Alyssa Hakes, wearing a denim jacket, smiles at the camera.
Portrait on Main Hall Green: Alyssa Hakes (Photo by Danny Damiani)

About the series: On Main Hall Green With … is an opportunity to connect with faculty on things in and out of the classroom. We’re featuring a different Lawrence faculty member each time — same questions, different answers.

Alyssa Hakes, an associate professor of biology, has focused on plant ecology since joining the Lawrence faculty in 2012.

Much of her research has involved plant-insect interactions. She involves her students in that research, using observational studies, field experiments, and computer models to understand how the spatial location of plants and plant traits might influence interactions with other organisms and what that might mean for plant reproduction and trait evolution.

Over the past year, Hakes has used goofy costumes to lighten the mood and help her students on Zoom get through the pandemic.

She holds a bachelor’s degree from the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign and a Ph.D. from Louisiana State University.

We caught up with her to talk about interests in and out of the classroom.

In the classroom 

Inside info: What’s one thing you want every student coming into your classes to know about you?

I always get nervous and excited on the first day of class. I’m nervous because I care about you and your learning experience and I want to do a good job. I want our classroom—whether in Steitz, Youngchild, or on Zoom—to be a fun and welcoming space. My office is overgrown with potted plants and if you visit me, I will likely offer to give you one. 

Getting energized: What work have you done or will you be doing at Lawrence that gets you the most excited?

My lab conducts field work at Whitefish Dunes State Park located near Bjorklunden. I study a rare plant called Pitcher’s thistle and an invasive insect, an evil weevil, that is eating their seeds. We discovered areas of the dunes that are more susceptible to weevil infestation and are studying how weevils move and select their plant hosts so that we can use this information to develop conservation strategies. It’s exciting research in a beautiful natural area. 

Going places: Is there an example of somewhere your career has taken you (either a physical space or something more intellectual, emotional, or spiritual) that took you by surprise?

As a college freshman, I knew I wanted to become a biologist but I was worried that learning about evolution in my classes would damage my religious faith. I was surprised to find support and acceptance from both my church—turns out my denomination is fine with evolution—and science mentors who insisted that I belong. It turned out not to be the issue I thought it would be. Now, evolution is one of my favorite topics to teach.

Out of the classroom 

This or that: If you weren’t teaching for a living, what would you be doing? 

I would want to work for the Girl Scouts of the USA organization. I’m a lifetime member of Girl Scouts and I benefited from their girl-centered mission and programming. When I was a graduate student at LSU, I volunteered for Girl Scouts and led local scouts on several backpacking and canoeing adventures. 

Right at home: Whether for work, relaxation or reflection, what’s your favorite spot on campus?

The Briggs greenhouse is one of my favorite spots on campus, especially during the Winter Term when I’m missing green plants and warmth. We have a nice teaching collection of desert and tropical plants that are used in several of our biology classes. My favorite plants are the cycads and the Amorphophallus titanum corpse flower plant, which I hope will grow large enough to flower someday and bless our campus with its famous stench.

One book, one recording, one film: Name one of each that speaks to your soul? Or you would recommend to a friend? Or both?

I’m going to focus my answer to the art that got me through this past year. My favorite book and movie of 2020 were Transcendent Kingdom by Yaa Gyasi and The Forty-Year-Old Version, respectively. During the pandemic I also turned to the nostalgia and comfort of familiar music and TV. I listened to a lot of David Bowie and laughed along to old episodes of MST3K.