Field Entomologist to Industry Rep: One Entomologist’s Unique Journey to Working With Growers
By Nicholas R. Larson, 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.
John Aigner, Ph.D., a product development project manager for Nichino America, Inc., heads the company’s maximum residue level (MRL) strategy and spearheads its communication channels with growers, commodity groups, and processing facilities throughout the United States and Canada. Known for being a major trade barrier for U.S.-produced agricultural products around the world, MRLs have become a major point of contention over the last decade, from the federal government all the way down to individual growing operations. Prior to his current role, John was a product development representative in the Pacific Northwest for Nichino starting in 2015, where he oversaw research and development of novel crop protection products until transitioning to his current position in 2018. John earned his bachelor of science degree from Oregon State University and received his Ph.D. in entomology from Virginia Tech in 2016, where he studied various aspects of the brown marmorated stink bug (Halyomorpha halys). As an active participant in ESA since 2011, he loves to see new developments in entomological research and is always looking for opportunities to network with colleagues and peers.
Larson: Your academic career was somewhat non-traditional. What was it that brought you into the entomological world of research at Virginia Tech?
Aigner: I’ll try to give you the abridged version here! In my first attempt to complete my undergraduate degree, I often returned home to the Eastern Shore of Virginia on breaks. In the summer of 2003, I was working as a night bartender at a local restaurant, and one evening a few of my friends told me that their employer was looking for someone to help lift potato bins at the Eastern Shore Agricultural Research and Extension Center. I showed up the next day, where I was first introduced to Dr. Tom Kuhar. He hired me on the spot, again, to lift potato bins. Over the course of that summer and the next, we developed a strong bond. Tom took a personal interest in teaching me about insects and how they interacted with the local agricultural landscape. As I learned more, I became increasingly fascinated with those interactions and how human intervention through chemical application affects the system. After my second summer, Tom told me that he would like to offer me the opportunity to earn my master’s degree as soon as I finished my undergraduate degree. Unfortunately, the next semester I was asked to leave my undergraduate institution due to poor academic performance.
Lost and unsure of what my life goals were, I did what any irrational 21-year-old does: I moved to Florida and I worked for Walt Disney World for a year. I cherished that time because I really felt like it helped me grow up by giving me new experiences with a diverse group of people. After that year, I moved back to Virginia, got married, and found myself working in construction. I garnered a deep appreciation for tradespeople and try to take a hands-on approach to my day-to-day.
After long discussions with my wife, I decided to return to the local community college, where I enrolled in an English class, did well, and began to earn back some academic confidence. I quickly earned my associate’s degree and subsequently earned my bachelor’s degree from Oregon State University’s eCampus program in general agriculture, all while working full-time in for the ESAREC’s soil fertility specialist, Dr. Mark Reiter, who was extremely helpful in encouraging me to pursue my academic goals.
During my time at OSU, I was in constant contact with Tom, and, sure enough, as soon as I finished my bachelor’s degree, I applied and was accepted into Virginia Tech’s entomology graduate program. There, I was afforded incredible opportunities, excelled in the program, built lifelong friendships, and worked very hard.
Can you give us a description of your Ph.D. research?
I was fortunate to walk into a funded, high-interest, high-visibility project with the invasive brown marmorated stink bug. Initially, I was entirely focused on managing BMSB in economically important vegetable crops using systemic insecticide applications in Virginia, but as time wore on, we kept asking questions and identifying knowledge gaps. We were unsure of BMSB’s ability to survive extreme weather events, and, in collaboration with colleagues at the University of Minnesota, we were able to identify the supercooling points of the bug to determine the potential for spread across the northern tier of the United States. I worked on two projects that led to publications on managing BMSB in homes in the spring (as they come out of diapause) with a simple trap design.
Lastly, I worked on identifying lethal high temperatures for BMSB because bugs were overwintering in newly manufactured vehicles, which led to trade restrictions from New Zealand and Australia. I was invited to do this research at the Port of Savannah in Georgia and worked alongside representatives of one of the world’s largest oversea vehicle logistics companies. They had been experiencing millions of dollars in lost revenue simply due to BMSB infestations in their cargo that included tractors and luxury cars, among many others, manufactured in the U.S.
Ultimately, we helped develop an eco-friendly alternative to ozone-depleting fumigants, and heat treatment is still one of the recommended treatments by New Zealand and Australian authorities today.
You ultimately chose to pursue a career within industry. What led you to make this choice?
That’s a great question, Nick. I have always been drawn to industry for several reasons. First and foremost, I wanted to make a good living and knew that the industry route traditionally paid higher wages out of the gate. Second, I was very excited about my ability to make an impact through research while not competing with my peers for funding. I am a scientist first, and I really appreciated that working for industry allows me to focus on research. Also, travel. I love to travel and experience new places, foods, cultures, etc., and I was very hopeful that working for industry would grant me that opportunity domestically and internationally, which it has.
The company you work for, Nichino America Inc., is one of the smaller agrochemical companies within the United States. Do you think that there are definite advantages for working with a smaller company?
