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Alternatives: Entomologists Who Use Their Hard-Earned Research Skills in Non-Research Careers

Rayda Krell coffee table safari

Rayda Krell, Ph.D., demonstrates her love of animals, especially insects, from her living room/home office. (Photo credit: Kiril Volkov)

By Laurel Haavik, Ph.D.

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

Graduate school, the traditional conduit to an academic career, trains people to conduct research. Yet, many people with graduate degrees don’t end up in research careers (see here for stats and here for thoughts on alternatives). Research experience equips people with myriad skills that are useful beyond the lab (see here for examples). There seems to be a disconnect somewhere between developing these skills, identifying them, and finding a useful and satisfying place to implement them (a job!) that many face at some point (in graduate school, or in the final months of a grant, or even well into a dissatisfying job).

Laurel Haavik, Ph.D.

What are these skills? How do people prepare for and shift away from a traditional research trajectory, especially when surrounded by academic researchers all day!? And how do people find a non-research career that’s a good fit for their interests? There is plenty of self-help literature on this topic (see here, here, here, and here). Also useful, I think, is talking with others about their experiences.

I interviewed three people who have taken unique routes to a career in entomology. Categorized as extension- or science communication-focused, these careers are essential to deliver science and the products it creates accurately to the people who will use it. Maybe more relevant, though, is that these people identified what they liked most about science, kept sight of important things and people in their personal lives, and then built their careers around these priorities.

Dave Coyle, Ph.D., is the Southern Regional Extension Forestry Coordinator at the University of Georgia (Photo credit: Brittany Barnes)
Rayda Krell, Ph.D., is the Connecticut Study Coordinator for the Backyard Integrated Tick Management Program (Photo credit: Peggy Stewart)
John Kyhl, Ph.D., is an Entomologist and the Pesticide Use Coordinator for the Northeastern Area of the U.S. Forest Service (Photo credit: Jennifer Kyhl)

Laurel: How did you become interested in pursuing science in your education?

Dave: It just sort of happened. I grew up on a farm in a very rural area of southeastern Minnesota, just outside of Forestville State Park. I was always surrounded by nature. Admittedly, there wasn’t much to do when not farming, so I ended up spending a lot of time riding around on my red BMX bike and exploring the woods and fields near home. My dad was an avid hunter and knew a lot about local natural history, so I picked up quite a bit from him. I don’t remember the first “incident,” or any particular seminal moment when I said to myself “Self, you’re going to do science!” but I do know I had the entomological “bug,” even when I was a youngster. We had a screened-in porch, and I’d keep caterpillars in jars along the railing—lots of ’em. There were so many I had daily bug chores to keep all of them fed, frass-free, et cetera. Pretty much every time I found a caterpillar, I raised it to adulthood. Most I let go, but some I kept for my insect collection, which I started when I joined 4-H. I entered my insect collection in the fair competition and won a blue ribbon. My mom was so tolerant, understanding, and supportive—I even wrote in a second-grade journal that I wanted to be an entomologist when I grew up. Fast forward to my undergraduate time at Luther College, and my mentor was Dr. Kirk Larsen, an entomologist. I took his entomology class and was hooked. A few years and couple of degrees later, I’m an entomologist. Who knew a 7-year-old could be so prophetic?

Rayda: I grew up with parents who had careers in science, so science had a latent presence in our household. My interest in science centered on animals. My early childhood included frequent visits to the San Diego Zoo, many episodes of Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom, and my beloved collection of Safari Cards—which I still own! My favorite activity as a kid was to play with my plastic animals and arrange them in male-female pairs on the savannah of our coffee table. So, an educational path that would put me in a position to study animals was just a very normal progression.

John: My first interest in science came through nature and being outside. I was always interested in nature, in large part due to my grandfather and his interest in plants and birds. He was a civil engineer and “rescued” wildflowers from the paths planned for new roads his company built back in the 1940s and 1950s. He always had beautiful flowers in his yard, as well as birdfeeders and a lot of birds. Flowers and birds are interesting enough on the surface, but I learned from him that the closer you look, the more you see, and the more interesting they are. From there, I realized that this could be applied to almost anything outside. When you consider being outside this way, you always look forward to it and are never bored.

Laurel: Briefly describe your current job.

