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IGB Profile: Erinn Dady

February 21, 2024
By: Ananya Sen

Over the past few decades, the food industry has increasingly leaned on the concept of molecular gastronomy—approaching cooking from the perspective of chemistry. Erinn Dady’s career went in the opposite direction where her love for cooking reignited her passion in science.

“When you’ve worked hard, and done well, and walked through that doorway of opportunity, you do not slam it shut behind you. You reach back and you give other folks the same chances that helped you succeed.”
I am inspired by Michelle Obama's quote: “When you’ve worked hard, and done well, and walked through that doorway of opportunity, you do not slam it shut behind you. You reach back and you give other folks the same chances that helped you succeed.”

Growing up in Urbana-Champaign, Dady had always been fascinated by the natural world. “I loved observing insects and I would go traipsing through the woods or the prairies around here to see what I could find under the logs,” Dady said.

Although she loved her middle school biology classes, high school was a different story. Some bad experiences during dissections left her feeling unwelcome. “I always wanted to study life, not take it. The disrespect shown to the animals that had given their lives for science was appalling and it made me feel very uncomfortable. When my teacher told me to ‘toughen up’ if I wanted to be successful, it made me believe empathy was not part of science.”

After losing interest in what she thought would be her chosen profession, Dady felt adrift, and she dropped out of high school to get her General Educational Development Diploma at 16. For several years, Dady took classes at Parkland College while she spent her time working at restaurants and discovering her love for baking. She developed the bakery department at the Common Ground Food Coop in Urbana and then moved on to work for Hendrick House as their pastry chef. On a regular day, she would make up to 2000 desserts.

“There are a lot of chemical reactions that are constantly happening in the kitchen. For example, when you make bread, you combine the wet and dry ingredients and transform them into an entirely new material. It made me realize how much science I did on a regular basis,” Dady said. “I loved developing new recipes that could accommodate food allergies and I realized that it was a different way of pursuing science.”

Initially Dady thought that her unorthodox education would preclude her from pursuing science. Nevertheless, she was concerned about the increasing public distrust of science. In 2019, Dady enrolled full-time at Parkland College to complete her Associate degree in science. She was selected for a summer National Science Foundation Research Experiences for Undergraduates program that aims to involve community college students in ongoing research.

During her summer research time, she was placed in the lab of May Berenbaum (GEGC/IGOH), a professor of entomology. There, she met her future graduate advisor Esther Ngumbi (CIS/MMG), now an assistant professor of entomology, who was a postdoctoral researcher in the Berenbaum lab at the time. Dady enjoyed her time with Ngumbi so much that she decided to apply for graduate school.

“Both of us were very excited to work together, and it was an honor to be her first student,” Dady said. “My advisor is incredibly generous with the opportunities she provides to her students, and she has allowed me to develop my own research directions. It has been an amazing experience.”

Dady studies how plants respond to their environment via chemical signals. “Even though plants don’t have a brain, they can make complex decisions that we can measure in real time through their altered chemistry,” she gushed. Dady realized how sensitive the responses are when she conducted her first experiment during the summer REU, where she pinched the plant leaves using forceps to mimic the chewing of an insect. To her surprise, the plant could differentiate between the forceps and an actual insect chewing on the leaf.

“It was a totally different response! I couldn’t believe it,” Dady said in awe. “After that I’ve become fascinated by how plants sense these stimuli, how they can distinguish between different species of caterpillars, and how they respond to different stressors.”

Dady is delighted that through her work she can connect with local farmers and share her results with them. “When I worked in restaurants, I was in touch with local farmers and it’s been amazing that I can use those connections in my research,” Dady explained. “It’s been a full circle for me because now I can give back to the folks who are growing our food.”

Dady also conducts outreach events with the Ngumbi lab to spur scientific interest in the Urbana-Champaign community. Specifically, they have worked with DREAAM House, Hedge Pop! Park, and the City of Champaign. “I’ve designed several experiments for kids to enjoy and it’s fun to see everyone get excited about science,” Dady said, emphasizing the importance of working with local communities that have been historically disinvested, and bringing science to the neighborhood, rather than assuming the neighborhood will come to campus.

As a part of the Entomology Graduate Students Association, Dady helps with the annual Insect Fear Film Festival. “I went to this as a child and I loved it,” Dady explained with a smile. “It’s wonderful to be a part of it now. I am one of the organizers for the K-12 art contest and I love seeing the kids draw their insect art. The planning for this year’s event is underway and it will take place on February 24, 2024.”

Her research experience so far has made Dady believe that not all scientific careers follow the same trajectory. “I used to think that because of my background, I didn’t have a place in science. However, the opportunities I had with NSF, Parkland, and here at Illinois have transformed my life,” Dady said. “Everyone should apply for every opportunity because once a door opens, you see a huge world of possibilities.”


February 21, 2024
By: Ananya Sen
Photos By: Julia Pollack

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