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One Entomologist’s Quest: To Keep Insect Colonies Alive and Students Curious

Carmen Blubaugh, Ph.D.

Carmen Blubaugh, Ph.D., is an assistant professor in the Plant and Environmental Sciences Department at Clemson University, where her research explores community ecology, predator/prey interactions, agricultural biodiversity, and ecosystem services, with a focus on biological control of crop pests.

By Katelyn Kesheimer, Ph.D.

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 more posts in the Standout ECPs series.

Carmen Blubaugh, Ph.D.

Carmen Blubaugh, Ph.D.

Carmen Blubaugh, Ph.D., is an assistant professor in the Plant and Environmental Sciences Department at Clemson University, where her research explores community ecology, predator/prey interactions, agricultural biodiversity, and ecosystem services, with a focus on biological control of crop pests. Below, we ask Carmen a few questions about her work and approach to guiding students and extension clients.

Kesheimer: What is the main goal of your research?

Blubaugh: My goal is the improve the strength and predictability of pest suppression by natural enemies, but over the years it seems like I’ve mostly discovered things that screw up biocontrol!

What is the most interesting research challenge you have encountered and what was your approach to solving it?

Whew. That’s a tough one. There are dozens of stories about messing up logistics or forgetting tiny critical details. I’m just a catastrophe with those parts of science. For example, when I was a postdoc, my undergrad intern lovingly tended a caterpillar colony for a year and left me in charge of it for one holiday weekend. I carelessly left the zipper open on the bug dorm, and it was swarmed by yellowjackets who murdered all the larvae only a couple days before an herbivore assay was supposed to begin! I overcome such challenges sometimes by brute force—I’ve adapted and scrambled fast to make a lot experiments happen despite my best efforts to screw them up. (I think “brute force ecology” might actually be a technical term my postdoc advisor coined.) After that yellowjacket tragedy, I had to drop a ton of precious grant funds and rush-order larvae from a commercial colony.

Come to think of it, I’ve rescued colonies in many creative ways. One time I drove eight hours south to capture overwintering cabbage aphids when I killed off another colony. I really can’t be trusted with insect colonies. I ask all the farmers at the market to text me when they had a really bad aphid outbreak in case mine die. I used to snoop around all the community gardens every spring hunting for caterpillars, too. I always keep a “pest garden” of whatever vegetable I’m studying in my backyard and infest it with herbivores as an insurance policy against myself. My neighbors love it!

What is your approach to mentoring students?

I’m still trying to figure that out. I want to train my students to be curious and independent and resourceful, but every student seems to need a different level of guidance to get there. If they’re ready and willing, I prefer to let my students guide the ship.

What is your favorite thing about working in entomology?

Three-way interactions! It’s completely thrilling to make sense of complex chains of events that drive detectable patterns. I’m equally thrilled by the enthusiasm and gratitude that farmers express when I present my research and share emerging tools for sustainable pest management.

And finally, if you could be any arthropod, which would you pick and why?

Are you kidding? I don’t want to be an arthropod! It’s a mean old world out there. If I’m really forced to choose, I guess I would be a flea beetle. They seem really hard to kill.

Katelyn A. Kesheimer, Ph.D., is an assistant professor and extension specialist in the Department of Entomology and Plant Pathology at Auburn University and 2018-2019 chair of the ESA Early Career Professionals Committee. Email: kesheimer@auburn.edu.

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