How an Entomologist Raised in the City Found Her Path in Agricultural Pest Management
By Manpreet Kohli, 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.
Pin-Chu Lai, Ph.D., is a postdoctoral associate in the vegetable entomology lab at Cornell University. Native to Taiwan, Lai earned a B.S. (2013) in entomology at Taiwan National University and obtained an M.S. (2015) and Ph.D. (2021) in entomology at the University of Georgia. Lai’s research in applied insect ecology has focused on pest management in crops and vector-borne plant diseases. In January 2024, Lai will start as an assistant professor in the Crops IPM Entomology research and extension program at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, located at the Panhandle Research, Extension, and Education Center in Scottsbluff, Nebraska. At Entomology 2023 in November, Lai is co-organizing a Member Symposium titled “Extension in All Shapes and Sizes: The Present and Future of Extension Programs.”
Kohli: Did you always want to be an entomologist?
Lai: I always thought I had a very different journey of becoming an entomologist. The short answer to the question is “not really.” In fact, I was scared of bugs and animals for most of my childhood. Growing up in Taipei city, the capital of Taiwan, I was surrounded by fast-moving pop culture in a huge urban city and did not get to explore nature much. However, biology has always been my favorite subject in school. I enjoyed learning about what a living cell is made of and was amazed by how powerful genes are to create all kinds of different plants and animals.
When applying for undergrad, I filled out applications with all different biological science majors, and basically entomology chose me afterward. At the beginning, I was hesitant about entomology as a major in college, but I gave it a try anyway due to my curious nature. It did not take long for me to fall in love with the insect world. I was amazed by the quantity and diversity of insect species and the many important roles they play in human society.
Things got even better when I was introduced to doing research with insect pests in agriculture in my junior year. I had such a good time learning about insect vectors of plant pathogens and testing new materials with potentials to control whiteflies on high-value crops. Two months after I started working in the lab, I decided I wanted to go to graduate school to do more research on insects. And here I am, with the most entomology degrees one can ever have—B.S., M.S., Ph.D.!
What is the main goal of your current research?
I am currently doing research in the Vegetable IPM Lab under the supervision of Dr. Brian Nault at Cornell. I have worked on four insect pest species in three different vegetable crops since I joined the program, and I love the diversity of research I do here. My current project is on Colorado potato beetle (Leptinotarsa decemlineata) and corn wireworm (Melanotus communis) management in potatoes. We are exploring the use of native strains of three entomopathogenic nematode species (Steinernema carpocapsae, S. feltiae, and Heterorhabditis bacteriophora) as biocontrol agents. Specifically, we are interested in the long-term establishment of native nematodes in targeting the soil-dwelling stage of Colorado potato beetle and corn wireworm.
As an early-career professional, what is your long-term career goal, and how has it shifted (if at all) since graduating?
Ideally, my long-term career goal is to land in a position as a principal investigator where I can keep doing applied ecology research on agricultural pests to advance pest management in crop production. As I have gained more experience in extension with my current position, I am also considering a career in extension. My curiosity and excitement to learn new things allow me to be very flexible in searching for job opportunities. However, at the same time it is also a problem that my interests are so broad, and I do not have a clear picture of what exactly I want to do for my lifetime.
Since graduation, I was first determined to pursue an academic career. As everyone knows, there are way less positions out there for all Ph.D.s to compete for. Therefore, I started to broaden my search, looking at jobs like extension educators and research-and-development positions in industry while applying to academic positions at the same time. I tried to be super open to all kinds of possibilities and explored career options in academia, extension, government, and industry by talking to entomologists with different career paths.
Very recently, all the hard work has eventually paid off, as I luckily settled on a research and extension position as a crops IPM entomologist with the Department of Entomology at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln starting in January 2024. I am so grateful that my next position aligns with my career goals pretty well. Job searching as an ECP is super stressful. As a good friend once said to me while I was searching for jobs, “Your time will come, so be prepared to grab it when it shows up.” Shout-out to all ECPs out there who are searching for jobs and figuring out career paths. You are certainly not alone, and good luck to all of you.
Have you experienced any limitations as an international researcher in the United States?
If there were any limitations for international researchers in the U.S., it always has to do with our visa status. I think all international researchers would agree with me on this. I am very grateful for having the opportunity to pursue higher education here and even dream about having a career as a researcher in the U.S., but I always must be very careful and try to get on top of my visa situation. It is just one of the many things that we have to worry about other than research as international fellows.
There are rules around how many years we can stay in the U.S. to work in our profession after receiving degrees, and there are different types of visas with different purposes and rules. Additionally, government jobs and some research grant opportunities funded by the U.S. government agencies are not available for us without U.S. citizenship.
If you could go back in time and change something, what would it be and why?
If I could go back in time, I would tell myself to think about what I want for my life in a bigger picture and make plans accordingly while still in graduate school. Life is short, and time flies so fast, especially after school years. I wish I had started exploring different possible career paths and learning more about them earlier in graduate school. During that time, I was too focused on only research and missed out on a lot of opportunities to better prepare myself for the world.
I wish I could have pushed myself to meet more people and find multiple mentors to guide me in my career and life. I wish I could have pushed myself harder to learn as much as possible while still in school, whether through a certificate on certain skills or an introductory class on a totally new subject. As a suggestion for current graduate students, there are so many resources that graduate school can offer, so take as much as you can from it when you still have the chance.
If you could be any arthropod, which would you pick and why?
I think being a dragonfly would be really cool. They are strong predators. Also, they get to live in the water in their childhood and fly in the sky so fast when they grow up. That sounds like a very good life to me!
Manpreet Kohli, Ph.D., is an assistant professor in the Department of Natural Sciences at Baruch College, City University of New York, and is the Eastern Branch Representative of the ESA Early Career Professionals Committee. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.
All photos courtesy of Pin-Chu Lai, Ph.D.