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How One Entomologist Found Work-Life Balance in an Industry Career

A woman with long brown hair wearing a green t-shirt sits on a stone ledge in a garden and looks at a black butterfly that is perched on the fingers of her right hand, held out in front of her.

Entomologist Alix Whitener, Ph.D., U.S. field development manager at FMC Corporation, says she was drawn to science from an early age: “My parents both were in the Forest Service before I was born, so we spent a lot of time out in the forest and on public lands by the time I showed up. When I was little, I loved anything outside—and luckily a lot of insects are outside, so I was forever entertained.” Here, Whitener visits with a butterfly at a butterfly house in Phoenix, Arizona. (Photo courtesy of Alix Whitener, Ph.D.)

By Jacqueline Serrano, 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.

Alix Whitener, Ph.D., is the U.S. field development manager at FMC Corporation. She earned her B.S. in biology and anthropology with a minor in women’s studies at Western Washington University, where she was also a coxswain on WWU’s NCAA Division II rowing team. After working as a seasonal technician in a tree fruit entomology lab, she joined Washington State University and conducted her Ph.D. research at the Tree Fruit Research & Extension Center in her hometown, Wenatchee, Washington. After completing her Ph.D., she began her first role at FMC as a technical services manager covering Washington and Oregon specialty crops. After four years at FMC, she recently accepted the role as manager of the field development team.

Whitener has served in numerous roles at the Entomological Society of America as a student and an early career professional. Most recently, she became games master for ESA’s Entomology Games and completed a term as president of the ESA Pacific Branch. She enjoys mentoring students in entomology and weed science who are interested in industry careers. In her spare time, she enjoys trail running ridiculous distances, skiing as much of the year as possible, and spending time with her family outdoors. She also serves on the board of directors of Wenatchee Valley TREAD and her local gym, CrossFit Covey.

Serrano: Tell us a little bit about yourself and how you became interested in entomology.

Whitener: My parents both were in the Forest Service before I was born, so we spent a lot of time out in the forest and on public lands by the time I showed up. When I was little, I loved anything outside—and luckily a lot of insects are outside, so I was forever entertained. I also grew up showing livestock in 4-H and helping my parents with growing vegetables and fruit on a small hobby farm, so I was exposed to agriculture early on, too.

I never really thought of an insect- or agriculture-related career when I was growing up, but I loved science in general and was initially interested in a medical career, such as a medical examiner, veterinarian, or healthcare provider. After working part time as a field technician and part time as a Certified Nursing Assistant, I quickly learned that I enjoyed field work much more than clinical work. I applied to graduate school instead of nursing school, and everything took off from there.

You ultimately chose to pursue a career within industry. What led you to make this choice?

Time and money, to be blunt. I noticed I was struggling with work-life balance as a graduate student—and I saw a lot of people seem to be unable to leave work at work in academia. I actually had someone tell me, “Oh you think you’re stressed now? Just wait until you join the real world and get a job.” First of all, being a graduate research assistant is a job. Second, it takes time to map out your work-personal-life boundaries and learn how to enforce them professionally. I didn’t do well with balancing my personal activities with my studies, and I started to notice that folks in my industry network seemed to have a great balance between work and play.

I wanted to find a career that allowed me to work hard when I was on the clock and truly disconnect when my work day ended. During the field season, there are certainly times where disconnecting is difficult—the crops don’t know what a weekend is—but I’m grateful to have a work culture that encourages a healthy balance to prevent burnout and prioritize sustainability. I’m not saying this culture isn’t available outside industry, but it’s been a great fit for me. I’ve also really enjoyed being a part of a company whose personnel are dedicated to researching and producing facets of solutions to contribute to food security.

A woman in jeans, a gray polo, a gray ballcap, and brown cowboy boots stands near a brown grassy field on a sunny day, holding a white electronic control device with a tablet screen, while in front of her at waist level hovers a white drone with four helicopter-style rotors on top and a camera below.

