A photo of a woman
Karen Kester, Ph.D., favors hands-on, active learning. “I tell my entomology students that my goal is to change how they see the world,” she said. (Allen Jones, Enterprise Marketing and Communications)

Biology professor, ‘Bug Lab’ director Karen Kester retires after 26 years

In scientific knowledge and student development, the insect evolutionary ecologist has made a lasting impression as a researcher, teacher and director of the Bridges to Baccalaureate program.

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When Karen Kester finds an interesting bug in her yard, it often ends up in a container or in her freezer. This isn’t surprising.

Kester, Ph.D., a professor in Virginia Commonwealth University’s Department of Biology, runs the Insect Ecology and Behavior Laboratory – also known as the VCU Bug Lab – and teaches entomology and other insect-related courses. (The bugs will later make the journey from her freezer to the lab.) An insect evolutionary ecologist, Kester has focused her research on the behavior and evolutionary biology of interactions involving parasitic wasps, caterpillars and plants. A typical visit to the Bug Lab would reveal some of these creatures in Plexiglass cages, terrariums or in one of the many boxes that comprise the VCU insect collection. 

“Many people are afraid or disgusted by insects, but I have always been fascinated by them. My mother told me that as a young child, I laid trails for ants with crumbs from my teething biscuits in my playpen. And that people who knew me as a child asked her, ‘What happened to the one who liked bugs?’” Kester said. “I love insects because they are amazingly diverse in form, behavior and life history. There are so many species that I am always learning.”

Kester has shared her passion for the bug world at VCU for 26 years, but now it’s time for a new chapter. This past September, Kester retired.  

Embracing students and VCU’s diversity

Kester arrived at VCU in 1997. Though she had job offers elsewhere, she was drawn to VCU because of the students.

“When I interviewed at VCU, I felt comfortable because I am a first-generation college student like many of the students I met,” she said. “And I liked the diversity, which was familiar to me. I felt that I could relate to the students.”

Kester was hired to teach evolution and speciation as well as introductory biology. She later developed a field-based course in entomology, a service-learning course in insects and plants, and an experimental design course in animal-plant interactions, as well as capstone and graduate seminars. She quickly became known for her student-centered teaching.

“My favorite kind of learning has always been hands-on, active learning. I tell my entomology students that my goal is to change how they see the world – to see the world like a child again and to notice all the tiny details,” Kester said. “I am passionate about the subjects I teach and that means a lot to students.” 

In her quarter-century at VCU, Kester taught hundreds of students and mentored many undergraduate and graduate students. One is recent graduate Eric Escobar-Chena, who is both a first-generation U.S. citizen and a first-generation college student. He worked in the Bug Lab as an unpaid research intern and later as a teaching assistant for Kester’s entomology class.

“Dr. Kester has been one of my most influential mentors during my time at VCU. She is the type of person that sees a person’s character, strengths and weaknesses, and uses this skill to ensure her students can find success,” Escobar-Chena said. “Dr. Kester’s dedication to teaching and outreach has been infectious, and I hope I can uplift others in the way I have seen her do so. The number of excellent students I have seen come out of her lab is truly a testament to the effect she has had on our community.”

Building ‘Bridges’ for promising students

After a decade of teaching Introductory Biology for majors, Kester noticed there were more transfer students in her class and that they were struggling. She organized meetings with colleagues and community college instructors to identify the challenges these students faced in making the leap to four-year institutions. This inspired Kester to start the Bridges to Baccalaureate program at VCU with Thomas Nelson Community College (now Virginia Peninsula Community College) and John Tyler Community College (now Brightpoint Community College). 

The program, funded by the National Institutes of Health, provides mentored research experiences for talented students from underrepresented groups at the partner colleges, plus one-on-one academic advising and workshops in preparation for a successful transition to VCU or other four-year schools. The first grant also funded half the salary of the first full-time STEM advisor at Thomas Nelson and the first full-time biology advisor at VCU.

A photo of a woman standing in a room with shelves full of white boxes.
Karen Kester, Ph.D., runs the Insect Ecology and Behavior Laboratory – also known as the VCU Bug Lab – and teaches entomology and other insect-related courses. (Contributed photo)

This was the first step in implementing a professional advising structure in the Biology Department  – a key component to student success today, but not at the time. “We know that advisors provide critical support to students. Since this time, VCU has made incredible changes, and this grant was the impetus for many of them,” Kester said.

She served as the director of Bridges to Baccalaureate for 10 years, stepping away this past year, and oversaw 72 students who completed the program. For those who enrolled at VCU afterward, Kester said they do well.

“The program gives students confidence. These are students who are really talented, and they often haven’t been encouraged before,” she said. “You see such a big difference from when they start the program to when they complete it. We host a closing ceremony at the end of each summer where students present their research, and you can see the amount of pride they have in their accomplishments. It is my favorite part of the whole program.”  

It was this work – and her student-centered philosophy – that earned Kester high praise for her teaching. In 2015 she received the VCU College of Humanities and Sciences Distinguished Teaching Award, and in 2019 she received the VCU University Distinguished Faculty Award in Teaching, the highest teaching award at the university.

From the toads of her youth

Kester’s dedication to research also flourished at VCU. It was a passion she discovered as a young girl in Puerto Rico.

Intrigued by cane toads, an introduced species that populated the island, Kester wanted to find out what habitat best suited them. She found a large wooden box with separate compartments and built three environments with varying degrees of wet and dry conditions. In the morning, she went to check which environment had the most cane toads.

“By 5 or 6, I was playing scientist,” Kester said.

At VCU, her research focused on tritrophic interactions involving parasitic wasps, caterpillars and plants, which included field work, behavioral and feeding studies in the laboratory, and genetic analyses. Among her discoveries is that parasitic wasps can adapt to the allelochemicals in the plants on which their caterpillar hosts feed. Because of that adaptation, populations of parasitic wasps can become differentiated, and over time, adaptations to hosts and plants can lead to further diversification, even speciation.

In 2002, Kester received a contract from the federal Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency for bio-inspired projects that were considered high-risk and high-reward. The DARPA grant exceeded $1 million and was the largest ever received by VCU’s Department of Biology at the time. Kester’s project focused on the role of insects as environmental samplers of anthrax and other bioterrorism materials. Through later federal contracts, this work expanded to include other bacterial and viral agents, as well as explosives materials. These projects included field work at the Dugway Proving Ground in Utah and the Yuma Proving Ground in Arizona. 

The work and passions continue

Like many retiring professors, Kester is slowing down but not stopping. She is still involved in research and is currently a co-principal investigator on a grant based in France. She also will be back at VCU in fall 2024 to teach an entomology course. In between, Kester plans to garden, travel, continue her public education and community engagement activities, and become a Virginia Master Naturalist, a volunteer role that provides stewardship of local ecosystems.

Reflecting on highlights of her VCU career, Kester said there isn’t just one that stands out.

“I feel really fortunate. I was able to do so many things related to research, teaching and service,” she said. “I am an internally motivated person who follows my interests and passions. Receiving recognition for my accomplishments has been the frosting on the cake. At the start of my career, my goal was to be paid to do what I loved, and that happened.”