Alumni Profiles

Dan Lawson

Dan LawsonDan Lawson is the recipient of our department’s first Distinguished Alumni Award and will accept his award and present a seminar on campus Oct. 24, 2016.

How did your studies at MSU influence your career? After completing my master’s degree in MSU’s Fisheries and Wildlife Department, I took a year off and worked for entomology professor Rich Merritt as a technician on a new project. Soon I decided to pursue a PhD in aquatic entomology in the Merritt Lab. However, entomology clicked even earlier for me. I took a general entomology course taught by Roland Fisher as an undergrad. He was an outstanding instructor and I got hooked. Great teachers are so important!

After completing my PhD, I was fixed on the idea of a tenure-track position, but aquatic positions were difficult to obtain. I was on soft money for years at MSU while working at the Kellogg Biological Station. Keith Kennedy, a one-time MSU Entomology professor, was at the SC Johnson & Son company in Wisconsin and encouraged me to take a visit. I was impressed with their marvelous facilities, view of environmental sustainability and the support they provided for projects. In the end, I worked for SC Johnson for over 20 years and had a great time there. My first assignment was to bring the insect-rearing facility up-to-date with procedures such as documenting good laboratory practices (GLP) for the company’s insect control products. Within a few years I became a product development manager supporting mosquito control products, like Off! and Raid, within the U.S. and overseas. In many parts of the world, they don’t use window screens, so they have different indoor pest control problems compared to the U.S. The global travel for that job was a great experience. I remember standing on the Great Wall of China with Keith Kennedy and looking at each other and saying, “Did you ever think back in the days when we were at MSU that we’d be here some day?”

More recently, I was involved with international regulatory issues and, towards the end of my career, working with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation on helping to mitigate malaria in economically challenging areas around the world. SC Johnson is excellent in evaluating the consumer’s needs, wishes and every-day challenges before developing a new product. The Gates Foundation recognized that expertise and we became their collaborators for some of their efforts in this fight against malaria.

How did entomology contribute to your career? MSU’s Entomology program positioned me so I could excel at anything I wanted to do. MSU has a multidisciplinary approach to research. You learn to work in teams, which is incredibly important anywhere you might work. Team work is how you accomplish great things. My experience included system science, working with different departments and broad interactions with various disciplines.

Another important skill emphasized at MSU was basic communication and learning how to effectively deliver your scientific message to a wide audience. Students were pressed to have tight, focused presentations—delivering content that is understandable, fostering a communication style that works within an interdisciplinary setting. I may not know engineering or computer science like I do entomology, but I do understand interdisciplinary aspects that allow me to communicate to those groups. If you cannot communicate and get your points over to a diverse crowd, you are doomed in any field one might chose to pursue.

Best memories as an entomology student? So much fun, the camaraderie between faculty and students was just great.

How has your work impacted people’s lives? You’re always hopeful your work has impact. Although I am retired, the Gates Foundation work with malaria continues and I believe is poised for great impact. So many people die of malaria. I also appreciate the work I did with others in SC Johnson product development. I hope we made the lives of those using our products better.

Thoughts for current students? Take course work outside of your core scientific area. The multidisciplinary aspect really helped me in my long-term career. I started at MSU in computer science with a heavy dose of mathematics but longed for an application. Looking around, I saw fisheries biology as a better fit for me as the curriculum gave me room to expand my interests. Then, in my master’s studies I delved more into benthic invertebrates (lake sediment dwellers). My doctoral studies moved into stream ecology and my post-doc work combined aquatic entomology with microbiology. Every time I took a step in my career, I changed focus a bit to delve into a new area. While that might be uncomfortable to some, by staying too much in your comfort zone, I’ve found you don’t learn nearly as much. Taking a broad curriculum rounded me out as a student and made me a better scientist.

I’m looking forward to being on campus and interacting with the department in October. Pleased to have this opportunity!

David Epstein

Dave EpsteinWhen did you arrive at MSU? In 1999, I was hired to coordinate a three-year effort, the Michigan Apple IPM Implementation Project. In 2000, the second year of the project, I was hired as the MSU IPM Program Tree Fruit Integrator, with continuing coordination of the apple IPM project a primary responsibility. About four years into that position, I began my PhD studies with Larry Gut, graduating in 2010, meeting my goal of achieving my PhD before age 60.

