Finding Pheromones: How One Entomologist Puts Discoveries to Work in Pest Management
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.
Jacqueline Serrano, Ph.D., is a research entomologist at the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Agricultural Research Service (USDA-ARS) in the Temperate Tree Fruit and Vegetable Research Unit, in Wapato, Washington. She earned her B.S. in biology (2012) and Ph.D. in entomology (2019) at the University of California, Riverside. She first joined USDA-ARS as a postdoctoral research associate before moving into her current role.
At the Entomological Society of America, Serrano currently serves as the Pacific Branch representative to the ESA Early Career Professionals Committee and previously served as the Plant-Insect Ecosystems Section representative to the ESA Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Committee. She has also served as program chair for the two previous Pacific Branch Meetings and earned the John Henry Comstock Award from the Pacific Branch in 2020.
Sandall: Can tell us more about your job in entomology?
Serrano: In my role with USDA-ARS, I work on the chemical ecology of tree fruit pests and beneficial insects, as well as click beetle chemical ecology that can be used for wireworm management. I have also been involved with the Washington State Department of Agriculture in developing methods to stop the spread—and hopefully eradicate—the invasive northern giant hornet (Vespa mandarinia).
I grew up in southern California, not far from Los Angeles, and I was the first in my family to attend and graduate from college. I went to UC Riverside for both undergraduate and graduate school. While I was an undergraduate, I developed strong interests in both organic chemistry and entomology and was actually introduced to my future Ph.D. advisor by current ESA Vice President Jennifer Henke. My dissertation research focused on the chemical ecology of click beetles (Coleoptera: Elateridae), and I was able to publish the first conclusive pheromone identifications for elaterid species from North America and for the entire family of false click beetles.
How have your research and interests in entomology evolved over time?
My interests have not really changed, to be honest. My research has gone from general insect chemical ecology, where I worked on a wide variety of systems including longhorned beetles and click beetles, to more applied chemical ecology. My main stakeholders are growers in Washington state, and now my research is focused on finding ways to use chemical ecology to aid pest management in tree fruit and potato systems. This can be anything from identifying pheromones or attractants for pests to understanding how plant pathogens can alter the volatiles of a plant to recruit insect vectors.
What are some of the best parts of your job? And what is something that may surprise us about your job?
The best parts are that I still get to make new discoveries. I always get so energized when I identify a new pheromone or when I can use chemistry to explain insect behaviors. Now that my research is more applied, I can also feel good that what I am doing is going to have an impact on growers and our ability to have food. I also enjoy how collaborative my field of research is, because it allows the research to have even more of an impact.
Something that may surprise you is that, although there is a lot of literature about integrated pest management (IPM) in temperate tree fruit systems, I think that there is still a lot to do. Whether it is invasive insects or resurging plant pathogens, there is something for everyone.
Why does entomology excite you?
There is just so much to learn about insects—and from them! I am truly fascinated by insect behavior and how diverse their behaviors are, within related taxa, even. I am also amazed that these small organisms can accomplish so many different things with tiny brains and bodies. It is truly fascinating that these complex little creatures have been around doing their thing for millennia.
Tell us more about your other activities outside of your job.
Outside of work, I love spending time with my partner and our pets and learning new skills, whether it is cooking or trade skills. When it is baseball season, I like going to games or watching the Dodgers on television. I also enjoy going to trivia and checking out all the local breweries in the Yakima Valley where I live; it is actually where most of the nation’s hops are grown. I also enjoy traveling, being outdoors, gardening, skiing, and gaming.
Do you have any advice for early-career professionals (ECPs) in entomology?
Quite a bit, actually. Mainly I would advise other ECPs (and graduate students) to be patient with yourself and try not to compare yourself to others. Everyone’s journey during and after graduate school is different, and it’s not fair to put unrealistic expectations on yourself. I would also advise folks to try to develop a solid support network, whether it’s loved ones, fellow graduate students and postdocs, other colleagues, etc. Moving around for school and jobs can be difficult and isolating, and I think it is important to have a solid group of people you can depend on for support through your journey. Last, if you are looking to get involved in a professional society, do not be scared to reach out. I have met some amazing people by becoming involved in ESA.
Finally, if you could be any arthropod, which would you pick and why?
I think I am going to go with the periodical cicada Magicicada septendecim, sometimes called the pharaoh cicada, because they live their lives mostly unbothered in the ground as juveniles and only have to deal with adulthood for a short part of their lives.
Thanks Jackie! If you want to learn more about Jackie or her work, you can find her on Google Scholar, ResearchGate, LinkedIn, and Twitter.
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.
All photos courtesy of Jacqueline Serrano, Ph.D.
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