In her role as U.S. field development manager at FMC Corporation, and previously a technical services manager, entomologist Alix Whitener, Ph.D., regularly visits field sites. Here, she flies a drone over demonstration plots of pinto beans near Othello, Washington, where she and colleagues were testing one of FMC’s biological products. (Photo courtesy of Alix Whitener, Ph.D.)

Describe your current role within FMC, and what do you enjoy most about your position?

I want to describe both positions I’ve held, because I think they’re both really fun and engaging roles—one I know really well because I spent four years doing it, and the other is new to me as I’m only four months in!

My first role at FMC was a territory manager in tech service. I know it makes me sound like I was in I.T. or something, but I like to describe it as the industry version of cooperative extension. Imagine you have a split appointment between research and extension, where the research is managing efficacy trials of insecticides, herbicides, fungicides, and biologicals in partnership with land grant institutions and private researchers, and the extension portion is supporting the sales team and their customers with all the biology, physiology, toxicology, crop safety, efficacy, pest spectrum, and label interpretation. I also wrote new labels and worked with marketing and product managers to advocate for specialty crops in my territory—everyone wants to register products in corn and soy—but quinoa, hops, and cranberries need an advocate.

My new role as field development manager is more about team and project management and trying to advocate for people to make their jobs easier. Technical service works with registered compounds that are already labeled or eligible for label expansion, while field development is about novel chemistry that’s new to the market and finding the agronomic fit for that product, which makes it particularly exciting because the agriculture industry is losing access to chemistry faster than new chemistry makes it down the discovery pipeline.

I think of tech service as immediate satisfaction, like running a 5K, while field development involves ultramarathons, sometimes a 50K, sometimes a 200-miler. Both positions require knowledge about pesticide registration and regulations, skills in field research and data analysis, public speaking and presentation skills, relationship and communication capabilities, and a solid network of growers, crop consultants, researchers, and internal and external peers.

What I like most about each position is the independence and the people. In tech service, I loved having the flexibility to manage my own territory and the research that took place in that geography like my own small business, and I worked with a receptive and technical sales team that appreciated my value to their team and would bring me the most creative and fun ideas for research. In my current role, I work with field development researchers and product development managers (among many others) who are dependable, highly knowledgeable, and always eager to help each other. The same job could be a completely different story if the people weren’t in it for the teamwork.

FMC is one of the larger agricultural science companies within the United States. What are some advantages that come with working for such a large company?

I have no experience working for a small company, so I can’t speculate too much in comparison, but there are some aspects of FMC’s size that have made my experience positive. Having a large network of people to spread the volume of labor throughout is a plus. It helps to not be spread too thin as an individual.

When I was in tech service, covering Washington and Oregon, both of which have mountain passes and total over 150,000 square miles, I was covering a large territory, and there were others with even larger territories but where perhaps the agriculture was more concentrated in certain areas. When you have more employees, you’re able to serve the territories more efficiently. You also have a larger knowledge pool to draw from—entomologists, weed scientists, chemists, plant pathologists, soil scientists, crop physiologists—it’s great to have folks to learn from!

There are also other advantages in being at a large company (not necessarily just FMC) that have to do with the logistics of administration: Sometimes policy gets a bad connotation, but other times having travel policies, budget policies, fleet vehicle policies, etc., can make being an employee much easier than having to source these amenities locally.

Do you have any advice for those who are interested in pursuing a career within industry?

One of the most valuable experiences I had before getting my first role in industry was applying for and being awarded the Larry Larson Graduate Student Award for Leadership in Applied Entomology. Not only was I recognized for my work as a graduate student, but I had the opportunity to go to Dow (now Corteva) Agrisciences’ headquarters and meet about three dozen people, all who had different roles within an agriculture-based corporation.

I met lawyers, marketing specialists, farm managers, regulatory specialists, technical service managers, field development scientists, managers, sales personnel, sales team managers, the R&D Leader—you name a role, I probably met someone with that role. It was eye-opening because, at the time, I thought my only option was “entomologist.” My advice is to network and learn about all the different career options in industry. Not only will you have a better idea of what you might like to do, but you’ll have a better idea of the inner workings of a company and be able to leverage your resources better in whatever role you land.

