How One Entomologist Found His Calling as an IPM Facilitator
By Lina Bernaola
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.
Alejandro Del Pozo-Valdivia, Ph.D., is currently an IPM entomology advisor at the University of California Cooperative Extension. He serves the vegetable industry in the Central Coast region of California by conducting applied research on pest management and implementing an extension program for stakeholders.
Alejandro was born and raised in Lima, Peru, where he earned his bachelor’s degree in agronomy from La Molina National Agrarian University. Then, he went to Washington State University, where he obtained his master’s degree in entomology working on integrated pest management (IPM) in irrigated hybrid poplars. In 2016, he obtained his Ph.D. in entomology at North Carolina State University (NCSU). During his doctoral studies, he worked on proposing management practices for the kudzu bug, an invasive pest of soybeans.
Before joining the University of California Cooperative Extension, Alejandro was a postdoctoral fellow at NCSU working on Bt-cotton and bollworm. Alejandro was the 2012 recipient of ESA’s Larry Larson Graduate Student Award for Leadership in Applied Entomology.
Bernaola: As a starting early career professional, what is your long-term career goal?
Del Pozo-Valdivia: I would like to keep conducting applied research, at the commercial field level, to answer grower-driven questions. My long-term goal is to develop research and extension programs to strengthen IPM strategies in agricultural crops that I would be working on. Currently, I am an IPM and entomology advisor with the University of California Cooperative Extension, and my career goals focus on serving the vegetable growers in the Central Coast of California (Monterey, San Benito, and Santa Cruz counties).
My current short-term goals are conducting research on alternatives to pyrethroids and neonicotinoids to control vegetable pests. My vision for this position is to foster a collaborative network where all participants could bring all sorts of research and science on IPM in vegetables and to extend that information to growers in the California Central Coast and beyond.
What is your favorite aspect (or the coolest thing) about your research area?
My favorite aspect about doing research is to conduct field trials to answer practical questions—and to be outside. Interacting with my grower collaborators at their operations is an invaluable experience, especially when field days are organized. [See photo above.] I have the opportunity of learning from these growers as well as providing them with tangible science-based solutions for their pest management needs.
My biggest inspiration is seeing how science and research helps the growers implement more comprehensive IPM strategies, such as planting insectary plants at the commercial level to promote conservational biocontrol in organic lettuce. I really enjoy being a “facilitator” by connecting different research experts with grower needs and vice versa, bringing the grower concerns and needs to other researchers prioritizing topics and areas of interest in which they would like to conduct research.
What is a challenge that you solved during your most recent project?
There has been a need for technical assistance in vegetable entomology in the Central Coast of California. As soon as stakeholders learned that I started in this position, they made me aware of an issue with aphids in lettuce. It turned out that pest control advisors (licensed personnel who recommend pesticide applications) were calling me about significant large lettuce aphid populations on lettuce material that were supposed to be resistant to this aphid. The phone was ringing off the hook. We needed to confirm the identification of this aphid.
I was able to identify these field samples as lettuce aphids; however, I asked for a second opinion from a taxonomist at the California Department of Food and Agriculture. Everybody agreed that it was indeed the lettuce aphid feeding on aphid resistant lettuce varieties. So, here was the issue: Has this aphid overcome the host-plant resistance? I teamed up with Dr. Jim McCreight, a plant breeder at the USDA Agricultural Research Service unit in Salinas, California, to answer this question. Our hypothesis is that we might have a different lettuce aphid biotype that is able to establish in aphid-resistant lettuce varieties.
To test this hypothesis, we will be collecting lettuce aphids across the Salinas Valley, doing some host-plant screening tests, and looking at DNA markers to confirm this aphid’s identity. The California Leafy Green Research Board has graciously decided to fund this project to provide a definitive answer to lettuce growers in the Central Coast. This is a work in progress. If you would like to learn more about the upcoming results on this project, please subscribe to our UC Salinas Valley Agriculture Blog.
Why did you become an entomologist, and what drew you to this field?
To tell you the truth, entomology was not my first choice as a career path when I was a little kid. I wanted to be an accountant, like my mom. Unlike some of my colleagues, who were interested in insects since they were kids, I fell in love with bugs while working in asparagus fields in Peru. [See photo below.] I knew back then that I really wanted to be involved in agriculture. An internship position opened for the Plant Protection Department in an asparagus company. I took the internship and focused more on pest management activities. The rest is history: I decided to be an entomologist for the rest of my life!
I strongly believe that entomology and I developed this nice relationship after we knew each other better. It was not love at first sight. Learning how amazing insects are completely convinced me to become a better entomologist. I strongly believe that becoming an entomologist was one of the best decisions that I have made. Furthermore, to complement that decision, working in agriculture is the cherry on top for me.
If you ever felt excluded during your career, what advice would you offer to help other young entomologists if they face similar situations?
It would be a lie for me to say that I have never felt excluded in my career. Even in my own home country Peru, I felt excluded as a brand new young professional out in the job market. Meeting people and hearing: “Hi, my name is … and I have 20-plus years of experience working on this system” made me feel excluded. Other comments, like “Oh, you are too young to understand what is going on here.” When I heard these kinds of comments, I worked harder to learn the system and do a better job.
Experiencing the cultural shock when coming to the U.S. also made me feel a little bit excluded in my career. This exclusion was not intentionally carried out by anybody; it just happened to be a matter of my own perspective toward my professional interactions. Again, I decided to work harder and learn more about the U.S. culture, academia, and agriculture.
I was lucky enough to end up working side by side with amazing advisors, lab mates and collaborators. They helped me overcome my own assumptions about cultural exclusion and open my vision to go beyond physical stereotypes or language accents. At the end of the day, if you are doing solid research and your ultimate goal is to help, people will listen to you. Therefore, my piece of advice is to have a clear vision of your career goals, be open to interact with new people and colleagues, and keep up with the hard work.
If you could be any arthropod, which would you pick and why?
This is a tough decision to make. There are so many options! I would choose to be a minute pirate bug. As the name implies, I would be tiny but powerful. I would provide the elimination services of damaging pests in several agricultural crops, especially eating my favorite food item, thrips. I would get underestimated because of my size, but I would be part of a greater cause: the naturally occurring beneficials club in commercial fields. Being a beneficial insect might sound a little corny; however, I would take my thrips-eating responsibilities very seriously.
Lina Bernaola is a Ph.D. candidate at Louisiana State University, in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, the current student representative to the ESA Governing Board, and a member of the ESA Early Career Professionals Committee. Twitter: @linabernaola. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.
All photos courtesy of Alejandro Del Pozo-Valdivia, Ph.D.