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Graduate Student Spotlight: Julian Cosner

Ph.D. Student, Department of Entomology and Plant Pathology

I am a Knoxville native and outdoorsman whose interest in nature was cultivated early on in my life by my many weekends spent fishing and hunting with my family. In fact, it is this interest that eventually landed me my first job in high school: landscaping residential and commercial properties in Greater Knoxville. Although I loved working outside, I really wanted to take care of people in a different way. Upon graduating, I went to East Tennessee State University to pursue a career in nursing. I felt that nursing would give me the opportunity to both help people and earn a good salary. However, in my second semester of my freshman year, I began to have second thoughts regarding the trajectory I had imagined for myself. I failed to realize, at the time, the reality of being a nurse would entail me spending long hours at a time inside under high-stress situations. I knew then that, while I enjoyed the coursework, this was not the path for me.  

Homesick and unsure about what I wanted to do as a career, I transferred to the University of Tennessee with hopes that the pieces would fall in place. After a grueling day of orientation, I was ready to leave and explore the campus. I was trying to find the exit door when a man by the name of Dr. Andy Pulte stopped me to gauge my interest in public horticulture. Rudely, I blew him off and beelined to the exit. I was exhausted from hearing Vol hype-up speeches all day (as if I had not grown up here my entire life). Dr. Pulte, however, was persistent and asked, “Would you just give me a few minutes to tell you about this degree path.” Hesitant, I obliged, though slightly annoyed. I sat down in a room with a few other students caught in the same web as me and listened to his spiel. After a few minutes, my annoyance turned to curiosity. That deep longing to both work outdoors and help people seemed obtainable through public horticulture which encompassed gardening, landscaping, turfgrass management, etc.  

With my interests soaring, I signed up for classes and finished my B.S. in Plant Sciences in 2016. Upon completing my degree, I returned to work in the green industry for almost two years. Despite my tireless pursuits to come back to UT for Plant Sciences, I was unsuccessful. Then one day, as I was helping load mulch into a customer’s pickup truck, I noticed the customer was actually a previous professor who had taught me entomology: Dr. Jerome Grant. We chatted for a bit and ended up talking about graduate school. I told him of my plight which prompted him to ask me “have you considered Entomology?” with a slight grin on his face. 

One thing led to another, it turns out, I really like bugs! I completed my M.S. in Entomology and Plant Pathology in 2021; and thanks to the Tennessee Doctoral Fellowship through the Graduate School at UTK and the Tennessee Higher Education Commission, I am on track to complete my Ph.D. in Entomology, Plant Pathology, and Nematology in May 2024. Dr. Dixie Thompson and Dr. Ernest Brothers have been monumental mentors through the Tennessee Doctoral Fellowship, providing me with professional development opportunities and sage wisdom throughout the trials of graduate school.  

While completing my Ph.D., I have also continued to make strides in my approach to teaching in the classroom. TLI’s numerous certificates for teaching and professional development have been key in this process. These assessments give me the opportunity to improve my teaching strategy and better connect with my students.  

I believe the teacher is responsible for providing the best conditions a student needs to develop their own education, which requires me to be accessible and incorporate a variety of educational approaches.

For example, while teaching a section of Introductory Entomology (EPP 321), which covered major insect orders, I could tell that some students had trouble remembering the names of important insect families. I found that teaching fun facts and further prompting group discussion by asking topical questions around our subject material, or even the bugs themselves, helped the class remember the names of these little critters. Inviting students into classroom conversations encouraged more of those aha moments—which I love!

When comparing the original pretest with the final exam and insect collections, it was vividly apparent that many students who were on ground zero at the start of the class were well on their way to becoming the next entomologists! Seeing their growth has been an extremely gratifying process for me as an instructor. Who knows, perhaps one day they will get to share their passion for education with others as the faculty of the Entomology and Plant Pathology department have done with me.