In the lab, undergraduate student Hannah Hightower sets her sights on studying cicadas.


DeAnna Beasley studies bugs. Assistant professor in the biology, geology and environmental science department, she is learning what makes city-dwelling insects like ants and cicadas different from their forest-dwelling counterparts.

Do they eat different food? Are they smaller?

Beasley asks these kinds of questions because she wants to know how human activity—obviously more present in the city—affects insects and how species of bugs are adapting to environmental changes taking place in their urban homes. She is particularly curious about urban-dwelling cicadas.

Beasley is not the only one at UTC asking these types of questions. Undergraduate student Hannah Hightower has set her sights on cicadas, too. With Beasley as her mentor, Hightower is studying the spread of fungal pathogens in cicada populations.

Her research ties into the bigger picture of how does urbanization and human disturbance affect insect populations? “It’s something that people frequently overlook because cicadas are not cute. They’re gross-looking. They’re really loud in the summer. No one really cares about them. But they’re good indicators of environmental quality,” says Hightower.

The cicadas that she studies live about 17 years underground, feeding on the xylem tissue of trees. Xylem tissue pulls water and nutrients from the ground into the tree. Hightower says the trees are like an “environmental straw” to cicadas.

So when the cicadas living underground munch away at tree tissue, they’re taking in everything the tree has sucked up from its environment. “All of that will manifest in the cicada and they sort of serve as biological time capsules,” Hightower explains.

After those “biological time capsules” have resurfaced and passed away, Hightower dissects them, specifically to see what fungus was present in their bodies and how the fungus is being spread. The end goal is to better understand how urbanization is affecting the health of the insects.

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Sarah ’14, ’16 earned an MA in English rhetoric and composition at UTC where she now works as staff writer; she enjoys hiking with her husband and two boys and spending time with her backyard menagerie of goats, chickens and ducks.

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