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A Career in Entomology Shaped by Biology, Environmental Toxicology, and Lots of Scientific Conferences

Tom Bilbo, Ph.D.

After spending two years at North Carolina State University for his postdoctoral position in entomology working in insect and mite management in vegetable cropping systems, Tom Bilbo, Ph.D., took a professorship position at Clemson University and moved to South Carolina at the end of 2021 to start his research and extension program. Here, Tom is sampling spider mites and predatory mites in tomatoes. (Photo by Steve Schoof)

By Lorena Lopez, 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.

Tom Bilbo, Ph.D.

Tom Bilbo, Ph.D.

Tom Bilbo, Ph.D., is an assistant professor and research and extension specialist at Clemson University’s Coastal Research & Education Center in Charleston, South Carolina, where he studies insect pest management and insecticide resistance, as well as insect ecology in agricultural systems. Tom earned his bachelor’s degree in biology at Denison University in Ohio in 2012, his master’s degree in environmental toxicology at Texas Tech University in 2015, and his Ph.D. in entomology at Clemson in 2019.

During his Ph.D., Tom investigated the plant-insect interactions of the corn earworm (Helicoverpa zea) and Bt corn in regard to development, behavior, and insecticide resistance management, as well as management strategies for fall armyworm (Spodoptera frugiperda) in corn. His career pivoted when he joined the lab of Jim Walgenbach, Ph.D., at North Carolina State University as a postdoctoral researcher in 2019, where he focused on the implementation of biological control tactics for key vegetable insect pests. Tom spent his postdoc time working closely with farmers, learning about cultural and biocontrol practices as well the management of pest mites using natural enemies including predatory mites. Tom recently started his position as an assistant professor at Clemson and moved back to South Carolina to start his program as part of the Plant & Environmental Sciences Department.

Lopez: Can you describe your current research?

Bilbo: The goal of my research and extension program is to advance sustainable and resilient food production. As an entomologist, I strive to do this through understanding insects in agroecosystems and applying insect ecology to solve problems. The tenets of my program are developing cultural and biological control strategies for key pests, but I also spend a lot of time thinking about issues of insecticide resistance.

As I get my program started at Clemson, my initial projects will focus on spider mites, thrips, and diamondback moths (Plutella xylostella) in various vegetable crops and strawberries. But, in the southeast, there are so many different crops grown and such intense pest pressure that there are seemingly endless interesting problems to work on. I look forward to working with multidisciplinary teams that use a systems approach to determine how weeds, diseases, and production practices interact to influence pest pressure and beneficials.

What’s your favorite aspect of your research?

I love being around food, farming, and insects, so I couldn’t be happier than to be studying vegetable entomology in the southeast. And, thanks to the Charleston culinary scene, which supports lots of local farms, there are all kinds of crops being grown on farms of all shapes and sizes.

I enjoy studying polyphagous pests in multi-crop farms because it creates unique challenges but also lots of opportunities for new integrated pest management (IPM) tactics. For example, both spider mites and thrips will readily move amongst fields of strawberry, tomato, pepper, cucumber, watermelon, and so on, in both space and time. While this can create additional challenges for these farmers, it also creates lots of opportunities for cultural and biological control since these pests (and their natural enemies) vary in their preference for and performance on different hosts. Right now I am continuing some of my postdoc work with the predatory mite Phytoseiulus persimilis. We had great success using this predator to manage twospotted spider mites (Tetranychus urticae) in tomatoes, but I am investigating how to extend its efficacy and economics in multi-crop systems.

Tom Bilbo and Jim Walgenbach

Prior to his current role, Tom Bilbo, Ph.D. (right), joined the lab of Jim Walgenbach, Ph.D. (left), at North Carolina State University as a postdoctoral researcher in 2019, where he focused on the implementation of biological control tactics for key vegetable insect pests in crops such as tomatoes, shown here.

What’s a recent research challenge you had to overcome, and how did you do it?

Thanks to my postdoc with Jim Walgenbach, my research shifted strongly into biological control. I’ve learned how much more difficult it can be to use small plot trials to ask questions about predator and parasitoid biocontrol because they don’t respect the neat plots we establish, and they move between plots no matter the efforts to stop them! This can make it challenging to conduct and interpret these trials. One approach to mitigating this is to complement small plot trials with on-farm research. We’ve released a lot of predatory mites on and sampled from a lot of vegetable farms over the years, and those trials helped enrich our understanding of how to successfully implement biocontrol under real conditions, with the added benefit of having farmers see the successes first-hand.

Despite the challenges and limitations of on-farm research, I am a huge fan of the approach. The time spent speaking to farmers and seeing how and why they operate is absolutely invaluable to developing new IPM strategies that will be successful and that are actually adopted as a grower practice.

How has your life changed in the transition from grad school or postdoc to an assistant professor?

The best part about grad school or a postdoc position is that you get to spend most of your time doing research. The worst part is you are always stressed about finding a full-time job! As I’m sure any assistant professor can testify to, a lot of time is spent on non-research activities and this can make time management difficult. But I enjoy the freedom I have to pursue pretty much all my research interests, so it’s a worthy tradeoff.

If you could go back in time, what advice would you give to your graduate-student self?

It’s easier said than done to tell someone to not be afraid of failure or to ask for help. For grad students, this often comes down to writing, publishing, and presenting. I was like many grad students where it took time to build confidence and the willingness to fail, but I believe you kind of have to run the gauntlet to develop that. There is a great quote that I think about all the time that captures this: “To know and not to do is not yet to know.”

I think this is where good mentorship comes in. I was fortunate to have had an amazing Ph.D. advisor in Francis Reay-Jones, Ph.D., and co-advisor in Jeremy Greene, Ph.D. They made sure I presented at every state, regional, and national meeting, and it really helped me to become an effective presenter and writer and get things published. So, I would tell my past self and all grad students to not be afraid to put yourself out there and to trust the process.

What is one thing you would change about the field of entomology?

This is a tough one. One thing I can think of is to encourage even more entomologists to engage in public outreach and education. We are fortunate to work with such complex, important, and amazing organisms, but, due to their small size, they are not rightfully appreciated by many people, if for no reason other than lack of opportunity or introduction.

What’s the coolest thing about the insects or mites you study that you wish more people knew?

Oh, this is impossible to answer and extends my answer from the previous question. Insects (and mites and company) are so astounding and absurd in even their existence that when you get down to the ground to watch and listen it is impossible not to be in awe at even the simplest of behaviors. To watch something like a parasitoid wasp parasitize its prey, drag it across a yard, and carefully bury it in a constructed hole is kind of unbelievable.

Recently, I was listening to an old audio file of Alan Watts discussing this sort of idea and there was an excerpt from G.K. Chesterton that immediately made me think of how aptly it applied to the wild diversity and complexity of insects, and if only we entomologists could successfully convey this to the world—”It is one thing to describe an interview with a gorgon or a griffin, a creature who does not exist. It is another thing to discover that the rhinoceros does exist, and then take pleasure in the fact that he looks as if he doesn’t.”

Lorena Lopez, Ph.D., is a postdoctoral researcher at Virginia Tech’s Department of Entomology (Eastern Shore AREC) and chair of the ESA Early Career Professionals Committee. Twitter: @lorelopez257. Email: lorelopezq257@vt.edu.

All photos courtesy of Tom Bilbo, Ph.D., unless otherwise noted.

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