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Catching the Bug

UI’s research laboratories helped first-generation student put her studies on diseases, food supply to the test

Alicia Hodnik had never even seen the University of Idaho campus when she packed her car for the 30-hour road trip from Walworth, Wisconsin.

She’d happened upon Idaho while traveling as a part of the National FFA Organization and knew the Northwest was where she wanted to put her science skills to the test.

“It feels right at the University of Idaho. Good people, good place,” she remembers thinking at the time. “It just fits.”

Hodnik’s interest in science came early. An intrepid high school student, she wrote a funding grant to acquire a piece of high-tech equipment for her biotechnology class, allowing her to conduct detailed DNA research.

But it was in the UI College of Science where Hodnik believes she found her best self, both in the Plant Virology Lab and on the ballroom dance floor.

Now 26, Hodnik is graduating from the College of Science this December with dual bachelor’s degrees in microbiology and molecular biology and biotechnology. Her research has been on diseases that affect potato crops and other tubers. She has been studying Candidatus Liberibacter solanacearum, a bacterium that resides in the gut of psyllid insects. Psyllids introduce disease into potatoes when they feed on plants, transmitting the disease into the crop, and in turn affecting the food supply.

“I have a passion for microbes,” the Wisconsin native said, noting her eventual goal is to get into epidemiology and disease research in order to help determine how to combat diseases that have found their way into the population.

Plant diseases, and their effect on the food supply, have kept Hodnik’s interest during her studies. Agriculture will always be relevant because society will always need to feed people. That’s why Hodnik is interested in seeing what kind of technologies can be developed to combat hunger and unsafe food. She hopes some of these problems might become creatures of the past.

“It’d be great to contribute to something that betters people’s livelihood, either in the food safety sector or health sector,” Hodnik said.

She credits her passion to the large number of people who have helped push Hodnik in her research and the amount of collaboration that goes on at the Plant Virology Lab in UI’s Agriculture Biotechnology Building. She has worked in the lab since the summer of 2013 – a job she said has helped her develop as a scientist. She firmly believes the professors she’s worked with at UI care about their students on the most fundamental levels.

“I don’t think I would have been near as successful without professors being able to aid in the learning in so many different ways,” she said. “The amount of undergraduate research at UI is awesome.”

A first-generation college student, Hodnik wanted to choose a major she knew would challenge her. And she found that challenge in the Plant Virology Lab’s research.

“I may not be the perfect 4.0 student, but I’ve learned levels of knowledge and critical thinking that I would have never gleaned had I not chosen this (program),” she said.

It was the zeal of her professors that helped her transfer into the College of Science after first choosing to major in veterinary science in the College of Agricultural and Life Sciences. A microbiology class she took from University Distinguished Professor Caroline Hovde Bohach in the UI/WSU School of Food Science helped move her toward the biological end of the spectrum.

“It was instantaneous, ‘that’s the area I want to go into,’ ” she said.

That class, and her work in the lab under Plant and Entomological Sciences Professor Alexander Karasev, are highlights for the budding researcher. She credits her goals to the College of Science’s mission of encouraging undergraduate students to participate in research throughout their academic careers. That’s allowed students like Hodnik to develop their dreams in real ways.

“It’s been very eye-opening,” she said. “I don’t think I’ve found a better version of myself than in college.”

Hodnik’s time in Idaho has helped her develop interests in the outdoor adventures Idaho offers, and her interest in microbes is only rivaled by the dance bug she caught with her involvement in the Ballroom Dance Company at UI.

A bucket-list item at first, ballroom dancing has taken over her free time the past few years — enough so that she’s been a part of the company leadership for three years. She will have the opportunity to showcase her work during a final performance with the group this December.

“I will always dance,” she said. “It’s so expressive, and partner dancing brings about a level of non-spoken communication not found anywhere else. You have a whole group of couples dancing, but every couple has a bond with their partner.”

With her undergraduate work complete, Hodnik now hopes to gain research experience before working toward an eventual doctorate degree in the field.

But first she will lead 17 FFA students in January 2017 on a two-week trip to South Africa to encourage them to branch out and truly embrace the cultures of another country. She’s continued her involvement with FFA in the summers as a leadership curriculum facilitator and will again following commencement.

She’s also planning a return to the lab. Hodnik plans to continue working in the UI Plant Virology Lab during the spring semester as she weighs her options for the future. Her eventual goal is to be a professor herself, or to work in research for the public sector.

It all comes together when she walks across that stage to collect her diploma.

 “Graduation is the culmination of years of progressive hard work,” she said. “When I graduate I feel confident going into the workforce and allowing everything I’ve worked for to come to fruition.”

Article by Brad Gary, University Communications and Marketing.

Alicia Hodnik
Alicia Hodnik works in the University of Idaho Plant Virology Lab. Hodnik will graduate in December with bachelor’s degrees in microbiology and molecular biology and biotechnology from the College of Science.


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