Dave: I run a forest health and invasive species program for the 13 southeastern states. It’s a “train the trainer” program. I work with university and county extension agents, state personnel, and some local federal folks to help them to identify, detect, and manage different forest health threats. These threats include insects, fungi, and plants. I provide lots of free, easy-to-read-and-digest information on my project website, including fact sheets and short videos. I also facilitate seven to eight webinars each year. These webinars are given by experts in the field and cover everything from invasive trees and insects, native fungi, to forest management. Another major component of my program is workshops. Each summer I travel to several states to give workshops on the identification, detection, and management of forest health issues. These workshops are usually two days, and the classroom portion includes a lot of hands-on material. Participants get to see, touch, and sometimes smell what certain forest pests and their damage looks like. Day two of the workshop is usually a field trip to a local area. This gives us all an opportunity to see things up close, especially invasive weeds. It also gives the participants, often coming from across the state, a chance to be together, rekindle old friendships, and get to know each other. So much information passes vertically from the older, more seasoned folks to the younger, newer employees.

This program provides a consistent message regarding forest health and management across the entire region. Without it, we run the risk of inconsistent—and potentially incorrect—information being disseminated to extension and outreach folks—and eventually to landowners. In states that already have a strong, active forestry or forest health extension program, I’m a complimentary piece to what they’re already doing. In other states that may not have such resources, I take on more of a lead role in forest health training and education.

Rayda: Just a few months ago I started a new research position with an integrated tick management study. This new research position has come at a time when I didn’t expect to be involved in research again.

Before my new job, I spent almost 10 years working outside of discovery-based research. In those years, I did a lot of things: I had my second child, I took time off to care for him and move across the country, I volunteered for ESA, I worked as a consultant to develop online educational courses about pest management for industry, I started teaching as an adjunct professor, and I developed my own entomology outreach programs that I delivered from my home. The thread in this patchwork time is that I always identified myself as a scientist and an entomologist. I didn’t undercut the value of anything I was doing, even when I did it on a volunteer basis and even though it wasn’t discovery-based research. Making new discoveries is the foundation for science, but the information generated from those discoveries does not have impact if it is not communicated. My various jobs were focused on communicating the primary work of others, and I felt that was just as important as being the one to generate the primary information.

John: My current job is an entomologist and pesticide use coordinator with the State and Private Forestry branch of the U.S. Forest Service. The goal of jobs like mine in the Forest Service are to help our array of cooperators—state Natural Resource and Agriculture departments, National Forests, other federal properties, NGOs, and many others—make well-informed decisions about forest management. This assistance is provided in a variety of ways, including site visits, training, environmental analysis, et cetera. One big part of my job has been to help implement a gypsy moth management program (Slow the Spread) that stretches from North Carolina to the north shore of Minnesota. Gypsy moth is one of the best studied forest insects, and many areas of research form the basis for the Slow the Spread program. Implementation of the program is a challenge and is year-round work, especially with all the different parts and pieces, since it involves up to 10 cooperating states.

Laurel: What were the circumstances, choices, and revelations that led you to your current job?

Dave: I followed a similar trajectory as many: B.A., M.S., research technician job, Ph.D., postdoc. During my postdoc I applied for tenure-track, government, and industry jobs—and got some interviews—and even received a couple of offers. But, my life doesn’t revolve around my career; my career is part of my life. I have two little boys and an awesome wife, who has a good job here in Athens, Georgia. We were—still are!—happy in Athens, and as it was time to move on from my postdoc, I met my current supervisor, Dr. Bill Hubbard. Bill is the regional forester for the Southeast. I pitched him my idea of a forest health program, we got support from the USDA Forest Service, and I was off and running. Then, at one point, I just decided I wasn’t going to chase tenure anymore. We wanted to settle down and make somewhere our home. Turns out, we were in that “somewhere” all along.

As for a revelation, it happened during Thanksgiving break, 2011. I came to the realization that it’s not healthy or normal—for me, anyway—to be so encompassed with work 24/7. At that point, all I did was produce, produce, produce; but for what? Another publication? I guess I just started thinking about what good I’m going to do for the world, and when I started doing extension, it became obvious to me I could directly reach so many people doing this work. In some ways, it’s much more fulfilling than research, probably because I can see on people’s faces how much I’ve helped them, and I can see this immediately. Do we need research? Of course! But we also need knowledgeable people that can take that research and make it mean something to land managers and landowners.

Rayda: My work as a consultant fit well with life in terms of finding a job with a flexible location and work hours. I do not live in an area with an obvious entomology job. I don’t live near a large research university, federal research station, or industry location. My background is in integrated pest management in agriculture, but I live in a suburb of New York City. My location has played a big role in needing to be more open to non-traditional entomology jobs.

