Ken Raffa Shares His Passion for Working with People to Understand Insects as Agents of Change

Editor’s note: This is the third installment in the “Behind the Science” series by Laurel Haavik that peeks into the lives of scientists. See other posts in the series.

By Laurel Haavik

Ken Raffa has had a storied career. His research has made great strides in advancing current understanding of how insect populations can rapidly explode. His work has revealed fascinating specifics and generalities that take place between pine trees and bark beetles during a beetle outbreak. An army of beetles is needed to attack and kill a tree and the tree has two different lines of defense. If both are compromised, the beetles win; if the tree can combat the beetles, the tree wins. It turns out this binary outcome is decided by the number of beetles attacking the tree; if enough beetles arrive for the attack, the tree will surely lose the battle. There is more: the first line of tree defense not only kills beetles by drowning them in pine sap; it also interferes with communication among beetles by physically blocking transmission of a pheromone the beetles make that attracts more beetles, which prevents beetles from assembling the numbers (the army) needed to kill the tree (see these ground-breaking studies for more details: Ecol. Monogr. 53: 27-49; Amer. Nat. 129: 234-262; Oecologia 102: 285-295). Ken used these key findings along with insights from others’ work to put forth a sophisticated model that explains how insect-driven disturbances operate across the landscape (BioScience 58: 501-517).

Laurel Haavik

Throughout his career, Ken has won numerous awards (including the Entomological Society of America’s Founders Memorial Award in 2010), garnered over $9,000,000 in research grants, published over 250 papers in the primary literature, and trained 43 graduate students and postdocs, who have all gone on to be leaders in government, academia, and industry.

People are naturally curious about someone with such an impressive list of accomplishments (see his website for the full-length version of his CV). How did he arrive at forest entomology? What inspires him? How does he train students to be great leaders? I sat down with him at the recent International Congress of Entomology to find out. I discovered someone who is deeply passionate not only about the natural world (maybe not so surprising given his career path), but also about people. He believes in the strength of professional relationships—that are at their core really personal relationships—to solve scientific problems. This may be surprising, given his experience as a student. Here is what I learned from Ken about career paths, studying trees and insects, training graduate students, and the likely future of all three.

Ken’s career in ecology originated from a love of nature and all things in it, though his path to entomology arose through serendipitous opportunities. Animals, trees, it didn’t really matter what species, he was interested in all of them and how people interact with them. Growing up, Ken’s favorite subject in school was recess—a likely favorite of most at that age. But he didn’t let recess end after elementary school. Why stop taking it? Why not make it into a career?

This drive to be outdoors rather than indoors led him to the USDA Forest Service. In awe of fire lookouts and their rugged altruistic duty to protect forests, Ken applied to every Forest Service job he could find. He landed a phone interview; it consisted of one question, “Do you have a fear of flying low over mountainous terrain?” Not really understanding the question, Ken instinctively replied, “No”, and was hired. Could he be in Asheville by Monday? With no idea of what state Asheville was located in or where he might live once he arrived, Ken left Delaware that weekend. Ken found himself in a job that seemed just right. He mapped southern pine beetle outbreaks from the air and visited these forest areas on the ground to confirm the defoliated trees he’d located from above were indeed infested with beetles. Admittedly, he wasn’t very good at aerial mapping, but there was something captivating about working with insects and trees. He says, “Insects have a way of forcing us to make decisions that we would rather postpone. Should we inject the trees with insecticides? Leave them alone? Remove them? Should we invest tax dollars in developing resistance breeding programs?” Ken pursued this mix of science and application in his MS research at the University of Delaware. From there he went to Washington State University for his PhD simply because it was a place he had never been, “a completely immature reason—they had big trees, big mountains! Awesome! You know, the big decisions we make in life are actually pretty serendipitous.”

At that point, Ken knew he wanted to understand how forests work. To understand forests, it seemed he had to understand what insects do (as predators of trees) and how they interact with trees. Interestingly enough, this led him to chemistry, a subject that he detested as an undergraduate student. Once chemistry became a means to something of interest, he was motivated to learn it, so that he could learn how different chemicals influence insect behavior, survival, and communication. And he loved how studying forest insects required a combination of physical and intellectual effort. It was a satisfying combination of drive, sheer physical stamina, and creative problem-solving. Even at three times the age of his students, he still likes to help them carry logs in the woods, only now his recovery after a day’s work in the forest consists of Advil in addition to a beer.

Ken believes firmly in hard work to accomplish things, a tenet rooted deeply in his blue-collar background. The idea of success through hard work failed to impress his PhD advisor, Alan Berryman. Ken describes Alan as a brilliant but critical man. Alan believed that effort without a mature theoretical product was a sign of mental impoverishment. Despite this deep conflict, Ken, an optimist, took an open view to absorb what knowledge Alan offered to impart. From Alan, Ken learned not to be afraid to envision and guess at how ecosystems might operate. Ken began to appreciate there may be many ways to approach and solve problems, and he kept that in mind when training his own students.

