How One Entomologist Became a Detective of ‘Pest Mysteries’
By Emily 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.) Read past posts in the Standout ECPs series.
Lorena Lopez, Ph.D., is originally from Cali, Colombia, where she received her B.S. in biology with a major in entomology from the University of Valle. Her professional experience and passion for entomology and biological control began when she conducted her thesis project in one of the largest organic farms in Cali, studying parasitoid species complexes in cattle production systems. In 2012, Lorena joined the University of Florida to pursue her M.S. in entomology at the Vegetable Entomology laboratory working on the biological control of pest mites using banker plants and predatory mites in high-tunnel pepper production. Lorena joined the Small Fruit and Vegetable IPM laboratory in 2014 to start her Ph.D. in entomology. Her research included the use of sustainable practices such as flowering plants and conservation of natural enemies for whitefly, aphid, and lepidopteran control in conventional and organic squash.
As a postdoctoral associate at the University of Florida, Lorena focused on the management of mite pests in blueberries and monitoring spatiotemporal distribution patterns of predatory mites in squash. Currently, Lorena is a postdoc at Virginia Tech, where her focus is to develop and implement sustainable management practices for insect and mite pests in fruit and vegetable production systems. Additionally, she is the former president of the Acarological Society of America and has been actively involved in the Entomological Society of America, where she currently serves as the chair and the Southeastern Branch representative on the Early Career Professionals Committee.
Sandall: Can you tell us about yourself and your experiences in entomology?
Lopez: Growing up in the Pacific side of Colombia, so close to the Andes Mountain range, I was able to enjoy the sea, rivers, and rain forests during frequent family trips since I was very little. I spent my time as a kid catching bugs, collecting rocks or shellfish, and catching frogs in the rain. Since I remember, I was fascinated with nature and my family encouraged it as I grew up. To be honest, I never thought I would be an entomologist, but once I learned about arthropods during my undergrad, I was hooked! I loved working with insects, especially parasitoid wasps (e.g., Hymenoptera: Chalcidoidea, Ichneumonoidea, Platygastroidea) given their immense phenotypic diversity and variety of lifestyles.
Also, when I graduated with my bachelor’s degree in biology, it never crossed my mind that I would be working with mites, but then I got to spend a lot of time with Marjorie Hoy and took her agricultural acarology class during my master’s. She was a renowned acarologist and my master’s committee member. I spent one year in her lab and, thanks to that experience, my love for pests (Acari: Tetranychidae, Tarsonemidae) and predatory mites (Phytoseiidae) was born. Mites are as diverse—probably moreso—and as fascinating as insects. Learning about their interactions with pests, host plants, other beneficial arthropods, and their overall ecology is what got me into agricultural entomology and acarology.
Have you always wanted to work in integrated pest management?
Not really. Since I was a teenager and when I started my bachelor’s in biology, I wanted to be a mammalogist and work for the conservation of wild cats and other big mammals. I know, pretty different from small bugs! But I fell in love with insects (especially Hymenoptera) when I took a required class for my undergrad called “Arthropods.” The professor explained the parasitoids’ life cycle and predators’ behavior so passionately that it was contagious. That’s when my interest in entomology started. Also, I never felt very comfortable in the zoology department at my college.
After taking this class, I started visiting the entomology department more often, and I felt I belonged. I still wanted to focus on animal conservation, and my thesis advisor at the time thought that biological control would be something I could enjoy. So, she got me involved in biological control projects for my undergrad thesis, including surveying parasitoid wasps of a new (at that time) lepidopteran pest of carob trees, a source of protein for cattle in Colombia, and a survey of parasitoid wasps in a Pacific island and nature reserve in Colombian Pacific.
When I moved to Florida in 2012, my M.S. advisor and subsequently my Ph.D. advisor encouraged me to continue working in biological control. During my graduate school years, I was able to evaluate many other pest management tactics together with biocontrol agents, including the use of thresholds, banker plants, companion planting, and pesticides, as well as evaluating non-target effects. It was not far into my graduate studies when I started enjoying integrated pest management (IPM) and making it my career’s focus.
What are some of the best parts of your job? What is something that may surprise us about your job?
