Christina Grozinger was well on her way to earning a Ph.D. in Chemistry from Harvard when she began searching for her research muse. She found it on the plains of east central Illinois in the form of a very important insect.
"I enjoyed what I did but I wasn't particularly inspired by it," Grozinger said. "My brother started keeping honeybees as a hobby, and he would tell me fascinating stories about their behavior, (such as) in the fall, the worker bees will drag the male bees outside of the colony to die so they don't waste resources. It was really amazing and I started to read more about bees."
Grozinger began looking for a laboratory to do post-doctoral research where she could use her training in molecular biology (which focused on studying enzymes involved in gene regulation and chromatin remodeling) to study the mechanisms regulating behavior in bees. It turned out there was only one place she truly considered: the laboratory of Beckman affiliate faculty member Gene Robinson, a professor of Integrative Biology and nationally-known expert on the honeybee.
"I realized that with the new molecular tools available like microarrays we would no longer be limited to traditional genetic model organisms and could start expanding our studies to other systems," Grozinger said. "Gene's lab was a perfect fit - he was actually developing microarrays at the point that I contacted him - so the timing was just right. I didn't actually even interview anywhere else."
Grozinger also joined the Beckman Institute Fellows program in 2001, an experience she remembers fondly. "It was really wonderful to be able to interact with such an interesting and diverse group of people," she said. Grozinger left Illinois in 2004 to become an Assistant Professor of Entomology and Insect Genomics at North Carolina State University, where she continues and expands the work she started with Robinson into how pheromones regulate behavior. She said Robinson has been a big influence on her.
"Gene was an excellent mentor, and a great role model," Grozinger said. "Often, when I am facing a challenging situation, I think, 'what would Gene do' and that has helped me enormously."
That influence has been especially helpful as Grozinger began her own teaching career and research lab at North Carolina State.
Robinson said he was impressed by Grozinger's ability to refocus her research interests in a different area after getting a Ph.D.
"Christina made a huge switch in research paths by joining my lab. She had never before worked with a whole organism!" Robinson said. "She adjusted beautifully. We discussed the need for her to get totally steeped in her new area, so that she could not only do the project we designed, but develop the ability to think critically and creatively about the issues that that the work addressed, namely social regulation of brain gene expression. This she did and the evidence for the development of these abilities is very clear."
From what Robinson observed, it seems that Grozinger did indeed find her muse in Illinois.
"Christina was a hard-working and highly motivated postdoctoral researcher," he said. "It was easy to see that she 'fell in love' with the bees and was driven to discover what they could teach us about social regulation of gene expression."
Grozinger's current research on pheromone regulation of behavior focuses primarily on honeybees, but she also has collaborations involving fruit flies and bumble bees, and will be welcoming another former student of Robinson's next spring for a project studying paper wasps.
Even though she is in the early stages of her academic career, Grozinger has already broken new ground in the study of pheromones. Her investigations have shown that, as opposed to beliefs that responses to pheromones are hard-wired and instinctual, they are actually elicited only when the animal is in the correct state to respond appropriately.
"We have found that changes in hormone levels and other physiological factors seem to be responsible for modulating the response to the pheromone," Grozinger said.
"Interestingly, we have also shown that the different responses to queen pheromone can be uncoupled - which means that they may be regulated by different mechanisms."
Grozinger's lab is also studying reproduction, looking at pheromone profiles, gene expression patterns, and physiological factors associated with mating, mating number, and egg-laying.
The dramatic collapse of bee colonies that has made news recently resulted in an emergency "colony collapse disorder" meeting in April that Grozinger attended.
Honeybee colonies are a vital part of the food chain, responsible each year for the pollination of $15 billion worth of crops, including a large number of nuts, fruits, and vegetables. There were discussions at the meeting of possible reasons for the loss of the colonies, including factors such as pests, pathogens, pesticides, or poor nutrition due to drought.
"It seems likely that it is a combination of all of these factors that led to large-scale losses over the last winter, and it is also clear that large-scale collaborative efforts by scientists and beekeepers will be necessary to find ways to deal with this phenomenon," Grozinger said. "For our research, probably the most relevant studies will deal with queen quality - i.e., queens mated with low numbers of males may be rapidly killed off and superseded, making it difficult for the colony to maintain large numbers of workers - and the effects of pests/pathogens on immune function and social interactions."
Honeybees are also important for another reason. Researchers like Grozinger investigating bee behavior are gaining insight that could have implications for understanding the genetics, physiology, and psychology of human beings.
"Our studies of these model systems make it easier for us to find candidate genes by studying very extreme changes in behavior and physiology, and then these particular candidate genes can be targeted in other organisms like humans," she said. "How an individual's genotypic, physiological state, and environment interact to produce behavior is clearly a fundamental question for science, and our studies with bees give us a malleable and relatively simple system to try to study these things."
Thanks in part to her experience as a Beckman Fellow, Grozinger has an appreciation for disciplines other than her own.
"As Beckman fellows, we had monthly lunch meetings where we discussed our research, and we also hosted a symposium with other fellows from other Beckman institutes," she said. "I never figured out how to apply carbon nanotubes to study honey bee behavior, but just seeing things from such different perspectives was fascinating and made my time at Illinois even more enjoyable."
This article is part of the Summer 2007 Synergy Issue, a publication of the Communications Office of the Beckman Institute.