Mia Luong has a penchant for puzzles.
The graduate student in the University of Nebraska–Lincoln’s Department of Entomology is working to solve the puzzle of how wheat interacts with wheat curl mites. In her spare time, she creates intricate 3D insect art.
Originally from Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, Luong learned the art of origami as a child. That skill, along with some inspiration courtesy of Pinterest, led her to craft 3D insect designs that include bees, dragonflies, mosquitoes, ants and flies.
“During sheltering at home, I have more time for my creative interests,” Luong said.
On Pinterest, she saw other artists crafting 3D insect models, which helped her hone her process. After using design software to create a layout, she spends at least an hour constructing each piece of art, cutting the intricate pieces out of recycled cardboard and connecting them.
“Each piece has a small slit, and you push them in together to hold,” she said. “It works like a normal puzzle.”
Luong plans to use her 3D insect art to raise funds for the Bruner Club, a social and academic club for graduate students in entomology. Luong and fellow graduate students hope to eventually donate a 3D insect kit to a young student for every completed piece the club sells.
“Kids can assemble the head, legs, body and wings,” she said. “My hope in doing this is for students to gain interest in studying nature and the important role insects play.”
Luong’s giving nature stems in part from her past experiences. Her journey to graduate school has not been an easy one; she has faced financial difficulty and other obstacles throughout her education.
Luong first came to Nebraska seeking an education in sustainable agriculture practices to produce safer food in Vietnam. When her initial plans as an international undergraduate did not work out, faculty, staff and fellow students in the Department of Agronomy and Horticulture stepped in, creating a GoFundMe campaign to help her cover expenses.
“The department and Dean’s Office took care of me,” Luong said. “I definitely want to give my greatest gratitude for the UNL community here.”
Luong received her undergraduate degree in December 2019. During her last semester as an undergraduate, she met Professor Gary Hein and learned about a research project on wheat curl mites being conducted in conjunction with Joe Louis in the Department of Entomology. Following her application, she was accepted as a graduate student.
Alongside Hein and Louis, Luong is now studying the effects of the mite, which transmits various viruses to wheat. Her research looks at wheat defenses to the mites and how the mites evolve and adapt to wheat resistance.
“It’s like a war between them,” she said. “Hopefully, we can shed some light into wheat-mite-virus interactions so that we can have a sustainable way to develop resistance cultivars.”
In a way, Luong said her research isn’t so different from the paper insects she makes. Both are puzzles to solve. Both require looking at things from multiple perspectives.
“What drew me into it was the whole complex system,” she said of her research. “I really like looking (at) and learning about things in a system where there are different components interacting together — the plant, the virus and the insect. I think it’s really fascinating.”
Luong said she’s grateful for her undergraduate experience at Nebraska and for the East Campus community that eventually led her to entomology.
“The university motto ‘In Our Grit, Our Glory’ really applies to me,” she said. “I wouldn’t be able to make it without everybody here.
“It definitely feels like home here.”