January 2018 Spotlight: Nanticha Lutt
CLEAR member? 2017-Present!
What do you do? I’m currently studying how to make more photosynthetically efficient rice to grow in space shuttles.
Describe one experience growing up which influenced the way you became interested in science. I was born in Bangkok, Thailand, and spent all of my childhood in different places of Southeast Asia. Everything around the equator there is so lush, verdant, and wild, it was really hard not to notice the rich diversity of every living thing around me. I was very privileged to live near an actual rainforest in Singapore; I got to roll around in the dirt, grab wiggling slugs and feel the mud squish beneath my bare feet. In general, the freedom my parents gave me to explore the natural world allowed my curiosity to blossom.
What was your favorite class? Medical Ethnobotany! I learned to do scientific sketches for the first time, which was really beneficial for my field research later on. Mostly though, it’s my favorite class because it taught me how to identify plants with traditional medical uses and scientifically peer-reviewed healing powers. Now I have a reason to be on someone’s post-apocalyptic zombie survival team! (Plant biologist healer, anyone??)
What is your favorite science factoid? Male giraffe weevils use their long necks to fight each other. Please look it up! Everyone should watch a video about this at least once in their lifetime. Giraffe weevils are very cool and weird.
When did you decide to pursue plant biology? When I was a freshman undergraduate at UC Berkeley, I was a very disaffected pre-health / pre-medical student. In my stupor, I applied to a faculty-sponsored project on walnut husk flies for which I was hired to do undergraduate research. It was in the Natural Resources Laboratory that I took my first steps into the world of agro-ecology. My lab was full of women-graduate students who demonstrated a fearless love of their work, and embodied a support network within the field of science. I realized that research allows me to put myself directly in the process of experimental design in order to deconstruct ecological, biological, or physical complexities that will allow for positive social change! Most importantly, I could be outside and play with insects and plants all day. I spent summers outside in sweaty agricultural orchards, digging through rotting walnuts to find elusive larvae. After this experience, I knew that plants and their pharmaceutical and agricultural potential had seduced me into a lifelong engagement of research.
If you could go back and give yourself advice at any point in your schooling or career, what would it be? I wish I could have told my undergraduate self to trust myself more! I had very little faith in my academic ability and knowledge, and I doubted myself constantly when I was applying to graduate school. I was perpetually anxious and overworked, and I wish I could have just had a little bit of faith in how smart I actually was. Believe in yourself, Nanticha!
Before grad school, where did you work? Before I was a PhD student, I worked at the Insect Quarantine Facility at UC Berkeley! I raised light brown apple moths, different species of spider-mites and predatory-mites, and a whole host of jumping spiders.
If you didn’t have to spend all day in a lab, how would you spend your time? I would probably spend my time farming or gardening. I love the feeling of being in a large agricultural field, or even in a tiny backyard raising food. There is nothing else like biting into a large, ripe, red tomato that you’ve nurtured from seed in the California sunshine. Also, I love dirt.
What does your lab workspace look like right now? Several polaroids of my friends and family are on the pin-board above my desk, next to five random pieces of paper with some scientific scribbling on them, and an expired coupon for $3 off my next pizza purchase from Fat Slice. There’s three empty coffee mugs next to my laptop, complete with coffee stains. My lab notebook, class notebook, planner, and a sketchbook are piled on top of each other underneath two deflated tangerines. In my three desk drawers, the top one is filled with snack wrappers, the second is filled with stationary supplies, and the bottom one is totally empty. I have a blanket in the shelf above my desk for when I get really cold. On the same shelf, there are five kombucha bottles, which I will recycle one day, but not yet. There’s a centrifuge on my lab bench, a bottle of 50% bleach, used latex gloves, and several falcon tubes.
Why did you join CLEAR? Increasing general environmental and scientific literacy is an incredibly important aspect of my graduate school career. About 1.5 years ago, I spent time in a corporate internship at DuPont Pioneer in Johnston, Iowa. Thinking of agricultural knowledge in context of pure laboratory work can overlook some of the information present in communities in our backyard. At Pioneer, I served as the Agronomy Information Intern, primarily producing content hosted on a public agronomy library, allowing growers to make informed decisions about field management. In my interactions with local farmers, I understand the great importance of collaboration with other scientists, technicians, and community members. However, during that time I also realized how little our integral farming communities really knew about environmental sustainability, but how eager most farmers were in changing their agricultural practices to help protect the environment. As an PhD student involved in agricultural research, I think a lot about the effect that outreach has on bodies of knowledge and future generations engage issues of climate justice, sustainability, and science discovery!