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How One Entomologist Found Her Path in IPM Practice and Outreach

Hillary M. Peterson, Ph.D.

Meet Hillary M. Peterson, Ph.D., Maine state IPM specialist, entomology outreach virtuoso, and subject of the next installment of our “Standout Early Career Professionals” series. Here, Peterson checks brown marmorated stink bug traps deployed around an apple and peach orchard. (Photo by Cole Tyler)

By Emily L. Sandall, 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.

Hillary M. Peterson, Ph.D., is currently the integrated pest management (IPM) entomologist for the Maine Department of Agriculture, Conservation, and Forestry. Her role is about as broad as the umbrella of IPM itself is: She is involved in projects including ensuring K-12 schools in the state of Maine use IPM practices when dealing with pests, creating educational materials and presentations about IPM for growers and pesticide applicators, curating several educational websites, monitoring for mosquito-borne illness, and interacting with invasive species working groups and several other projects and councils dedicated to ongoing development of IPM implementation in the state.

Hillary earned her Ph.D. in entomology in 2020, conducting work on biological control of the brown marmorated stink bug under Greg Krawczyk, Ph.D., at the Penn State University Fruit Research and Extension Center. Hillary has many interests and says she would love to continue in this career through retirement, raise a family, adopt many senior coonhounds, continue to be involved with the Maine Entomological Society, take as many hikes and camping trips as possible, and continue to learn more about lifting weights and fitness (a recent new hobby of hers) and potentially learn to coach others down the line.

Sandall: Can you tell us about yourself and your job in entomology?

Peterson: I started as the Maine State IPM Specialist in September of 2021 and couldn’t be more happy with this career. Since I was young, I’ve had a somewhat chaotic skill set that I wasn’t sure how exactly I would be able to use for a career. I loved acting in plays in drama club, working with photos and creating art from them in Photoshop, and spending time in nature (yes, I was one of “those kids” with a bug catcher who had an insect-themed 8th birthday party). And, all in all, I have always been pretty outgoing and love networking and listening to other people. I wasn’t always sure exactly how these skills would come together, but my journey through a degree in biology, working in six different entomology labs, put this skill set to use, and I have loved every minute of it!

During your Ph.D., you worked directly in fruit IPM. What about that experience prepared you for your current role?

So much about my Ph.D. prepared me for my current role. One of the great things about splitting my time between Penn State main campus and the Fruit Research and Extension Center was getting to experience “both worlds” of research (both theoretical and very applied). During my applied field research, it was crucial to build relationships with the growers who generously allowed me to conduct my work in their orchards. Having my boots on the ground in these operations taught me the complexities of running an orchard, and I have taken great care to be respectful of this as I have networked with, and given presentations to, growers here in Maine.

In addition, I saw firsthand the successes of IPM in action at orchards that used mating disruption and monitored for pests with pheromone-baited traps, and I also saw how an invasive species can quickly disrupt a well-planned IPM program. I was inspired by all the researchers in the mid-Atlantic region who came together to develop new IPM strategies for the brown marmorated stink bug, and I feel empowered to do my part now as a part of many conversations here in Maine revolving around developing best management practices for the many invasive species that we struggle with.

What are some of the best parts of your job? What is something that may surprise us about your job?

I really enjoy how broad my job is, because it allows me to come up with creative applied solutions to IPM issues in the state and to collaborate with lots of people. Since starting last September, I have collaborated with folks at the University of Maine and the Maine Medical Research Institute and met with the diverse Maine IPM Council, an official board of the state with roles for folks in IPM research, growers, citizen interest organizations, forestry, organic growers associations, structural IPM, landscape IPM, and nonprofit environmental organizations. I have been so impressed stepping into this role at how much the state of Maine values IPM and integrates the concepts into many programs.

Something that may surprise you is that I am specifically tasked with staying on top of new scientific literature pertaining to integrated pest management. I created a literature review spreadsheet system for myself during my Ph.D. that I have taken with me into this role, and I love sitting down every morning, reviewing new literature pertaining to IPM, and letting it inspire me to come up with ideas for projects, adding the current research to educational materials put out by our department (such as www.GotPests.org), and, when open access, providing the PDFs to growers and stakeholders.

Why does entomology excite you?

I enjoy entomology as a field because not only are insects endlessly fascinating and beautiful; there is so much room for creativity within entomology as a science. Anyone reading this who has conducted research within entomology must know exactly what I mean. How many other fields have you taking trips to the hardware store and the craft store to build custom cages, containment or capturing apparatuses, and educational materials? I can’t imagine a more fun and creative field to be a part of!

There is also always room for improvement within entomology, and applied work puts you in contact with so many interesting people. In my role, I speak often with members of the general public asking questions about pests in their homes and yards, with growers looking for advice with biological control options, with researchers collaborating on educational materials, and more.

Tell us more about your other activities.

Outside of work I am also the president and webmaster of the Maine Entomological Society, an awesome group of people celebrating the 25th anniversary of the society this upcoming June! In this role I have worked with others to create a new website, start a winter webinar series, and launch an official Facebook page (Maine Insects) that has been so fun to watch grow. Beyond that, I enjoy photography, cooking, hiking, and camping and have recently been working with my personal trainer to put some of my skills in education to use, helping her develop educational materials to help people live healthy lives!

Do you have any advice for Early Career Professionals in entomology?

Be broad and be open-minded, but also know your priorities and non-negotiables, something I learned at a career workshop that the PSU Entomology Grad Student Association put together in 2018. For me, my non-negotiable, top priority was to be able to live in Maine, where I grew up and felt happiest and most at home. I decided to build my career and skill set around that going into my Ph.D. program.

While I waited for a position like this one to open up, knowing that I wanted to be involved with IPM either at a state job, in academia, or even in industry, I carefully selected the opportunities that I took on over the last two years. These included becoming more involved in outreach through the Maine Entomological Society (plus, that is just fun!), working for an organic cannabis grower setting up an IPM program, taking on a role with the Maine Conservation Corps through the Maine DEP, and working remotely for a company developing greenhouse management scouting software.

In today’s world, there are so many ways to be creative with your skills and develop even more, even if taking on a non-entomology or entomology-adjacent role!

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

It probably sounds pretty lazy, but being an arthropod developing in a gall just sounds amazing. Can you imagine sleeping right next to your favorite food every day, and your only responsibility is to wake up and eat? I did mention this once to Dr. Michael Gates, a chalcid specialist at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History, who made me laugh when he actually depicted all the horrors of the life of a gall-inducer with the amount of parasitoids and hyperparasitoids out there!

Thanks, Hillary! If you want to connect with Hillary and learn more about her work, you can find her on LinkedIn.

Emily L. Sandall, Ph.D., is a postdoctoral research associate at Yale University and the Systematics, Evolution, and Biodiversity Section Representative to the ESA Early Career Professionals Committee. Email: emily.sandall@yale.edu.

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