How One Entomologist Turns Biological Control Into Real-World Results
By Karen Poh, 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.
Nicole Quinn, Ph.D., is an assistant professor of entomology and nematology at the University of Florida Indian River Research and Education Center (IRREC) in Fort Pierce, Florida. She received a B.S. in biology with a minor in English from Gettysburg College, an M.S. in entomology from Michigan State University, and a Ph.D. in entomology from Virginia Tech. She completed her postdoctoral research at the U.S. Department of Agriculture-Agricultural Research Service (USDA-ARS) Beneficial Insect Introduction Research Unit in Newark, Delaware, before starting her current position at the University of Florida, where she studies classical biological control of invasive insects.
Within the Entomological Society of America, Quinn has received several awards and travel scholarships including the President’s Prize for the student 10-minute paper competition and the North Central Branch Student Travel Scholarship. She currently serves as the early-career professional (ECP) representative on the Plant-Insect Ecosystems (P-IE) Section Governing Council and vice chair of the ESA ECP Committee.
Poh: We love a good origin story, so can you give us a quick biography and background about yourself?
Quinn: Sure! I grew up in Medway, Massachusetts, which is a small town outside of Boston. I am not from an academic family by any means. The only scientist I knew was probably Bill Nye the Science Guy. I loved bugs from a young age and spent a lot of time flipping over rocks. My dad had a big role in developing my interest in nature; we spent a lot of time fishing and hiking.
Like many kids with an interest in animals, when it came time to think about careers I was really pushed into pursuing veterinary medicine. It seemed like the right choice because I was completely unaware of any potential careers in entomology. It wasn’t the right fit for me and so I returned to my first love: insects and ecology. I did several independent research (capstone) projects and an internship with an entomology lab and really fell in love with research and field work.
After I graduated from Gettysburg College in 2012 with a B.S. in biology and minor in English, I felt very “done with school” and decided to join the workforce. This proved very challenging as a new graduate in yet another economic collapse! Eventually I found a job working at a science journal. Almost immediately however, I started working on my exit plan as it didn’t hold my interest at all. The two-hour commute by train probably didn’t help.
While I was applying to graduate programs I ended up working as a temporary technician for about six months in east Texas as part of a project studying insectivorous bats. I spent my days driving an ATV and hiking through a swampy wildlife management area collecting blacklight insect samples and bat call recordings. It was challenging, dirty, but fun work! This adventure really solidified for me that this was what I wanted to do.
From here my story is pretty straightforward. I graduated with an M.S. in entomology in December 2015. I studied habitat management for beneficial insects in squash and cucumber with Dr. Zsofia Szendrei. In December 2019, I finished my Ph.D. in entomology, which was co-advised by Dr. Chris Bergh and Dr. Tracy Leskey. My Ph.D. focused on the biological control of the brown marmorated stinkbug (Halyomorpha halys), with a focus on its adventive parasitoid Trissolcus japonicus. I started my postdoc at the USDA-ARS Beneficial Insect Introduction Research Unit in March 2020 with Dr. Jian Duan (USDA-ARS) and Dr. Joe Elkinton (University of Massachusetts). What a time to start something new right?! Despite the pandemic, my postdoc remains one of my favorite periods of my career.
I started as an assistant professor of entomology and nematology the University of Florida Indian River Research and Education Center in July 2022. Specifically, I work in the Hayslip Biological Control Research and Containment Laboratory, where I study classical biological control of invasive insects.
Your past and present research focuses on biological control of different agricultural pests. What inspired you to pursue these different topics? What have been some of the major findings of your research thus far?
Great question! The honest answer is that it didn’t start out this way. I was initially more drawn to basic ecology and tropical ecology. However, I realized that you can study these concepts in an applied setting. This allows you to get funding more easily of course, but, more importantly, I like knowing that the work I am doing has real-world applications that help people. At heart I am a pragmatist.
Biological control is amazing in that, once established, it can provide long-lasting self-sustaining benefit to stakeholders with minimal inputs. For example, my postdoctoral research demonstrated that the introduced parasitoids for emerald ash borer (Agrilus planipennis) are better at dispersing and establishing than initially thought and are a significant source of emerald ash borer mortality. Of course, this does not mean that the invasive species will ever “go away!” But, reducing invasive species impact is really important economically and ecologically.
With your background in the biological sciences, how did you become interested in entomology? Was there a specific moment where you knew you wanted to continue exploring the field of entomology?
I became interested in entomology as a formal field of study during my undergraduate degree. I wouldn’t say there was a specific moment but several key moments. I studied abroad in Ecuador, which really reignited my interest in field ecology and entomology, especially natural enemies. Perhaps more importantly though was my internship with Dr. Greg Krawczyk at the Penn State University Fruit Research and Extension Center. He was the first entomologist I ever met and was very patient with me in answering my incessant questions! This also allowed me to get some hands-on experience in an entomology lab.
