How Three Entomologists Found Careers in Industry
By Mohammad Amir Aghaee
Editor’s Note: This Entomology Today post is a sponsored article contributed by Bayer, a Gold Corporate Partner of the Entomological Society of America. Learn more about Bayer and the ESA Corporate Partner program.
School is done and you have your degree. Now what? The journey forward after college is filled with uncertainty. As someone who has made it across the divide, I want to share with you three stories of entomologists whom I respect and admire: Ted MacRae, Cara Vazquez, and Francesca Stubbins. They are entomologists with Bayer Crop Science who came from different places and have different stories but came together as one in the pursuit of advancing sustainable agriculture.
Meet Entomologist Ted MacRae
A diamond in the rough, Ted MacRae grew up in humble circumstances but rose to great heights at Monsanto Company, now Bayer Crop Science. He is currently a Project Field Entomologist working on soy. His dual passions are entomology and amateur bicycle racing. You can catch him collecting specimens, but only if you ride fast enough.
Ted MacRae began his career collecting insects as a child, a passion that grew with time and served as a focal point in his journey: “I just knew whatever I could do with insects would be awesome.” And that’s what he did for eight years in his first job with the Missouri Department of Agriculture as a regulatory entomologist. But in the last few years he realized that everything had become routine: “I needed to do something else, but I didn’t know what to do. I couldn’t do academia because I didn’t have a Ph.D. I didn’t want to write grants. I am a hands-on, application-oriented person, and I really wanted to work with insects. I feared industry at first; I had a severe case of imposter syndrome that occasionally pops up every now and then. Would industry be too demanding or dynamic for a guy like me?”
A friend at Monsanto pointed him towards a position with Entotech (Nova Nordisk), who hired Ted to start their insectary to support pipeline research. Ted says, “I had no rearing experience other than working with leafhoppers for my master’s research, but I had the background in taxonomic and biological research with insects that was the foundation I needed to do the job.”
Within five years at Entotech, Ted had created and led a rearing program composed of 23 species to provide test subjects for screening and quality control bioassays for new Bt formulations. These crucial years were the springboard that led him into Monsanto.
What motivated you to join an agriculture company like Monsanto?
Ted says, “I had always believed in sustainable agriculture. It was one of the main reasons I hadn’t joined industry when I finished my master’s in the early 80s. Agriculture was narrowly focused on new modes of action or modifications of synthetic insecticides, which I had no interest in. Biotechnology’s promise of reducing sprays by specifically targeting pest species was the game changer.” Ted was one of the first hires in Monsanto’s new biotechnology pipeline. This was the inaugural era of genetically modified crops entering the mainstream, and Ted was in the center of the leading peloton.
Nine months after starting at Monsanto, Ted was approached by his manager about an opportunity to go to Argentina. “I get to go to Argentina?” asked Ted, “What am I supposed to do?” His manager turned around as he was walking away and replied, “You’re the entomologist—you’ll figure it out!”
It had never occurred to Ted that such an opportunity would present itself, but when it did, he seized it. Ted went to Argentina in 1996 and laid the foundations for the field-testing pipeline in South America. He designed the protocols still in use today for testing Bt soybean against lepidopteran pests. “It’s the most exciting thing I have ever done,” he says. “It was the first time I had traveled abroad and here I was speaking to Argentine cooperators and scientists.” A fan of cultural immersion, Ted eventually learned Spanish. He sometimes surprises native speakers when they learn that he’s from the United States. Ted is an important link between North and South American entomologists through the relationships he has developed over the years building the soybean testing network.
What theme would describe your career?
With years of experience in career counseling his junior colleagues, Ted says, “Seize the opportunity. You must contribute in a way that is impactful. I did it through that network and through honing my skills as a well-rounded entomologist. My skills in photography and my efforts to become bilingual have given me a unique edge that makes a valuable contribution to the company.”
What are some key ingredients to being successful in industry regardless of one’s technical skills?
“Passion. You have to be interested in what you are doing. It’s also crucial to align those passions with impacts. That’s how you contribute to the company. Beyond that, I would summarize how to succeed in any job with four main points that I’ve taped to my work computer since my days at Entotech.
- Meet your goals.
- Be positive. ‘Grumblers don’t succeed.’
- Support leadership. Trust is important.
- Be dynamic. If you are not adjusting to changes in the market, you will be left behind.”