Apply for awards and jobs, even if you don’t think you are qualified—you’re more qualified for things than you think you are. Have a friend or someone who knows your work read through an award or job description with you. I think it helps beat back the imposter syndrome. [Editor’s note: Applications for the 2023 Larry Larson Graduate Student Award for Leadership in Applied Entomology and several other professional and student awards at ESA are open now, due June 1. Visit]

My other piece of advice is to learn a skill set like an art portfolio—lab bench skills, field research skills, agronomic skills, data management and analytical skills—and build a portfolio demonstrating examples of those skills in action. Recently I became a hiring manager for field development—a role where agronomic skills like planting, making pesticide applications, identifying pests, and harvesting are highly important—and it was clear that these skills are being done more and more by farm managers rather than students. So, if you’re an agricultural entomologist and someone else plants your host crop for you, see if your farm manager will help teach you how to safely and expertly operate that equipment. Properly mixing and applying chemicals, fertilizer, and understanding adjuvants is another dying skill, along with calibrating equipment.

You are very involved with ESA. What inspired you to become so involved with the Society, and what has been your favorite experience thus far?

ESA involvement helped me expend my network, learn about industry careers, build a reputation for myself, and more. I love giving back to ESA and trying to provide a similar experience for other members interested in industry and ESA involvement. Part of it is just plain fun, but part of it is strategic career and professional development.

Learning how to do science and going through the process of managing your own research is a highly important part of earning an advanced degree, but I think equally important are what we call “soft skills.” I hate calling them that because it makes them seem not as important or relevant to science, but they are truly what interview panels and employers are looking for. Science is teachable, but it’s much more difficult to teach someone who doesn’t have skills in communication, public speaking, humility, respect for others, relationship and network building, teamwork, negotiation, etc., how to embody those skills. Being a part of ESA and getting involved can help you learn and practice these skills.

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?

This is another pitch for networking; if there’s a role you think would be fun or good for your professional development, reach out to the person who is currently doing that thing. Want to be games master at ESA? Come talk to me! It’s a great opportunity to network, get your name known, show off your skills in pronouncing chemical names and genus and species names, and to meet students.

In my current role, I need to keep an eye out for new talent interested in industry jobs. When I have an open position to fill, I want to have a few people to call and see if they’d be a good fit. Networking is a two-way street, for the potential applicant and the hiring manager. ESA’s website has roster information complete with emails; if there’s a role out there you want to know more about, check the roster and send an email. I know it can be intimidating to cold-email someone, but when I get those emails they make my day! I love helping demystify volunteer opportunities and helping connect people.

Learn about ESA and all it has to offer. It is more than just a few conferences every year. Publication opportunities, mentoring opportunities for both mentors and mentees, board certification, scholarships and awards, grants, skills instruction, science policy fellowships, Section tours—there are so many different facets to ESA!

What do you do to wind down and relax from the everyday grind?

I’m a skier, trail runner, and a CrossFitter, so that usually eats up my free time. I love how my busy season is summer, so I make the most of winter by skiing and the fall by trail running and backpacking when the mosquitoes are gone. I do love taking my non-entomology friends on hikes and trail runs to show them all the cool insects I can find along the way. Usually their reaction is, “How did you see that tiny bug while running so fast?”

I also try to CrossFit and lift weights a few times a week, even when I’m traveling for work. Blowing off steam by lifting heavy things and suffering through CrossFit workouts with a bunch of other people helps me regulate my nervous system though the stress of field season. If I can get through burpees and pullups, I can do anything!

Last question: If you could be any arthropod, what would you pick and why?

I love mantids. They’re so alienlike and make the sci-fi nerd in me so happy. Their behaviour is fascinating, and their eyes make them look so intelligent—they never seem to back down from a fight—so I’d be a mantid!

Thank you, Alix! If you want to learn more about Alix, you can find her on Instagram @trailrunningentomologist.

Jacqueline Serrano, Ph.D., is a research entomologist at the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Agricultural Research Service in the Temperate Tree Fruit and Vegetable Research Unit, in Wapato, Washington, and Pacific Branch Representative to the ESA Early Career Professionals Committee. Email:

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