Penn State Berks student receives top awards for spotted lanternfly research

Erin Horack

Erin Horack, a first-year biotechnology major at Penn State Berks

Credit: Erin Horack

Erin Horack, a first-year biotechnology major at Penn State Berks, recently won two first place awards for her research studying the spotted lanternfly. She was named a 2021 Regeneron Science Talent Search Scholar and she also took first place honors at the National FFA Agriscience competition for her research.

For the Regeneron Science Talent Search competition, Horack’s project was titled "Lycorma delicatula‘s mitochondrial DNA in relation to L. delicatula’s feeding pattern based on monosaccharide concentrations of host plants." Her study examined the genetic basis of the feeding preferences of the invasive spotted lanternfly.

She also took top honors at the Future Farmers of America (FFA) competition or her individual research in the Environmental Services and Natural Resource Systems: Division 5 category, which she presented at the Agriscience Fair Competition during the 2021 Pennsylvania Farm Show.

Horack's interest in studying the spotted lanternfly began when she was a freshman at Conrad Weiser High School and her agriculture science teacher discussed the invasive Asian insect that was discovered in the Pennsylvania in 2014 and has spread to several counties and neighboring states. She was surprised that little was known about the spotted lanternfly, which causes serious damage in trees, vines, crops and many other types of plants.

According to the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture, the spotted lanternfly is a huge threat to the Pennsylvania agriculture industry. The economic impact could total in the hundreds of millions of dollars and hundreds of thousands of jobs for those in the grapes, apple, hops and hardwood industries. 

Horack’s project for the FFA competition investigated whether the carbohydrate ratio of plant sap could be used to predict the feeding preference of the invasive spotted lanternfly. Her results showed that plants that seem to attract more spotted lanternfly, such as the tree of heaven and sugar maple, have higher sucrose and lower glucose and fructose concentrations. This research is useful in predicting which tree species are most likely to face serious damage from the spotted lanternfly.

She also used mitochondrial DNA sequencing to compare the spotted lanternfly found in Pennsylvania with those found in Korea, Japan and China. She found that Pennsylvania spotted lanternflies were more closely related to those in Korea and Japan, illustrating that  this insect can adapt quickly, according to Horack.

She said her research has had its setbacks, including the difficulty she faced with growing the spotted lanternfly in the lab. She explains that she took spotted lanternfly eggs from trees where they were feeding and put them in incubators, but they didn’t survive for long.

Currently, Horack is looking forward to being able to continue conducting research at Penn State Berks. With more opportunity for lab-centered inquiry – as opposed to field-based research – her future studies will take her away from the spotted lanternfly.

When asked why she chose Penn State Berks, Horack explained, “Penn State Berks has a lot to offer. I wanted to be a Penn Stater all my life, and I wanted to start small. I also wanted to get the most value for my tuition dollars. But most importantly, I wanted to go to Penn State.” She comments that both her parents are Penn State alumni. In addition to her academics and research, Horack is a member of the women’s soccer team.

“I really like it here. There’s a family atmosphere and the professors are interested in what you’re interested in and getting to know the students,” Horack added.

Her ultimate goal after graduation is to conduct research that helps people and benefits society. She plans to work with DNA and genetics research in the pharmaceutical or agricultural industry, and then eventually go to grad school.

About Regeneron Science Talent Search
Sponsored by the Society for Science, the Regeneron Science Talent Search is the nation’s oldest and most prestigious science and math competition for high school seniors. In 2021, the 300 scholars and their schools were awarded $2,000 each. Scholars were selected based on their exceptional research skills, commitment to academics, innovative thinking and promise as scientists from 1,760 applications received from 611 high schools across 45 states.

The Regeneron Science Talent Search provides students a national stage to present original research and celebrates the hard work and novel discoveries of young scientists who are bringing a fresh perspective to significant global challenges.

About the FFA Agriscience Fair
The National FFA Agriscience Fair recognizes students who gain real-world, hands-on experiences in agricultural enterprises. Students use scientific principles and emerging technologies to solve complex problems related to agriculture, food and natural resources. The agriscience fair is for middle and high school students. Students compete in one of six categories in the agriscience fair and under one of the six divisions – either individually or in a team.