Betsy Arnold is a former International Science and Engineering Fair finalist, who served as a judge in the plant sciences category at this year’s Intel ISEF. In her day job, she is an Associate Professor in the School of Plant Sciences at the University of Arizona where she conducts research, teaches, and mentors students (including high school students.)
ISEF was a life-changing experience for me when I was in high school, and it is such a pleasure to be involved with the current cohort of exceptional young scientists.
I grew up in central Phoenix and had two fantastic science teachers during middle school and high school. The latter, Don Galen, inspired me to start my own research projects, and under his guidance I not only was able to work at Arizona State University as a high school student, but I was able to develop a research project that provided the support that make my undergraduate choice — Duke — a reality.
My family was always supportive and valued education, for which I am very fortunate — but I had no idea that science could be a career (as well as a lifestyle!), as no one in my family had gone in that direction before. Mr. Galen’s support made an enormous difference in my career choice, and my experiences at ISEF were critical in helping me learn to communicate, to recognize what I didn’t know, and in inspiring me to think about becoming a professional in biology.
Thanks in large part to that research experience, I was able to start working in research labs as a freshman at Duke. I was a Howard Hughes research student during the summer after my freshman year, and I ended up completing a senior honors thesis on that project (effects of flower color polymorphism on pollination dynamics). I remember presenting in undergraduate poster sessions and reflecting on how much science fairs and ISEF had helped me be prepared to do so.
When I graduated from Duke, I knew that I wanted to go to graduate school. I wasn’t sure exactly what aspect of biology I wanted to study, though, other than the general topic of plants and their interactions with other organisms. Most fortunately, I heard about a fantastic opportunity: a one-year research assistantship in Panama, at the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute (STRI). In addition to providing me with my first exposure to tropical biodiversity, STRI gave me the opportunity to work in a world-class research setting within a tropical forest. It was incredible. My work focused on evaluating patterns of herbivory and pathogen damage on tropical trees, as a means to understand leaf defenses.
At the end of my year in Panama, I started my PhD work at the University of Arizona. I was very fortunate to receive fellowship support from the National Science Foundation for my graduate work, and my interests — on fungal symbionts of plants — coalesced into a series of studies that paved the way for my current activities.
I completed my doctorate in 2002, and then returned to Duke as a postdoctoral fellow through the National Science Foundation Postdoctoral Fellowship Program in Microbial Biology. In 2005, I joined the faculty at the University of Arizona, and I am now an associate professor. My work focuses on fungal evolution and ecology, with spin-offs into sustainable agriculture and pharmaceutical drug discovery. One highlight of my current position is that I have the chance to support students at both the high school and undergraduate levels (in addition to my graduate students and postdocs), and that has been absolutely fulfilling. I typically have 3-4 high school students a year in my lab, and they have done great at regional science fairs. To our great delight, one has gone on to compete at Intel ISEF. He is now a first-generation college student at University of Arizona.
I also work closely with a local high school teacher, and have had the chance to support her for two research stints in Panama. We also have worked with approximately 200 of her students for ‘microbial discovery’ workshops in which the students are doing front-line research on plant-fungal associations.
All of this is to say that I can trace many good things back to Mr. Galen and my earliest days in science. His support and encouragement, coupled with the incredible gift given to me by my middle-school teacher (who gave the ‘Future Scientist’ award when I was in 8th grade!), were instrumental in my development.