Jessica Gillung: Amazing Entomologist

UC Davis-trained entomologist Jessica Gillung is nothing short of amazing--from research to leadership to public service.

Gillung, who received her doctorate in entomology from UC Davis in December 2018, and is now a postdoctoral researcher at Cornell University, has won the Snodgrass Memorial Research Award from the Entomological Society of America (ESA) for her landmark dissertation on spider flies.

Spider flies? They're parasitoids of spiders in the family Acroceridaae and not widely known. Many are bee or wasp mimics. They are commonly called "small-headed flies" or "hunch-backed flies."

The award, given by ESA's Systematics, Evolution and Biodiversity Section, recognizes outstanding research by a doctoral student who has completed a research thesis or dissertation in arthropod morphology, systematics, taxonomy, or evolution. The prize is a $500 cash award and an invited talk at ESA. She'll speak on "Unraveling the Evolution of Spider Flies (Diptera, Acroceridae): Progress and Possibilities" at the ESA's annual meeting, set Nov. 17-20 in St. Louis, Mo.

Gillung is the first UC Davis student to receive the award, which was first presented in 1992. Her dissertation, “Systematics and Phylogenomics of Spider Flies (Diptera, Acroceridae),” focused on the evolution, conservation, biology, and taxonomy of spider flies, a group of spider natural enemies.

Gilllung studied with major professor Lynn Kimsey, director of the Bohart Museum of Entomology and professor of entomology, UC Davis Department of Entomology and Nematology. She also studied with mentor Shaun Winterton, insect biosystematist, California Department of Food and Agriculture, and collaborated with ant specialist and taxonomist Phil Ward, professor, UC Davis Department of Entomology and Nematology.

Gillung's dissertation, involving genomics, phylogenetics, systematics, and comparative analyses, “has increased our understanding of the biological patterns and processes that have shaped our planet's biodiversity,” Kimsey wrote in her letter of nomination.  Her taxonomic work included identification keys and morphology-based diagnoses of species using modern techniques of cybertaxonomy—the application of the internet, digital technologies, and computer resources to increase and speed up the discovery and cataloging of new species, Kimsey wrote in her letter of nomination.

“Using cybertaxonomic tools, Jessica described 25 new spider fly species herself, and in collaboration with fellow entomologists, three fossil species from Baltic amber, described in her first dissertation chapter," Kimsey wrote. "Cybertaxonomy is a powerful tool that allows researchers and citizen scientists to collaborate in real time and across great distances to increase the speed and efficiency of biodiversity discovery.”

Kimsey noted that “Jessica unraveled the functional and ecological implications of key morphological traits, as well as their distribution across the Tree of Life," and "established new homologies for the wing venation of spider flies. She conducted detailed and assiduous dissections of male reproductive structures (i.e., genitalia) to understand homologies, demonstrating that morphological traits are dynamically evolving systems useful for both classification and inference of evolutionary history.”

While at UC Davis, Gillung drew more $120,000 in grants and awards for her multifaceted research on genomics, bioinformatics, phylogenetics, plant-pollinator interactions, and biodiversity discovery.  She compiled a near straight-A academic record, published 11 refereed publications in top journals, and engaged in public service and outreach programs that reached more than 20,000 people at UC Davis-based events.

Gillung was a key member of the UC Davis Linnaean Games Team that won the ESA national championship in 2015. (See YouTube video.) The Linnaean Games are lively question-and-answer, college bowl-style competitions on entomological facts played between university-sponsored student teams.

The UC Davis-trained entomologist earlier received

  • The 2019 Marsh Award for Early Career Entomologist, sponsored by the Royal Entomological Society. That involved a $1624 cash award and an invitation to the society meeting, Aug. 20-22 at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine.
  • The 2019 Early Career Award from the Pacific Branch, Entomological Society of America (PBESA). PBESA encompasses 11 western states, U.S. territories and parts of Canada and Mexico.
  • The 2018 Student Leadership Award from PBESA
  • The  “Best Student Presentation Award” at the ninth annual International Congress of Dipterology, held in 2018 in Windhoek, Namibia.

At Cornell, Gillung is researching Apoidea (stinging wasps and bees) phylogenomics, evolution and diversification in the Brian Danforth lab.