Ted’s third point stuck out to me. I asked him to elaborate on what he meant by supporting leadership.
“The folks in leadership are there to make sure you succeed,” he says. “It is in their best interest to make sure you succeed. But it goes both ways. It is also in your best interest to make sure they succeed. If you have ideas or innovations that will help the company, developing the trust through your hard work and skills will help them advocate your ideas to the rest of leadership. The best way to succeed is to do your work in a positive, supportive, and flexible way.”
Meet Entomologist Cara Vazquez
Cara Vazquez is the Entomology Pipeline Testing Platform Lead in Plant Biotechnology at Bayer Crop Science. Her career journey led her through various realizations and transformations. She is the personification of determination and thriving in the heat of uncertainty.
Cara’s story begins in the hills overlooking the state capitol building in Olympia, Washington. After high school, she took a position at a grocery store and worked her way up to leading a small team as the head of sales in the bakery department. When the opportunity for a promotion came, Cara realized she couldn’t see herself working there for another 20 years. Cara quit her job after a few months of setting her affairs in order. She filled her car up with Coca-Cola and M&M’s, $300 in her pocket, and headed back home to Florida to build her future.
While in community college, her professor introduced her to Dr. Phil Koehler at the University of Florida, who became her undergraduate advisor when she later enrolled at UF and introduced Cara to the world of cockroaches, ants, and termites. Cara says, “I still remember when I went to my first conference. In front of a large audience, Phil asked me to come up and help him identify cockroach ootheca by species. It was so much fun. I was fascinated with urban entomology.”
When she graduated, Cara pursued turfgrass entomology for her Ph.D. and worked with the southern chinch bug, a major pest of St. Augustine grass. She says, “This insect was rapidly developing resistance to pyrethroids and other modes of action for control were being evaluated by the industry. This provided a great opportunity for me to interact with both industry reps and homeowners dealing with pyrethroid resistance. I developed skillsets that were very translatable and helped me get my first industry job after graduation.”
Her first industry job after college was at Scynexis. The small contract research organization focused on animal and human health. Cara was laid off in 2012 after the site she worked at was closed: “It was the best thing that ever happened to me. After I was laid off, I was searching online for jobs and found a position in Waterman, Illinois, with Monsanto (now Bayer) to rear corn rootworm.” Despite having interviews with other companies, Cara went with Monsanto. “I was sold on Monsanto because the people were so passionate about the science they were doing and genuinely cared about making a difference in the world,” she says. “I saw exactly the type of people I wanted to work for and work with on a team. Even though I had never seen a real plot of corn, I knew this was the place.”
Cara reflects: “I never expected to be where I am now. I am grateful for the mentors and advocates that encouraged me and opened my eyes to the opportunities that were available.”
What are some significant changes you have seen in the industry over your career?
Cara says, “I’ve seen companies shifting from hierarchies and silos to embracing a matrix environment and allowing people from different divisions and/or scientific backgrounds to collaborate. There is more focus on collaboration, both internal and external. The right collaborations can provide unique perspectives that drive innovation. There is also more focus on inclusion and diversity. In my current job, I work with so many different people from all different backgrounds. In this kind of environment, I can really be me.”
What advice would you give to students looking to go into industry?
“It’s no longer just about technical skills,” Cara says. “A lot of people who work in industry are smart, so you must stand out in other ways. Soft skills are extremely important. When I’m reviewing someone’s resume or CV, I want to see that they are doing things outside of their research. Volunteering or other work in the community, leading or participating in a student organization—these are some of the things that show me more about a person other than technical ability. In addition, start the job search well before graduating. The hiring process takes time and each company is different. And remember to be deliberate in career selection and search. I like to use a quote from Jeremy Williams, the Head of Plant Biotechnology for Bayer. He says, ‘Try to find a career that blends what you enjoy doing with what people want—this is where you will be most successful.’ That’s fantastic advice and will contribute to your own personal and professional success.”
What advice would you give to yourself at 24 whilst driving across the country?
Cara says, “GO FASTER and have more confidence in yourself. Going back to college was quite the adjustment for me. But looking back, I would not have changed anything because it helped get me to where I am now. I met some great folks along the way that I still keep in touch with.”
