitic wasps that feed on aphids. When the adult wasp “stings” an aphid, she injects an egg, Martens explained. The resulting larva feeds inside the aphid devouring its organs and eventually killing it.

“As the wasp larva feeds, the aphid’s exoskeleton hardens and becomes mummified, and the wasp adult eventually emerges by breaking through the exoskeleton,” said Martens. “It reminds me of the scene in the movie Alien where the monster bursts from the man’s chest, but without the blood and screaming.”

Smithsonian internships are unpaid, Martens explained, but Johnson helped her with travel and housing arrangements. The 10-week internship began June 5.

The first few weeks of her internship, she recalls introducing herself saying, “I’m Paul Johnson’s graduate student” and following up with her name. “It helps that he’s well known,” she added.

Martens assessed the biodiversity of parasitic wasps feeding on aphids and documented the plants on which the aphids fed. “A lot of different wasps feed on these aphids,” she said. “We have even found smaller parasites, called hyperparasites, that feed on the parasitic wasps that feed on the aphids.”

Martens collected aphid colonies, collected the parasitized ones, and then reared and identified the wasps. She gathered samples in the D.C. area from prairie remnants and forested areas, ranging from Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, to the Catoctin Mountain Park, Maryland, and Plummers Island in the Potomac River.

“This was a fantastic opportunity to network with people I will be working with essentially for the rest of my life,” she said. Kula was her internship adviser. “The people at the museum are very curious, helpful, and very passionate about what they do. That made it easier being away from home for the first time.”

Each day she was at work by 7:30 a.m. “I was so excited about it,” Martens said. On August 8, she was honored as the Natural History Museum Intern of the Day. 

Though most students gravitate toward applied entomology, Martens wants to be a research taxonomist documenting biodiversity. “If it’s a new species, you need someone to describe it,” she said.

Martens hopes to be back at the Smithsonian again next summer, extending her wasp taxonomy research at the nation’s largest natural history museum.

Register for reporter access to contact details