First-Gen Student’s Interest in Bugs Leads to Research, Lab Internship, and TA Opportunity

For Eric Escobar-Chena, the best part of attending Virginia Commonwealth University was his last couple years in school. That’s when he had the opportunity to get more involved in the Insect Ecology and Behavior Laboratory, sometimes known as VCU’s “Bug Lab,” run by biology professor Karen Kester, Ph.D. It was in that lab that he discovered a “deep respect for insects.”

“Insects became interesting to me once I learned how unique and specific their roles in ecology can be,” he said.

Escobar-Chena — a biology major in the College of Humanities and Sciences who will graduate in December — is a teaching assistant this semester for a lab section of an entomology course. In September, he contributed to a French-led study involving parasitic wasps. And he’s investigating graduate school opportunities in ecology with a focus on field work and beetles, which he admires for their “impact on their environments and their overall robustness.”

“Eric is delightful. He is a highly intelligent person with a talent for creative problem-solving. He is a natural leader and has an amazing work ethic,” Kester said. “Foremost, he is passionate about ecology and entomology. Also, he is a generous human being with a great sense of humor.”

Escobar-Chena is a founder and the current president of the student organization Strategies for Ecology Education, Diversity and Sustainability, or VCU SEEDS, which is a chapter of the Ecological Society of America and that aims to diversify and advance the ecology profession through opportunities that stimulate and nurture the interest of underrepresented students to participate in ecology and become leaders in the field.

“What stands out about Eric is his genuine curiosity for the natural world and his ability to welcome others into science,” said Catherine Hulshof, Ph.D., an assistant professor in the Department of Biology. “He’s one of those students you know will go on to advance and change the discipline of ecology. I can’t wait to see what incredible things he will continue to accomplish in his career.”

Kester and Hulshof have been important mentors for Escobar-Chena, he said.

“While I didn’t really have a plan for much of college, people like Dr. Kester and Dr. Hulshof have given me spectacular opportunities for improving myself and given me the push I need in order to continue to do so,” he said.

Escobar-Chena is both a first-generation U.S. citizen and a first-generation college student.

“Even though my parents didn’t really have much coming to this country from Paraguay, I like to think I had a fairly normal upbringing,” he said. “My family lived in the suburbs, and my two sisters and I made our way through public schools fine. However, my parents have worked incredibly hard to ensure we have access to what we need in order to thrive.”

Being a first-generation college student was a bit of a bigger challenge while pursuing his degree, he said, but it ultimately worked out thanks to hard work, perseverance and the support of friends, family and VCU.

“For the first couple years it felt as if I was wandering aimlessly through college,” he said. “However, as the years passed and with a lot of support from family, friends, and mentors, things felt easier and I eventually found my place.”

Throughout much of his time at VCU, Escobar-Chena held a number of jobs on top of keeping up with school.

During his freshman and sophomore years, he worked at an ice cream shop while also interning in Kester’s lab. His junior year, he started working in the Bug Lab through a work-study opportunity, though it closed temporarily during COVID-19.

During the pandemic, he worked various odd jobs, including selling homemade bread and desserts from home, construction with his father and as a delivery driver.

After getting vaccinated, he started working at Costco, returned to work at the Bug Lab and started working as a teaching assistant at VCU.

“It’s been a grind but at this point I am more accustomed to always being busy than having time off,” he said. “There were most definitely times that got overwhelming, but I always think about how much my parents have gone through and the ridiculous amount of work they’ve done to give us a life in the U.S. so I try not to let it affect my school life.”

As a TA in entomology, Escobar-Chena is teaching for the first time and has found it to be greatly gratifying.

“It’s been incredibly fun to watch people grow more and more fond of bugs,” he said.

Following graduation, Escobar-Chena is looking forward to attending grad school and pursuing research opportunities in the field.

“I have always loved field work,” he said, “So long term I want to be able to support myself while being able to spend most of my time out in nature.”

Written by: Brian McNeill for VCU News at Virginia Commonwealth University; used with permission. Find the original article here.

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