Myrmecologist Jill Oberski: A Dream Come True

Picture this.

Jill Oberski is in the third grade, stretched out on the classroom floor reading her "Audubon Field Guide to Insects and Spiders of North America."  Another insect publication is within reach.

Fast forward to today: she's Dr. Jill Oberski.

She just completed her doctoral dissertation, studying with major professor Phil Ward, ant specialist and professor, UC Davis Department of Entomology and Nematology. She  will present her exit seminar on "Phylogenetics and Biogeography of the Pyramid Ants" at 4:10 p.m., Wednesday, June 7 in 122 Briggs Hall The seminar also will be on Zoom

"I've been fascinated by insects as long as I can remember," Jill said. "As a kid, I learned the names of the major taxonomic orders and created a small pinned collection, but I didn't realize it could be anything more than a hobby, so I shifted my sights toward becoming a medical doctor. But when I went to college, I met a professor who actually does study biodiversity and discover new arthropod species for a living. So after getting my start in research at Macalester College, and a year as an intern at University of Wisconsin-Madison, I started searching for suitable research programs across the country where I could train as a grad student doing those same things—biodiversity, evolution, and biogeography of insects or arachnids."

"I was open to almost any insect/arachnid study system because generally, the more I learn about a group, the cooler I find it, and that turned out to be very true for ants. They're amazing little underappreciated creatures with societies all their own, and I'm so happy to be a myrmecologist." 

So, on June 7, she'll discuss her five-year research. "Ants of the genus Dorymyrmex, the 'pyramid ants,' exhibit an intriguing distribution that is most concentrated not near the equator, but instead in dry temperate regions of the Americas, such as deserts, shrublands, and beaches, and including Davis, California," Oberski writes in her abstract. "Although these ants are common, widespread, and ecologically significant, their diversity and evolutionary history are still poorly understood. My dissertation research introduces Dorymyrmex to modern phylogenomics and concerted biogeographic study by integrating classic and cutting-edge approaches: I performed targeted genomics with UCEs, inferred Bayesian phylogenies and fossil-calibrated divergence dates, and also employed traditional methods like morphometrics and visual species description."

"My work (1) characterizes the major lineages of Dorymyrmex, which are morphologically diverse in the Neotropics but actively peciating (and superficially similar) in North America; (2) illustrates an intercontinental range expansion that occurred millions of years ago; and (3) characterizes the Nearctic fauna, nearly doubling the number of Dorymyrmex species in North America. Ultimately, this research contributes to our knowledge of both local biodiversity and global dispersal patterns, and reveals Dorymyrmex is a unique system for studying rapid evolutionary radiations."

Jill, who joined the Ward lab in 2017, received a bachelor's degree in biology and a bachelor's degree in German studies, sum laude, from Malacaster College, Saint Paul, Minn. Fluent in German, she completed a 2014 summer course, "Anatomie, Physiologie, und Evolution der Tiere" (Anatomy, Physiology, and Evolution of the Animals) at Universität Wien, Vienna, Austria.

Since enrolling in the UC Davis graduate program, Jill has been more active than the ants she studies! She's a past president of the UC Davis Entomology Graduate Student Association, and served in leadership roles in the Girls' Outdoor Adventure in Leadership and Science (GOALS). 

Active in the Entomological Society of America (ESA), Jill was a member of the UC Davis teams that won the national Entomology Games championship at the 2018 and 2022 ESA meetings. Her ESA honors also include President's Prize, first place, for an infograpic in 2020; and two 2019 second-place awards, President's Prize, for a seminar and infographic. 

She received a five-year Dean's Distinguished Graduate Fellowship award in 2017. In May of 2022, she was selected for a Professors for the Future Fellowship (PFTF) award, described by PFTF as "a year-long competitive fellowship program designed to recognize and develop the leadership skills of outstanding graduate students and postdoctoral scholars who have demonstrated their commitment to professionalism, integrity, and academic service. The program is designed to prepare UC Davis doctoral students and postdoctoral scholars for an increasingly competitive marketplace and a rapidly changing university environment." For her project, she recorded a series of interviews about mental and chronic illnesses and how they impact academic professional development. 

Jill, who plays tenor saxophone at community events, performed in an  entomology band at the 2018 UC Davis Picnic Day as Jill “Jillus Saximus” Oberski. She dressed as a “generalized heteropteran,” which she described as “most likely a member of the family Acanthosomatidae (shield bug) or Pentatomidae (stink bug). My family and friends have called me Jillybug, so I came to be the band's representative of Hemiptera.” (See news story on Entomology website, and feature in Entomology Today, published by ESA)

Future plans? After receiving her doctorate June 15 at a UC Davis ceremony, Dr. Jill will be moving to Washington, D.C. this summer for a brief stint as a visiting researcher at the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History. Then, in January 2024, she will start a three-year independent postdoctoral research position in Frankfurt, Germany. 

The Oberski seminar is the last of the spring seminars, all coordinated by urban landscape entomologist Emily Meineke,  assistant professor. A pre-seminar coffee will take place from 3:30 to 4:10 p.m. in 158 Briggs. For technical issues regarding Zoom connections, she may be reached at