There are definitely a lot of advantages working for a smaller agrochemical company like Nichino America (NAI), but it comes with a unique set of challenges as well. When I first started working for the company, I was sent to the Pacific Northwest to work as a product development (PD) representative. I had never worked in such a diverse and concentrated cropping system before. Because I had a lot to learn, I felt early on that I had been thrown to the wolves, but I quickly started to understand that at NAI, everyone wears many hats. I quickly learned about production, logistics, sales, marketing, regulatory affairs, and other business operations and realized that NAI’s PD reps really must touch all those areas for the company’s success.
As a member of a smaller company like ours, your impacts have a ripple effect, and your successes are felt throughout the organization. With that comes visibility and unique opportunities to contribute in ways that may not be recognized company-wide in some larger companies, but, like I said, there are unique challenges. Because you get pulled in so many directions, you must be incredibly organized to make sure that you don’t spend too much time in the periphery working on side projects, and sometimes the hours get a little longer than you might be used to in a smaller territory.
Can you give us a glimpse into what a typical day in this position would be like under normal circumstances?
In the before-COVID times, my typical day was pretty chaotic. In 2019, I traveled 130,000 air miles, and about 25,000 vehicle miles across the U.S., Canada, and Japan. So, fitting into a schedule was always difficult. My travel schedule was built out five or six months in advance. My travel typically started out on Monday mornings to areas throughout the U.S. before meeting with my sales or PD colleagues upon arrival. Tuesday through Thursday, I would meet with commodity groups, processing facilities, and/or growers to discuss new developments we had running in trials or their own internal challenges related to MRLs, and [I would] typically travel back to Boise on Friday morning or afternoon. I would usually get a week or so in the home office per month to prepare strategy, collaboration, trial planning, and all the other necessary things to keep the train rolling. These days, it’s filled with phone calls and video conferences, but I hope we will get on a normal path soon.
What would you say is the most difficult aspect of your current position?
Multitasking. I have several projects in various areas around the country at any one time, and being able to maintain everything is extremely difficult when you have so many responsibilities in a small company. I help train our internal sales teams on MRL issues, keep our management up to date on field-related issues, communicate with all interested stakeholders, and work with our regulatory team on strategic planning to acquire MRL’s—but, quite frankly, the list goes on. I have a tremendous amount of responsibility, and with that comes stress. I’ve learned that it is extremely important to find ways to manage that stress, because the business is high-paced and people can burn out without the proper balance of work and home life.
What do you enjoy the most about your position?
The people. I have been so fortunate to work for an incredibly supportive team, and that starts with my leadership, who have given me the resources and the freedom to learn by trial and utilize my strengths to maximize my success. But, I enjoy interacting with such a diverse group of people with varying levels of experience across the U.S. and with my parent company in Japan.
Much like my Ph.D. research with BMSB, people are very interested and engaged in learning about MRLs, and it’s fun to be regarded at as the resident expert by my peers.
Do you have any advice for those who are interested in pursuing a career within industry?
I hate to say it, but network! I have often said to my peers and students looking for advice: “Build bridges, don’t burn them.” I try to live by this. Much like the entomological world, the agriculture business is very small. You are going to always know someone who knows someone.
For example, I randomly run into my graduate school lab brothers and sisters all over the country, and I cherish that. They are now colleagues that I cooperate with and university professors that we support, but most importantly, any one of those people have the potential to hire you and be your supervisor one day.
I spent many years at ESA Branch and national meetings preparing for the day I would graduate, not just doing my research or performing well academically but also pushing myself to interact with people that weren’t in my circle. I cherish the relationships I have built and look forward to many more years of meeting new people.
If you could go back and change anything during your academic career or path into industry, would you change anything?
Another great question. As I said before, there was no doubt that I was thrown to the wolves when I started with NAI. One of my weaknesses was a lack of deep understanding of how businesses work. For example, while I had heard a lot of business terms, I had never given them a second thought. All of the sudden, I am involved in conversations regarding pricing, product placement, “SWOT” analyses, sales targets. In a perfect world, I would have tried to take some courses in agribusiness or marketing to better prepare me for that discussion. To fill in the gap in business operations knowledge, I was fortunate to have NAI allow me to attend Harvard Business School in 2020.
The other thing I would have done is try to learn some other languages. I run into Spanish speakers across my territory and often find myself having to have things translated, particularly when we get into the field. In preparation for my annual trips to Japan, I attempted to learn a small amount of functional Japanese. Unfortunately, I recently learned that my go-to source for Japanese has been teaching me slang, which has led to a few funny looks from my Japanese colleagues. I can only assume that they think I have a foul mouth. Moral of the story: Get some formal language training.
Okay, now for a fun question. Besides being an active member of ESA and successful industry representative, what do you do to wind down and relax from the everyday grind?
Those who know me best know that my Disney roots are still very much intact. I do everything I can to travel to Disney properties as an escape from real life. When I am not doing that, I enjoy most of my time training to run in Disney races, playing with my dog and horses, and hiking with my wife in the Boise Foothills. I am also a huge fan of the Baltimore Orioles, the Pittsburgh Steelers, and my beloved Virginia Tech Hokies.
Nicholas R. Larson, Ph.D., is a post-doctoral researcher with the Invasive Insect Biocontrol and Behavior Laboratory at the U.S. Department of Agriculture-Agricultural Research Service. He serves as the Plant-Insect Ecosystems representative to the ESA Early Career Professionals Committee. Email: email@example.com.
All photos courtesy of John Aigner, Ph.D.