My current job did not exist until this fall. My boss/colleague/friend, Dr. Neeta Connally at Western Connecticut State University (WCSU) received a four-year, $1.6 million dollar grant from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for an integrated tick management study. WCSU is only about 15 minutes from my home, but it is primarily a teaching-focused university that serves undergraduates. I had been teaching there as an adjunct, but there are not many opportunities for research, besides those offered for undergraduates. But, Neeta had a vision that even a relatively small, regional university could do good research, and her grant created a new research position. The position came up at a time when I was thinking about trying something new, so I applied and took on this new role working with an arthropod that was new to me.

John: My first M.S. degree was in Botany, and as I was finishing it up, I looked around and saw a lot of very bright and capable people struggling to string together enough jobs and money to get by. I admired their dedication. I also thought that, if they could barely do it, there was no way that I could. At the time, my impression was that research jobs seemed temporary, with little stability, and were almost entirely dependent on continued funding, which was tenuous at best. Other things that need more income and stability—like buying a house, taking vacations, or having a family—seemed out of reach with a research career.

Around the time of graduation, I did a poor job informing myself about the kinds of jobs I could have gotten as a botanist. Turns out that here were a number of possibilities, but I thought there were none, so I went back to graduate school. I made the somewhat practical choice to pursue entomology with the thought that there was always a need for insect pest management, plus it was a nice complement to the knowledge I acquired studying botany. So, it was luck and poorly informed decisions—that turned out to be lucky—that led me to a career in entomology. Many of my friends and colleagues knew exactly what they wanted and planned their education and career path years in advance. It never worked that way for me.

Laurel: What steps did you take to transition away from research and into your current position?

Dave:I talked to people. A lot of people. I asked experienced university extension personnel about their jobs, everything from the day to day, the long-term, how to measure impact, how to handle “difficult” clients—pretty much anything they would tell me, I listened to. I asked them how to write for extension—spoiler alert: it’s much different than writing for a journal. I asked them how to speak to crowds of non-scientists and to crowds of county extension personnel or state foresters. I always asked what did and didn’t work. I spent much of the first few months absorbing information. I also talked with state forest-health folks throughout the Southeast. I learned about each state’s major pests (e.g., what they were, how they were managed), key issues (e.g., prescribed fire, different harvesting methods), and challenges (e.g., personnel “power struggles” or egos). The Southeast is a unique region in that forestry is a major part of the economy and ecology throughout, but there is a tremendous amount of diversity among states. My thinking was: If I’m to serve and work with all 13 states, then I need to know what’s happening in all these states, too.

I also started a social media presence—find me on Twitter @drdavecoyle! This has been so important for communicating with folks in such a large geographic area. I’m tied in with the state forestry entities and extension groups, and it’s a great way to distribute educational information, new fact sheets, notifications of webinars, and everything else. Sure, it takes time, but it’s created so many professional and personal opportunities I would have never had otherwise.

Rayda: My career has developed organically. I did not intentionally step away from research, but it was just not an available option based on my location and family situation.

I think the key to maintaining an opportunity stream in my career is that I have always stayed very connected to entomology by attending the ESA annual meeting, volunteering for the Society, and being involved with the Entomological Foundation. I have never assumed that any door is closed to me. Even though I didn’t expect to be back in a research position, I didn’t think that I was incapable of returning to research because I had been away from it for so long. As a grad student, I wanted to be a professor with an extension position. Now, after 10 years away from an academic position, I am involved in research that requires a lot of interface with the public and requires communication of complex topics to non-scientists; it involves research, and, with my adjunct teaching, I also get to work with students. So, while I am not a faculty member, the components of my work fit everything that I wanted to do when I left grad school. Are you “supposed” to be able to do that after 10 years outside of academia? I think being open to opportunities and having confidence in your training doesn’t have to mean that any door is closed.

John: I had two big steps. The first one was to work for the Minnesota Extension Service Diagnostic Clinic. At the time, it was a fee-for-service clinic, and anyone could submit insect samples for identification. Samples came from homeowners, tree care and pest control companies, and a variety of other sources. I would identify the insects and contact the client to discuss their situation. By the time that I was done working there, I had spoken with thousands of people about pests and pest management. When I got to the point of doing that in a post-graduate job, I was experienced, and talking clearly and confidently about pest management was an easy and satisfying part of my job. It seems to me that so much of a career is being able to work and talk with people and to be comfortable in that role. In many ways, this job was about the best thing I could have done to prepare for my career. Research was the foot-in-the-door to get the later jobs, but the practical skills needed to do well in those jobs were learned while working in extension.

