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From fear to fascination

Posted by Stephanie Rogers on May 21, 2024 in News
#DalGrad Alexe Indigo in the student Food Pantry
#DalGrad Alexe Indigo in the student Food Pantry

by Anastasiia Merkureva  

Once afraid of bugs, Plant Science graduate Alexe Indigo will soon dedicate her PhD to them.

“I started this program being absolutely terrified of insects,” she remarked with a smile. “I wasn’t anticipating it, but entomology turned out to be really fun.”

During her first few years in the program, Indigo was primarily interested in plant science courses. She enrolled in Dalhousie to deepen her understanding of the science behind plant dyes – her interest after a previous diploma in Textiles and Apparel design. Entomology was just one of the required courses.

Thankfully, the lab component was taught by Karen Smith – one of her favourite instructors who previously taught her structural botany and plant identification.

“Karen Smith is such a good teacher, such a lovely person,” Indigo said. “I immediately connected with her and took all the courses I could from her. We’re still quite close.”

That connection along with the thrill of learning something new made entomology exciting.

“Her creativity, passion and confidence in the classroom were always inspiring to me,” Smith said. “The work that she produced is a true reflection of her potential and talent.”

Indigo’s fear had transformed into fascination and when the class was over, she started to miss working with insects. Dr. Paul Manning, an Assistant Professor specializing in entomology, suggested she complete an honours project combining plant dyes and insects. Indigo couldn’t say no.

“Alexe joined my lab to research how botanical dyes from goldenrod are affected by insect herbivory,” Manning said. “Despite numerous technical and logistical obstacles, Alexe successfully completed a comprehensive and innovative honours thesis. Alexe has a knack for sharing complex information in a highly accessible and joyful way.”

Indigo presented her research at numerous conferences and received a prestigious Sobey Agricultural Undergraduate Student Research Award. This accomplishment funded Indigo’s work in the Insect Biodiversity Agroecosystems Lab in the summer of 2023.

More insect-based research followed, as did the accolades. In spring 2024, Indigo won first place at the Science Atlantic Environment Conference and secured two Natural Sciences Engineering Research Council awards to fund her summer research and her upcoming PhD project studying dung beetle populations across Atlantic Canadian agriculture and ecosystems.

Indigo will receive the University Medal in Plant Science for achieving the highest GPA in the program. Additionally, Indigo was honored with a Distinguished Graduate award, acknowledging her outstanding contributions to the campus community.

Community Impact

Raised in Portugal Cove, Newfoundland and Labrador, Alexe witnessed the impact of food crises first-hand and decided to help diminish food insecurity on campus.

“In Newfoundland, so much of our food comes on ferries. If the weather is bad, we don’t get any food,” she explained. “During snowstorms, there’s only a two or three-day supply of any fresh produce available at any given time, so the grocery shelves after a couple of days are bare. Moving to Nova Scotia and realizing it wasn’t a norm was eye-opening for me.”

This experience motivated Alexe to volunteer at the student Food Pantry, where she eventually grew into a managerial role. Now she oversees food pickups, inventory, communications, recruitment and more. In 2024, she received the Faculty of Agriculture Student Wellbeing Leadership Award and the Village of Bible Hill Outstanding Community Service Award for her leadership in this role.

She encourages fellow students to start participating in extra-curricular activities early on.

“I didn’t start getting involved on campus until the last couple of years. I’ve really enjoyed doing that,” she said.  “I think there are a lot of important issues we can tackle and focus on, I wish I had more time to do that.”