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Field Work Inspires CALS Senior in Career

By Ted Boscia

As a child growing up in Ontario, N.Y., Jessica Walden '09 spent most of her days with National Geographic or roaming her large backyard in search of turtles, snakes, and frogs. Now, as a CALS senior with a double major—in neurobiology and behavior, and entomology—Walden hopes to turn her long-held fascination with the outdoors into a life studying the natural world.

Jessica Walden

Jessica Walden

"I came to Cornell as a pre-med or prevet with a secret desire to be in the pages of National Geographic," says Walden, who transferred to Cornell after a year at George Washington University. "At Cornell, I realized that my dream of being a professional bird- or flower-watcher is a real career. I have seen more than one familiar name in National Geographic in the past year."

Walden realized she had a future as a naturalist during a summer internship at the Smithsonian Institution National Museum of Natural History. There she conducted an independent study of dinosaur eggshells, and she has worked in research labs ever since.

In 2008, Walden earned a fellowship from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute and designed a summer trip to Wyoming to study the ecology of a specific insect-plant interaction in the Bridger-Teton National Forest. The study grew out of similar research in the laboratory of Robert Raguso, associate professor of neurobiology and behavior, where Walden has worked for two years.

She spent her days watching tiny moth caterpillars no larger than a grain of rice infest evening primroses. At night, she camped among the buffaloes. By summer's end, Walden had gained insights into how the bugs neuter the flowers and use them as protective structures for their growth and development.

"It was an opportunity to study the intertwined life histories of two organisms," Walden says. "I learned that these tiny insects have a great impact on the reproductive success of the infested plants. I also learned that these tiny moths have a great deal more to teach me than I could learn in one field season."

After graduation, Walden wants to become a lab technician but ultimately hopes to earn a PhD in chemical ecology or biology. One thing she's certain about is her passion for research. "Undergraduate research is time consuming, pays less than waitressing, and is at the bottom of the academic pecking order. But it's worth each minute and every penny," she says.