Second, before I graduated with my entomology degree, I had accepted a forest health specialist job with a state department of natural resources. This was the perfect job: in the field most days, seeing and learning about new forest pests, and helping forest landowners and city foresters identify and manage forest health issues. I genuinely felt that I was helpful to people, that I was making a difference in forest health (locally), and that I was becoming an expert. Once this was underway, I didn’t look back at research or miss it at all but continued to read it and keep informed for my job. This job allowed me to reclaim parts of my life lost to research and restore a work-life balance that was lacking while doing research in graduate school. I knew that the work-life balance tradeoff is a part of graduate school, but I didn’t realize how extensive it was until I was away from it.

After a couple of years, I applied to the Forest Service for both personal and professional reasons. I think that for many people trained in forest health, the Forest Service is the first choice of a place they want to work. Like every job, there are a series of tradeoffs, but for me it was an easy choice since the balance tipped so heavily to the Forest Service for many reasons: the nature of the work, ability to transfer, career development, et cetera. When I applied with the Forest Service, I could demonstrate that I had successfully done a similar job through experience working extension and state-level jobs. My work history was a huge advantage for me compared to people just getting out of school with less practical experience.

Laurel: How has research prepared you for your current job?

Dave: I’m fortunate in that I’ve had a very diverse research upbringing. My work has always been in forestry, and usually applied. I’ve worked in many different systems, including northern hardwood forests, southern pine forests, natural stands, and managed plantations. I’ve done research on defoliators, root feeders, wood borers, and sucking insects. I also have experience in plant pathology, tree physiology, soil biology and ecology, climate change, and silviculture. Growing up on a farm and during my technician days I worked with pesticides quite a bit. So, I’m lucky in that my career has prepared me well—as well as one could hope, anyway—for a topic as broad as forest health.

Having a solid research background has also helped me “translate” science into something more digestible for extension agents and other on-the-ground professionals. There’s a huge need to take all the great research people do and make it relevant to folks that make policies or do the outreach or make the on-the-ground stuff happen. For instance, someone found a plant volatile that causes more stimulation to southern pine beetle antennae? Well, that means we might be able to take that volatile and make a better lure, which will help us better monitor beetle population levels and hopefully become better at predicting future outbreaks.

Rayda: The short moral of my career story is that if you are a well-trained research scientist, that doesn’t go away. It is always part of who you are and you can draw from those skills as needed. I used those skills to be a critical consumer of primary literature for many years, and now I have returned to those skills for primary research. Perhaps an advantage to having been away from research for many years is that I have returned to it with a giddy excitement! My current research is in a new area for me, ticks that are vectors of human pathogens. It’s extremely fun to draw on my experience in insect vectors of plant pathogens and apply it to a new system.

John: My job uses research all the time, and I could not do it without the research training I had in graduate school. I learned where to look for information and how to interpret research, both of which come from doing research. As I said before, part of the Forest Service mission is to provide our partners with the best possible information and recommendations, which are based in research. This is strong encouragement to keep up with current research.

Dave, Rayda, and John all came to entomology from a love of the natural world. Each of them had family members who shaped and nurtured this interest early in life. An education in the natural sciences was an obvious choice for them, as it usually is for people who are passionate about plants, animals, fungi, and other miscellaneous organisms. As people, all three are independent, motivated, patient, with a clear vision of their priorities in life. They identified what aspects of science they enjoyed and how to apply knowledge of the natural world and problem-solving skills in a practical setting. They searched for opportunities that aligned with their interests and kept other life goals, like family and work-life balance, in mind when choosing a career path.

And, of critical importance, they maintained positivity and confidence in their abilities, even at times when there were few options or a change of course presented itself. Dave, Rayda, and John are excellent examples of people who are clever and determined (which is most scientists I know) and who have been very successful in defining their own careers and molding them as they go!

Laurel Haavik, Ph.D., is a Forest Entomologist at the U.S. Forest Service, where she is involved with the Slow the Spread program for the gypsy moth, among other forest insect projects. Follow her on Twitter @ljhaavik, and check out her blog, Science Shapes Lives.


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