Livestock to Leader: Veterinary Entomologist Takes Charge and Helps Students Succeed
By Tracey Payton, 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 past posts in the Standout ECPs series.
Brandon Smythe, Ph.D., is currently the director of the Veterinary Entomology Research Laboratory (VERL) at the Center for Animal Health and Food Safety at New Mexico State University (NMSU). Smythe, originally from New Mexico, graduated with his Ph.D. in animal science from NMSU in 2017, focusing on reproductive physiology of livestock and responses of cattle to horn fly infestations. While in graduate school and prior to his current position, he served as the Program Manager of the VERL, where he planted the seeds to his now highly successful research program, which has acquired almost $3 million in research funding.
Payton: Veterinary entomology is considered a niche. What interested you in working with insects on livestock?
Smythe: Sometimes I wish I could say that I always knew that I had some future in entomology, but in all honesty, I had no clue what I wanted to do with my life coming out of high school. I knew I loved science and I knew I loved agriculture, but I never really realized the opportunities that were available. I was extremely fortunate, though, to have found the path that I took. Early in my academic career, I was able to work closely with some great veterinary entomologists that really shaped my understanding and provided opportunities to grow in this field. I guess you are right in terms of veterinary entomology being somewhat of a niche, but it sure doesn’t feel that way once you are surrounded by the brilliant people that make up that niche. What we lack in numbers, we definitely make up for in a great sense of community and belonging, which has led to the development of some amazing scientists that have made tremendous impacts towards securing animal welfare throughout the world. I wouldn’t want to be a part of any other team.
Payton: Currently, what is the main goal of your research?
Smythe: Currently, the majority of my research is largely concerned with the development of new and improvement of existing managerial methods for the control of parasites to further support sustainable animal production practices throughout the United States. This, of course, branches into many ongoing research objectives which open the door to multiple academic and private industry collaborations that have been extremely fruitful in my early career.
Payton: Research can be really challenging. What is the most interesting research challenge that you have encountered, and what was your approach to solving it?
Smythe: It’s difficult to provide one specific example of a challenge, because I think every research project presents its own unique, interesting, and exciting challenges. If they didn’t, we probably wouldn’t be doing what we do. I will say, however, as an early-career professional, a constant and re-occurring challenge that I have taken great pride in addressing head-on is developing and sustaining a strongly motivated research team. The most eye-opening aspect of developing a research program for myself was taking on so many different and unexpected roles. Yeah, we might call ourselves research leaders or principal investigators, but at the end of the day, many of us ECPs are thrown into a world that requires so much more from us. I’ve been given the opportunity to serve not only as a mentor, but more importantly as a friend to many of the individuals in my laboratory. It was easy, when I entered my current position, to develop somewhat of a tunnel vision focused on program success. I realized quickly, though, that the success of my program isn’t dependent upon my ability to acquire funding or publish papers, but rather on my ability to help support the development of future professionals that will inevitably carry the baton. Don’t get me wrong—secured funding and publishing will always be the staples of a successful program, but working with a team that is professionally and emotionally invested in that programs success brings about all those added benefits.
Payton: We’ve talked a lot about being an ECP and being thrust into an advisor role with little or no experience. You have been especially successful advising students in this role. Recently, one of your students won first place at the ESA Southwestern Branch Meeting in Tulsa. What is your secret?
Smythe: Yes, a number of students in my laboratory have competed and placed in competitions at both the branch and national meetings. It’s extremely rewarding to receive that type of validation when these students have put so much effort and time into their projects. It would almost be heartbreaking when those students who do compete fail to place, if it wasn’t for the great interest and feedback provided by the audiences. That says more about the ESA community than it does myself, though. As far as a “secret,” I am not sure I have enough success to claim any kind of perfect recipe. I will say, however, that for me personally, humility has been key. I consider myself a lifelong learner and take great pride in telling my students “I don’t know.” It is so much fun to tackle a question as a team and show students that aside from my title, we are basically in the same boat. Students I advise are strongly encouraged to develop critical thinking and problem-solving abilities in the context of research development and conduction. It’s been my experience that I can still act as a leader while simultaneously admitting my own shortcomings. In fact, students in my laboratory tend to rise to this opportunity and very often teach me something new. It truly is a mutually beneficial arrangement.
Payton: Finally, what is your favorite arthropod and why?
Smythe: A three-way tie: horn fly, house fly, and stable fly! These little critters are the reasons why I do what I do. So similar in certain regards, but unique in ways that could fill my career 10 times over. Aside from that, flies provide almost a constant validation of my work and string together communities through a common hatred and annoyance. I can walk into just about any room on the planet and have a conversation about an annoying fly.
Payton: Thanks, Brandon! You can learn more about Smythe’s work at aces.nmsu.edu/thecenter/.
Tracey Payton, Ph.D., is an Assistant Professor of Horticulture and Plant and Soil Sciences Program Leader in the School of Agriculture and Applied Sciences at Langston University and the Southwestern Branch representative to the ESA Early-Career Professionals Committee. E-mail: email@example.com.
All photos courtesy of Brandon Smythe, Ph.D.