Ken has been extremely successful in producing great scientists, teachers, and land managers. He readily offers that his students are by far his best accomplishments. He stays in close contact with them and notes with enthusiasm that most of them seem to enjoy both work and life. Ken encourages students from all cohorts to form a supportive network, where the seasoned veterans welcome and help the wide-eyed newcomers. His former student, Dave Coyle (, now Forest Health Program Director at Southern Regional Extension Forestry and the University of Georgia, reflects on this experience as “one of the most awesome things about being in Ken’s lab. There’s a natural hierarchy where more seasoned students/postdocs mentor the younger ones. As I did my PhD there, I slowly moved from one end of the spectrum to the other.”

About starting out in science, Ken believes that we all ask ourselves “can I do this?” and yet “that feeling never goes away, you have to learn how to channel it into something productive.” At the start of graduate school, Ken sits down with each one of his students, and tells them “Mother Nature always gets the last laugh; if you can be good with that, then you have a career as an ecologist.” He is referring, of course, to the ever-present, ego-deflating truth that most of the time scientists are wrong, especially at the outset of a research endeavor. Defeat is a necessary part of the process; better to be prepared for it at the start.

Ken is acutely, almost painfully aware that the decision to complete a graduate degree is a life-altering one. Arrival of a new student is always a nerve-wracking experience for him. Students often travel far from home, leave family, friends and maybe a relationship behind to embark on a graduate degree. This is a weighty responsibility. Can he make the sacrifices these young people have made to come to his lab worth it? Beyond these initial jitters, Ken loves working with young students, and sees himself at that age: abundant energy combined with a complete lack of focus. He especially enjoys how working outside in the forest demands that all of his students, from undergraduates to postdocs, work side by side to accomplish tasks. This gives all involved a sense of pride in their contribution to the science. This formulates the basis of his theory on why forest entomologists are such nice people (an often mused-upon subject within the community). Ken views field-based science as a great equalizer; the greenest undergraduate student can carry just as many logs (or maybe more) than the supposedly all-knowing, tenured professor. The physically rigorous and humbling experience of field research naturally shapes a kind, unassuming attitude towards other people, no matter what their station in life.

The success of Ken’s students seems to be as much a product of his thoughtful understanding of people as of his sharp understanding of the scientific process. He provides them with an environment in which their intellectual muscles can be freely exercised. But he would probably say that he has simply been fortunate to work with good people. He hires people who are passionate and engaged and trusts them to do good work. He doesn’t account for their time at work because he believes that kind of stress impedes creativity. Creativity drives good scientific inquiry, and Ken encourages his students to find when and where they can be most inspired. He invites them on nature walks, journeys that stimulate his own thought process. On these walks, they may talk science or they may not; all thoughts and words are invited to flow freely. Ideas may arrive or percolate, but most importantly, this processing comes about organically. Ken also instructs his students to take pride in their accomplishments, no matter how small, because this dispels encroaching concerns over obstacles yet to overcome, goals yet to be met.

His goal is to equip students for a career, not to just propel them over the finish line of a graduate degree. With that in mind, he makes sure that each of his students has an area of expertise within ecology. They must be better than him at something, maybe chemical or statistical analyses, geographic information systems, or molecular tools. “Departments are downsizing. It’s no longer enough to be great; you must have a specialized skill set,” he instructs. He ensures that his students develop big-picture mindsets, the ability to identify and ask the important ecological questions with an eye toward how a system might ultimately be put together. And finally—maybe most importantly—Ken tells his students that, on the whole, they should love what they do. They don’t need to love all parts of it, because all jobs involve some tedious or uninteresting aspects, but they must find passion in some aspect of what they do.

Ken weighs both the good and the bad in the current state of science and academia. On the positive side, much progress has been made since the start of his career. People have a better understanding of the role that insects play in forest ecosystems. Insects are no longer exclusively thought of as enemies of forests (Insect Enemies of Eastern Forests was once considered the authority on this matter). It is now widely accepted that tree-killing insects engender change, new adaptations, and resilience in forests. In addition to a more sophisticated understanding of forest processes, there are more tools available to approach and answer complicated scientific questions. There are also more women entering a historically male-dominated field. And more recognition now exists for the value of good teaching practices. Yet, on the negative side, it has become more challenging for students to find good jobs after graduate school. It is unsettling to think that after committing hard work and time into an education, many students, degrees in hand, suddenly find themselves unable to support themselves financially. Ken worries that “society is willing to invest less in its future than it once did, and that that change is falling on the shoulders of young scientists.” The idea that science is necessary to advance human society has fallen out of favor. Ken is optimistic this view will change. The jaded should take heart from past successes like efforts to curb pollution, regulate CFCs, and protect endangered species. All that is needed to instigate change is genuine effort and intellect, a mindset that solving problems such as climate change and the impacts of invasive species is possible. And what better way to encourage a paradigm shift than by working with animals (insects) that are in the business of change?

Photo captions: Ken Raffa pauses to take in the scenery during a hike at the IUFRO World Congress in Utah, 2014, photo courtesy of Ken Raffa; Ken Raffa helps his students sample red pines for bacteria associated with wood-boring beetles, 2016, photo courtesy of Ken Raffa; Ken Raffa observes mountain pine beetle damage from above in British Columbia, 2004, photo courtesy of Ken Raffa.

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