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Barukh Rohde

College: Hunter College
Awards: National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship, 2014

Attacking Killer Bacterium with Sex

Barukh Rohde thinks that sex may be the way to solve greening disease, which is souring and killing American citrus crops, tripling the price of orange juice and, in Florida alone, cost more than 6,600 jobs and at least $3.63 billion in lost revenue between 2006 and 2012.

The killer bacterium is carried by the Asian citrus psyllid, an invasive insect three millimeters long. As Rohde (Hunter College, 2014) explained last year as lead author on the first of his five publications, the bugs beat their wings to transmit mating calls through the citrus plant in order to locate one another. Rohde played recordings of these songs and found that males eagerly sought the source.

Rohde is designing a device that imitates female psyllids, with a lethal surprise waiting for the males. Could this be the better insect trap that could stop citrus greening? Rohde intends to find out with a National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship.

He tentatively plans to enroll in an electrical engineering Ph.D. program at the University of Florida in Gainesville, home of the U.S. Department of Agriculture lab where he began work on his psyllid trap by buying the services of a U-Florida student for $11. That student, acknowledged as a coauthor on one publication, came to the lab, pointed him in the right direction and Rohde then taught himself needed skills via the Internet.

Now 20, Rohde is a prodigy who graduates with three majors (biology-bioinformatics, chemistry and statistics) and two minors (psychology and economics). He racked up an astounding 199 credits (the typical student graduates with 120), including 36.5 credits in his final semester (most take 12 to 15). Not to mention serving on the Hunter College Senate, helping to found an Undergraduate Student Government party, running study groups to aid other students and bicycling and hitchhiking cross-country.

He conducted basic research at Rockefeller University for a device that uses light to determine whether a lesion is cancerous melanoma. In a University of Pittsburgh molecular pharmacology lab, he worked to prevent a form of kidney transplant rejection. After his six-month stint in Florida, he founded a program at the USDA lab, which used the stipend normally allotted to pay one student to cover housing for seven undergrads who wanted research experience.

“I am an overloader,” he says. He earned his high school diploma (from the University of Missouri) online while living in Israel, taking nine high school courses in his last year to graduate a year early. His diploma is dated two days before his Hunter start date. “When you push your limits, you’ll often find that you are capable of more than you initially think.”

With his prodigious capacity for learning and eclectic interests, Rohde makes clear that while his career may be starting with sex-hungry insects, it easily could spiral into any number of as-yet unknown fields. “No matter what I do, I will definitely have fun,” he says.

The National Science foundation Graduate Research Fellowship is the most prestigious for graduate studies in the science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) disciplines. This federal grant provides $132,000 over three years for doctoral-level research.