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How One Urban Entomologist Persisted Through Pandemic Challenges

Sang-Bin Lee, Ph.D., squats in front of metal shelving to lift open the cover and examine a termite colony in a large plexiglass container on the floor in front of the shelves.

Sang-Bin Lee, Ph.D., checks carton materials in a laboratory colony of the Formosan subterranean termite (Coptotermes formosanus).

By Nicole Quinn, 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.

Portrait photo of Sang-Bin Lee, Ph.D.

Sang-Bin Lee, Ph.D.

Sang-Bin Lee, Ph.D., is a postdoctoral scientist at the University of Florida (UF) Fort Lauderdale Research and Education Center. He studies the behavior and ecology of one of the most important invasive termite pests in the world, the Formosan subterranean termite (Coptotermes formosanus). In 2020, Lee completed his Ph.D. in entomology and nematology at UF. Prior to that, he completed his M.S. in ecology and B.S. in biological sciences at Pusan National University, in Busan, South Korea. Lee is active in regional and national entomological and behavioral societies and has been the recipient of several fellowships, awards, and grants.

During his Ph.D., Lee investigated foraging behavior, age polyethism, and task allocation of the Formosan subterranean termite using various approaches to find out why only a certain proportion of workers forage in the colony. After completion of his Ph.D., Lee expanded his research area to pest management to improve termite baiting and continues to study the behavioral ecology of key pest termites. He has been active within ESA, including serving on its Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Committee and organizing the Korean Young Entomologists meeting since 2018. Also, Lee has been actively participating in advisory boards to protect wooden historical properties that are vulnerable to termite infestation.

Quinn: How did you first become interested in entomology? Describe your journey to where you are now.

Lee: I started my career as a behavioral ecologist and studied the locomotory behavior of fish. I was interested in how pathogen infections alter fish behavior and aimed to develop an automatic system to identify infected fish using movement trajectories. My goal was to apply this system in fishery farms. Although this was a science-fiction-like hypothesis, I discovered that the movement behavior of fish changed a few days before visible symptoms appeared. One day, I accidentally placed an infected fish in a tank and observed other healthy fish trying to avoid it. From that moment on, I became interested in social behaviors, and my previous advisor suggested that I study social insects.

I searched “social insects” on Google and found four major insect groups: ants, bees, wasps (Hymenoptera), and termites (Blattodea). Since I was afraid of stings, bees and wasps were out of my list. I was more interested in termites than ants because I thought that if I studied termites I could do both fundamental biology and applied research to help people, as some termites are notorious pests.

However, since there were no termite experts in Korea, I decided to pursue a Ph.D. degree program in the U.S. The University of Florida has an urban entomology specialized program where six eminent entomologists study termites using various approaches. I applied and joined the team. I obtained my Ph.D. degree in 2020, in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic, and my interest in termites is still ongoing.

Closeup of about a dozen termites on a purple fabric surface. All termites are light creamy beige in color, some semi-translucent. Most are workers, uniform in color. Two termites near the center are soldiers, with heads that are darker honey brown in color with two black pincers extending foward.

Sang-Bin Lee, Ph.D., a postdoctoral scientist at the University of Florida Fort Lauderdale Research and Education Center, studies the behavior and ecology of one of the most important invasive termite pests in the world, the Formosan subterranean termite (Coptotermes formosanus). (Photo by Scott Bauer, USDA Agricultural Research Service,

As an international student, what was it like to come to the U.S. for graduate school?

It was a significant transition that I had never experienced before. Everything was new to me, and I had to adapt to a completely different system in the U.S., from A to Z. At that time, I felt like a newborn baby. Of course, the first and most significant obstacle was speaking, writing, and listening to English. Before coming to the U.S., I had practiced English a lot. However, I had never heard or learned many idioms, and it made me lose my confidence in daily conversations. Luckily, my fellow students were generous enough to explain the meanings and speak more slowly for me, which helped me get used to having a conversation.

Besides the language barrier, attending a degree program in the U.S. was very rewarding. As I explained, I didn’t have much knowledge of insects. However, coursework at the University of Florida led me to learn from basic entomology to applied aspects such as pest management. Many assignments were a sort of nightmare when I was taking courses. But it forced me to study not only insects that I’m interested in but also different subject matters such as taxonomy and physiology, which an entomologist should know.

Also, I enjoyed the program in the U.S., which involved regular committee meetings to discuss my progress and research questions. Having a proposal, taking a qualifying exam, and having numerous discussions with the committee were a bit stressful at times, but I felt my committee members were actually taking care of me. This was very supportive during my Ph.D. program!

Much of your work has centered on urban pests, specifically termites. What do you like about them?

Termites are fascinating insects. But people in the rest of world hate them despite the fact that I like termites so much. This is because of simple reasons that termites can infest wooden buildings such as your lovely house, which might be the most expensive investment that you are going to make or you have made.

I’m studying foraging behaviors of the Formosan subterranean termite (FST), which is perhaps the most hated termite in the world. The FST is a notorious invasive pest and has invaded many southern states such as Florida and Louisiana. With climate change, they are moving north and causing enormous damage in urban areas. Seeing a few roaches in your house may not be a big deal, but finding termites in your home is an entirely different story, even though they are closely related. A lot of effort has been put into controlling FSTs because they have caused so many problems since their introduction.

Imagine 99.9 percent of people in the world hate you. That’s FST. But if you look at them very closely with love, you can find the beauty of termites. As a social insect, they help each other to survive. Workers bring food to feed colony members, and soldiers sacrifice their lives to protect their family. Isn’t it amazing?