The best part of my job is when I get to solve a “pest mystery.” In other words, sometimes growers are challenged by pests they are not familiar with or by uncommon pest outbreaks. In that case, I’m able to help them identify the problem and mitigate the infestation. That is the best part of my job. In my 10-plus years working in pest management, I’ve solved a couple of these mysteries. For instance, I helped blueberry growers identify a major outbreak of southern red mites (Oligonychus ilicis), an emerging pest in 2019 that is now established in many areas in Florida and Georgia. I was able to identify the problem, conduct on-farm trials, and provide them with the proper chemical tools to protect their crops. Subsequently, we found native predatory mites associated with the southern red mite populations and started looking toward conservation biological control to complement miticide applications. This has been one of the problem-solving scenarios that I’ve enjoyed the most.
A similar case happened recently in Virginia when a grower had a severe tomato russet mite (Aculops lycopersici) infestation in his cherry tomatoes. He never had issues with this pest before, yet he had to terminate his crop because of the infestation. But he was able to develop a pest management plan to protect his upcoming tomato plantings.
These oversimplified scenarios are not so common or straightforward, and most of the time they are just the beginning of a long journey also known as developing and implementing pest management programs. Major pests of vegetable and fruit crops are consistent over the years, and their management implies the use of holistic control strategies to keep them under damaging levels. This is different from weekly applications of pesticides and requires integrating alternative management methods to improve the chances of suppression over the long run.
Why does entomology excite you?
All arthropods are amazing organisms. They are such resilient animals. I’m fascinated by the diversity of morphologies, niches, and behaviors they can inhabit across insect orders and mite groups. Likewise, the behavioral plasticity within species is surprising. I’m often surprised by the behavioral changes of pests and their natural enemies when they encounter stress factors or changing conditions.
For example, I monitored pickleworms (Diaphania nitidalis) and melonworms (Diaphania hyalinata) infesting squash in Florida during my entire Ph.D. degree and most of my postdoc time at the University of Florida. In the literature, there is a statement about melonworms saying that they feed on leaves and rarely on fruits. Their behavior followed the textbook in Florida. But they move northeast in the U.S. during the summer, and their behavior can change because of multiple factors including host diversity, environmental conditions, and interactions with their natural enemies and other pests. In Virginia, I’ve never seen melonworms feeding on leaves like they are “supposed to” based on the literature and my years of experience in Florida. On the contrary, melonworms in Virginia burrow into the squash most of the time. Even though this plasticity can be very challenging from the pest management standpoint, I’m a fan of this kind of behavioral flexibility.
You are the chair of the Early Career Professionals’ Committee of ESA. Can you tell us more about that experience?
Being part of the ECP Committee has been a great experience. Like other paths in my life, I didn’t plan to become the chair, but it has been a very rewarding role and I’m thankful for it. I’ve been able to work closely with a wonderful group of early-career professionals with diverse backgrounds in entomology. The advice from former chairs and previous members of the committee has been vital for my role as chair. But any success during my role as chair is also thanks to the support of the rest of the members of the committee and our commitment to the early-career professional community. Some of them have become good friends, we’ve had fun catching up at meetings, and we’ve learned a great deal from each other.
Because we’re all ECPs, we share our experiences through this transition time from being a student to a postdoc, a professor, an industry employee, or any other “real” job. As early-career professionals, we make major changes not only from the professional point of view but also in our personal lives, and any help that can facilitate that transition counts. This encourages us to facilitate resources for other ECP members that are going through the same process.
Do you have any advice for early-career professionals in entomology?
Be compassionate and patient with yourself. It can be scary leaving the graduate student world, and that is normal. Finding a job implies investing time and effort in job hunting, and you will rarely find your dream job at the first job you accept. It takes time for most people. When you get an offer or offers (hopefully), it is better to take enough time to analyze if that job is a good fit for your current professional and personal situation. If you encounter your dream job on the first try, cherish it!
Also, be humble so you can learn from the people around you. Sometimes we share similar professional and personal struggles, and advice from people that have recently gone through similar experiences is always valuable.
Finally, if you could be any arthropod, which would you pick and why?
This is a tough question. I would choose a fig wasp (Hymenoptera: Agaonidae). They have such a fascinating life cycle and such a unique mutualistic relationship with their host plants. It resembles the way I feel about my profession; I do my best to contribute to the field of entomology and acarology, and my job is always more than just a “job”—it’s my way of life.
Emily L. Sandall, Ph.D., is a 2022-2023 AAAS Science & Technology Policy Fellow and the Systematics, Evolution, & Biodiversity Section Representative to the ESA Early Career Professionals Committee. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Photos courtesy of Lorena Lopez.