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How the Mighty Mite Conquered the Heart of One Entomologist

Rebecca Schmidt-Jeffris with insect trap

Rebecca Schmidt-Jeffris, Ph.D., is an assistant professor at Clemson University in Charleston, South Carolina. In 2019, she will assume a new role as a research entomologist specializing in tree fruit biological control for the USDA-Agricultural Research Service in Wapato, Washington. In 2018, Schmidt-Jeffris earned the Entomological Society of America’s Early Career Professional Extension Award.

Editor’s Note: This is the next post in the “Standout ECPs” series contributed by the Entomological Society of America’s Early Career Professionals (ECP) Committee, highlighting outstanding ECPs that are doing great work in the profession. (An ECP is defined as anyone within the first five years of obtaining their terminal degree in their field.) Learn more about the work ECPs are doing within ESA, and read past posts in the Standout ECPs series.

By Rob Morrison, Ph.D.

Rebecca Schmidt-Jeffris, Ph.D., is an assistant professor at Clemson University in Charleston, South Carolina, and currently has responsibilities for vegetables and strawberries. In 2019, she will assume a new role as a research entomologist specializing in tree fruit biological control for the USDA-Agricultural Research Service in Wapato, Washington. Her research interests include biological control, spider mite management, landscape ecology, and soil health impacts on insects. She has already obtained a million-dollar grant and is the winner of the 2018 Early Career Professional Extension Award from ESA. She is passionate about mentoring the next generation of scientists and extension educators. Below, I interviewed Rebecca (@Phytoseiid on Twitter) about her research and how the small but mighty mite found a place to live in her heart and work.

Rebecca Schmidt-Jeffris, Ph.D.

Rebecca Schmidt-Jeffris, Ph.D.

Morrison: How did you first get interested in entomology, and what led to your fascination in the mighty mite?

Schmidt-Jeffris: I have always wanted to do something with animals for a career. I became really interested in studying animal behavior as an undergraduate, and my research advisor at Washburn, Lee Boyd, pointed out that, if I wanted to do manipulative studies, insects were the way to go. It all became solidified in a paper I wrote for a general ecology class, which was on the invasive multicolored Asian lady beetle. I enjoyed reading the papers so much, I knew that I had to stick with bugs.

I fell into working with mites. My research as an undergraduate was on praying mantises, and I wanted to do more looking at predator behavior. I applied to Washington State University and was contacted by Betsy Beers who had a project on predators—just much smaller ones than what I was used to. Mites are interesting to work with because there’s a lot of unknowns, and fewer people work on them because they are small and require special training to identify to species accurately. My favorite part of working with mites has always been the fact one leaf can be their whole world—a very micro microcosm.

What is a recent or ongoing research or extension project that has enthralled you?

It’s hard to pick just one! Not surprisingly, I’m excited about what my lab has been doing with mites. My postdoc, Monica Farfan, is working on understanding the diversity of predatory mites in vegetable systems in South Carolina. She’s found a few species in decent abundance where there is little information on their basic biology. It will be interesting to see where that goes. One of my students, Paul Bergeron, is working on describing the non-target effects of miticides on predatory mites and getting that information into an easy-to-read graphic for growers. We’re also doing some work on soil health and weed management impacts on pests and beneficial insects that another student, Danielle Lewis, is working on part of.

Do you have any inspirational women in science who have guided you, and how have they altered the trajectory of your career?

My research advisor at Washburn (Boyd) and my graduate advisor (Beers) are both inspirational women in science. In both cases, they let me be creative, supported projects that I wanted to do, and went to bat for me when I needed it. Both of them went the extra mile in writing recommendations for me when I went on to the next steps in my career and continue to support me today. There are also many women in ESA whose careers I watch with admiration. It’s a long list.

In your view and experience, what is the single most important thing our profession can do to improve inclusion of underrepresented groups?

This is a difficult one, especially since I know I am much more likely to be included than many other people. I think the first critical step is believing the experiences of people who point out inequalities. Much of the struggle right now is from people who are dismissive of lived experiences. Then, we have to be willing to change, including letting harmful traditions go.

If you were a mite species, which one would it be, and why?

My favorite mites are phytoseiids, but if I’m going to be a mite, it has to be something in the genus Tuckerella. They are gorgeous, they smack potential predators with long whip-like setae on their behinds, and they also drum to communicate with each other.

Rob Morrison, Ph.D., is a Research Entomologist at the USDA-Agricultural Research Service, Center for Grain and Animal Health Research, in the Stored Product Insects and Engineering Research Unit, in Manhattan, Kansas, and the 2017-2018 chair of the Entomological Society of America’s Early Career Professionals Committee. Web: www.ars.usda.gov/pa/cgahr/spieru/morrison. Twitter: @morrisonlabUSDA. Email: william.morrison@ars.usda.gov

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