After you completed your Ph.D., you moved into a postdoctoral position with the USDA-ARS Beneficial Insects Introduction Unit and the University of Massachusetts. What was it like to move to a different research system and work between academic and federal researchers?
It was definitely a transition, but not in the way you would think! People always mention the excessive “red tape” associated with working with the government, but in my experience it is not any more burdensome than what you see at universities. As you alluded to, one of the main things I learned in my postdoc is how to coordinate diverse teams—both people and institutions. Modern research is collaborative by necessity. I also think collaborative work is more fun!
My postdoc really helped me become a better communicator and team leader. When you are a student, you are responsible for your own project, and that’s essentially it. When you are a postdoc, you have more responsibilities, most of which are related to writing and managing other people. That transition is really hard at first. I spent a lot of time calling and emailing, ensuring everyone was on the same page. Getting a team to pull in the same direction can be challenging, but it’s hugely rewarding!
An important aspect of managing multi-institutional teams is being aware of the rules and regulations associated with each institution. For example, the USDA has certain requirements about publication submission that universities do not. Being mindful of everyone’s needs from the outset can ensure a more successful project. This also includes personal needs, both yours and theirs. Clear, consistent communication and flexibility is key.
You recently started as an assistant professor at the University of Florida Indian River Research and Education Center. Tell us a little bit more about your current position and what your day-to-day looks like.
My work focuses on classical biological control of invasive insects in Florida. Classical, or importation, biological control involves the importation of candidate biological control agents from an invasive species’ native range, with the ultimate goal of releasing the agent to regulate the target insect’s population to a lower level, thus reducing the target’s impact.
I am truly fortunate to have ended up at IRREC: I have huge amounts of laboratory space both in and out of quarantine, multiple greenhouses, environmental chambers, temperature and humidity controlled rearing rooms—you name it, it is here! The faculty and staff at IRREC and on main campus have been very supportive and welcoming as well.
Last year I submitted a permit request (USDA APHIS 526) that, if approved, will allow me to bring back natural enemies of my first target insect, Nipaecoccus viridis, to rear in quarantine. This will allow me to perform a variety of studies, including host range testing. In the meantime, I have several other field and lab studies in the works. I also have a small project with snails that will be starting soon. I never thought I would end up working on snails, but there was a need, so here we are!
My day-to-day involves a lot of time at the computer, more than I would have ever thought possible. I’m constantly writing manuscripts, grants, reports, or just emails. I also have a lot of in-person and Zoom meetings. I also travel more than I ever thought possible. I do not get to spend as much time “playing with bugs” as I might like, but I am having a lot of fun building my program and relationships with other researchers.
Do you have any advice for students who might be interested in going into academia? What are some things students should think about as they are deciding on future careers in the academic sector? What skills do you think someone needs to be successful in academia?
My number-one piece of advice for people just starting out: Do things you enjoy, and don’t waste your time on things that you don’t. Academia is a hard path. If you are not working on something that you love, it will be extremely difficult to persevere when things inevitably get tough. I believe that anyone can succeed in academia if they are studying something they are passionate about and have the support of mentors or other people in their support network.
Another important piece of advice: Work on your communication skills. “Use your words,” when you want or need something, or if you have a question. Encourage others to do the same. Accept feedback without judgement or deflection. It sounds simple, but small steps like this will allow your research team to function better and ultimately result in better work.
You are also the new ESA Early Career Professionals (ECP) Committee vice chair. What are some ideas or initiatives you hope to pursue as the vice chair and eventually the chair of the ECP Committee?
I think it will be important to poll our memberships to see what needs there might be. Outside of that: I see opportunities for us to provide some programming on project management. Another thing I’ve been thinking about is perhaps something for dual-career couples. I know of many early-career folks who are in relationships with other entomologists, myself included, which has its own set of challenges. Again though, it all depends on what our members want to see.
With your involvement on the ECP Committee, what tips do you have for students and ECPs on how to get more involved within their ESA Section or Branch or the Society overall? What can they do to get the most out of ESA as an organization?
My advice is to reach out to your Branch to see what opportunities might be available! Many opportunities have a surprisingly small applicant pool. You need to be your own best advocate. Keeping an eye on the newsletters can be helpful, too. If you are not selected for an opportunity, keep trying!
When you’re not busy conducting biological control experiments in the lab or field, what are some ways you like to spend your time winding down from a busy workday or week?
I enjoy running, hiking, and spending time with my husband and pets. We live on the coast now, and we’ve been really enjoying exploring all the natural areas near us! I also keep about 120 tarantulas and some snakes.
Thank you for taking the time to talk with us about your experiences, Nicole! If you want to connect with Nicole and learn more about her work, you can find her on Google Scholar, ResearchGate, Twitter, Mastodon, and her personal website.
Karen Poh, Ph.D., is a research entomologist at the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Medical, Urban, and Veterinary Entomology Section Representative on the ESA Early Career Professionals Committee. Twitter: @areyoukeddingme. Email: email@example.com.
All photos courtesy of Nicole Quinn, Ph.D.