To me, their foraging behaviors are particularly fascinating. In a termite colony, workers excavate underground tunnels to find and transport food to the nest. I wish they could see to go straight to food, but they are completely blind. When termites excavate tunnels, they don’t know where the food is. What they do is just pick up soil particles and deposit them until they discover food. It may sound very anthropomorphic, but I feel this cannot be done without love.

You completed your Ph.D. in December 2020. How did COVID-19 impact the completion of your degree and subsequent postdoctoral position?

It was tough to go through the COVID era. But I was able to graduate due to the lockdown and self-quarantine during COVID. When COVID cases spiked in Florida, I had close contact with a confirmed case so that I had to be isolated for 14 days. At the beginning, I loved to be isolated in my room, watching Netflix and playing PlayStation 4 all day. After finishing the entire series of Game of Thrones, I realized I had 10 more days to go. So, I decided to be productive a little bit by reading papers, summarizing data that I have collected for the past three years, and analyzing those collected data.

After the first self-quarantine, I had another close contact with a fellow student, who was confirmed after PCR test. The second incident happened after only a week from the first isolation. (My first reaction: Seriously?) Because COVID-19 cases were skyrocketing in March 2020, I had to have the second self-quarantine. During the second isolation, I thought I may have a few more quarantines in the future and it would be good if I can write a chapter of my dissertation in each quarantine. So, I wrote the introduction in the second quarantine. Luckily, I didn’t have another isolation after that, but because I had started the writing process, I was able to continue writing the dissertation. So, I would say if COVID-19 didn’t come to my life, I might have ended up graduating in 2022.

Doing postdoc during the COVID-19 was not much fun, though. All conferences that I wanted to attend either got cancelled or had virtual meetings, which I personally do not prefer. I’m an extrovert so I’m usually inspired and motivated by attending and listening to presentations in conferences including ESA meetings. Since I like to participate in the extension program, I had a hard time finding opportunities to be involved in 2021.

What accomplishment are you proudest of?

Three men pose in a hallway of an academic building. Sang-Bin Lee, Ph.D., in the middle, holds a plaque (gold lettering on a black plate on a dark wood frame) from the Entomological Society of America. On the walls on both sides of the hallway are scientific papers and posters pinned to bulletin boards.

Sang-Bin Lee, Ph.D. (center) was awarded the the Shripat Kamble Urban Entomology Graduate Student Award for Innovative Research from the ESA Medical, Urban, and Veterinary Entomology Section in 2020 for his Ph.D research project. Here, he poses with the award with colleagues Thomas Chouvenc, Ph.D. (left), and Nan-Yao Su, Ph.D. (right).

The proudest accomplishment in my career was being awarded the Shripat Kamble Urban Entomology Graduate Student Award for Innovative Research from the ESA Medical, Urban, and Veterinary Entomology Section for my Ph.D research project. The project was quite challenging as I was trying to answer why only 10–20 percent of termites perform foraging in the colony of Formosan subterranean termites.

Because biology of subterranean termites is so cryptic, there were many technical difficulties in my project to observe termite behavior over the long term. I had many different hypotheses that might explain such behaviors, but most of them did not work out well. After two years of failure, I had concerns about continuous failure to find factors to explain the behavior, and this made me get nervous as time went on. I seriously considered whether I would be able to graduate or not. I was slowly losing my confidence and started questioning my skill and talent as a scientist. At that time, I applied to the Shripat Kamble award without any expectation. But it turned out that that my application had been chosen and, more surprisingly, a few days later, I found that termites which possess sharper mandibles take on foraging tasks in a colony of FST.

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

One thing I have learned is the importance of public outreach and extension programs during my career. Therefore, I encourage entomologists to participate in more public outreach events and extension programs to provide the most up-to-date information to people who need it.

In particular, when it comes to urban entomology, such as structural pests, I have recently noticed that there is a lot of information on do-it-yourself pest management, which perhaps could provide cheap and easy solutions. However, many of these methods are not scientifically sound, and they can sometimes make situations worse. By getting involved in public outreach and extension programs, we will undoubtedly be able to create a better future.

What advice would you give graduate students and early-career professionals (ECPs)?

I would advise other ECPs and graduate students to find balance between your work and life. Going through this career path, I have faced and am still facing so many uncertainties, such as funding opportunities, experiments, graduations, job searching, etc. I know this is very stressful. But finding balance will help you think positively and improve your mental health.

Doing experiments and reading papers during the day—once you get out of your office, do something else that you like, like going to the gym, having some nice food, talking to your friends, and so on. I used to get good ideas while grilling Korean barbecue.

Outside of research, what do you like to do?

I like to try all different types of food from all around the world, which is a great advantage living in the U.S. I also like to cook, so I’m either tasting or making food when I’m not looking at insects. Also, I occasionally visit national parks with my wife for hiking when I need a refresh. In the U.S., I found so many attractive national parks and we would like to check out all the U.S. national parks in 10 years.

Nicole Quinn, Ph.D., is an assistant professor of entomology and nematology at the University of Florida’s Indian River Research and Education Center in Fort Pierce, Florida, and is vice chair of the ESA Early-Career Professional (ECP) Committee as well as ECP representative on the ESA Plant-Insect Ecosystems Section Governing Council. Email:

All photos courtesy of Sang-Bin Lee, Ph.D., unless otherwise noted.

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