Meet Entomologist Francesca Stubbins
Francesca Stubbins is a hemipteran research scientist with Bayer Crop Science. Fran’s journey began in Yorkshire, and her early life on the family farm involved chasing after kittens and playing around the sheep barn as her father tended fields of potatoes, wheat, and barley.
Fran’s passion for entomology began at Cambridge while studying lymphatic filariases (commonly known as elephantiasis) for a literature review. She grew more and more fascinated with the process of pathogen transmission in mosquitoes. “It ignited a flame,” she recalls happily, a flame that continues to drive her today.
But unlike her peers who immediately went off to follow their traditional career paths, Fran took a bit of a detour. She went as far south as south goes to the quiet lands of New Zealand: “I was being a bit of a rebel and everyone was going into jobs in finance and I didn’t know what I wanted to do. I needed to get away from my life as I knew it. I wanted a fresh start. I decided to join a volunteer program teaching science and math to foreign exchange students.”
What brought you back to the United Kingdom?
She says, “I tried the teaching thing, but I also now wanted to try my hand at research.” Fran vigorously applied for scholarship funds awarded to women in science and received £5000 to do a master’s degree in Medical Entomology in the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine. Her research led her to Tanzania to work on Anopheles mosquitos and sugar baited Bti (Bacillus thuringiensis israelensis) traps. “I thought I would stay there forever,” she recalls. She later worked as a research assistant in veterinary entomology in Surrey, England, on a species of biting midge that transmits blue tongue virus in sheep.
From blue tongue to kudzu bug?
While applying for Ph.D. programs in agricultural entomology, Fran drew on the similarities in the sub-disciplines of entomology that demonstrated her great depth in understanding the big systemic picture. Her approach won over the department at Clemson University. She began work on the recently arrived kudzu bug. Despite growing up on a farm, she had not once seen pest pressure of this magnitude. She was floored by the levels of crop injury when plants were not sprayed. Now she could see the direct impact her work had on growers: “I like the fact that I could see who I could benefit with my job.”
The journey to Monsanto
“I became familiar with Monsanto through the southeast academic tour in 2014. It made me familiar with the technologies that were out there that could help farmers,” says Fran. Seeing Chesterfield was another pivotal moment in her journey: “I knew I wanted to work here when I saw it. I could speak to chemists, agronomists, and protein scientists by setting up quick meetings. I loved how easily you could get fresh views that provide a diverse perspective of your system and its components, be it the plants, the proteins, the gene stacks, or a whole systemic bird’s eye view.”
In addition to the positive corporate culture surrounding work and collaboration, Fran was drawn to the fact that the diversity metrics at Monsanto were one of the best. The Human Rights Campaign (HRC) provides an annual Corporate Equality Index for rating workplaces on LGBTQ equality. HRC rankings are a useful metric for people in the LGBT+ community to know that a company creates a diverse and welcoming work environment. The score advocates for openness in the workplace and the need to be comfortable in said environment. Fran says, “You will do your best when you are comfortable. The open-mindedness of the people you work with is important.”
What sort of inner narrative did you use to traverse the globe from your humble farm to the edge of the world and back again?
Fran says, “Don’t ever think the door is closed. You must leave your comfort zone to grab opportunities. You must know that not everything is going to go smoothly but remember that good things can come out of those things that don’t work out so well!”
What advice can you offer for those seeking a job in industry?
“A hiring manager wants to see you are more than one-dimensional, so actively seek out opportunities to build key skills such as leadership, communication, and presenting by volunteering for positions on committees and presenting your research at conferences. Exhibit teamwork skills and broaden your breadth of knowledge by taking on side projects with people outside your field of expertise. On interview day, be confident and, most importantly, be familiar with your strengths, skills and weaknesses,” Fran says.
Many students ask what it takes to succeed in life. The components for success are similar across all institutions, domains, and systems. Ted, Cara, and Fran share three key elements in their career narratives: passion for the subject, determination to see the task to the end, and advocacy by mentors who support them. Depending on the individual, you will need different amounts of each element to push you through obstacles, and rarely does one succeed alone. Be deliberate in choosing your next step. Recognize that the work environment you choose can hinder or facilitate your success. Take the time to build and develop your networks of allies and mentors who care about you as a person and as a colleague with a successful career. And always remember that a rejection is not the end of the world, but an opportunity to improve and grow stronger.
Mohammad Amir Aghaee is a research entomologist with Bayer U.S.