What is your current job? I am the senior entomologist with the USDA Office of Pest Management Policy, starting this position in 2011. Our office heads up the strategic planning and activities related to pest management for the USDA. We are part of informing the pesticide regulatory process and we promote development of new pest management approaches needed by farmers and others to sustain U.S. agriculture. That means I work across the various agencies of the USDA and with the EPA on pesticide registration issues. I also act as a liaison between the research community, farmers and EPA to ensure that those voices are heard in the process. I work with universities, growers and others on a variety of pest management issues including invasive species, like spotted wing Drosophila and brown marmorated stinkbug. For example, a multi-state group of researchers, including MSU entomologists Rufus Isaacs and Matt Grieshop, have a grant investigating efficacious means of controlling spotted wing Drosophila. I organize discussions between EPA and stakeholders so that researchers and growers can address their pest management issues. If I read about a pest management issue in the paper, I’ll probably be working on it that day, literally. In recent years, I spend maybe 40-50 percent of my time on pollinator health issues.

I’ve also become involved with an educational campaign, the Food Narrative Project of the organization IPM Voice. Our goal is to educate the public about what farmers do and why they do it. I feel this conversation is absolutely critical as people know so little about how food is produced, or have never stepped on a farm, and that is a problem, in terms of developing policy and regulation in a political climate informed by the less-than-accurate information spread through social media.

Why did you choose entomology? Because insects are fascinating! I’ve had a lifelong interest in growing crops. I first studied plant and soil science at California State University-Chico, and while there, took an agricultural entomology class and was instantly hooked. The range of strategies used by insects to prosper and evolve, and the challenges in managing pest insects to produce food and fiber just fascinated me. I went on to Washington State University to earn my entomology masters, followed by a year of working in the WSU Honey Bee Biology & Genetics lab, where I also managed the University’s 200 bee colonies. Larry Gut was still working at WSU when I was there, and he recruited me to MSU to run the apple IPM project.

How did entomology contribute to what you do today? I was 48 years old and working full-time when I started my PhD, so I didn’t have the typical student experience. I worked in construction for 17 years between my first stint as an undergraduate and my return to academia at CSUC! Larry Olsen used to tell me I should just do what I needed to do to get my “union card,” which meant get my PhD. What I did love about doctoral research was brainstorming with my committee members. Designing experiments and evaluating what we learned, developing further testing, the whole process of experimental design. I also truly loved working on farms with growers and learning their challenges. It helped me see that what we did (IPM) was a small part of what they do, and I saw how it fit in with their larger challenge. The grower has to be an entomologist, plant pathologist, horticulturalist, labor contractor, business person and more. That is part of the knowledge I bring into discussions with EPA, what makes sense academically may not always apply in the real world of the farmer.

Any advice for current students? Get out to as many meetings and events as possible so you meet as many scientists as you possibly can. Develop broad networks that you can draw on for the rest of your career. My networks are extremely valuable now as I draw on expertise from across the country. I’m the sole entomologist for this office and have to be the voice for entomology of all crops across all states, and that’s impossible if you don’t have a network. For me, that has been absolutely essential.

How does your work impact people’s lives? The work we do here at OPMP is critical to making sure Americans maintain access to abundant, healthy and affordable food and fiber, that farmers have the tools and knowledge they need to manage pests, and that all is well-balanced with the needs to protect people, environmental resources and living organisms dependent on those resources. I had no idea when I started working at USDA that I would spend so much time on pollinator issues. I deal with all aspects of pollinator health, from nutrition to insect and disease pests, genetics, and the effects of pesticides at the interface with agriculture, as well as for public health, such as mosquito control. I have several projects looking at how farmers can mitigate potential harms to pollinators by increasing awareness and adjusting management practices. There are some real tough challenges, and you have to take into account the competing needs of everyone involved, the beekeepers, the farmers, the public and the policy and rule makers. I was deeply involved in developing the President’s pollinator strategy. I worked across 15 different agencies, each with a different perspective and knowledge. It’s not about what I think, I have to meld it all together. There are always tradeoffs and we have to be sure to address the needs of pollinator health while providing farmers with the tools they need to feed the nation.

It’s all fun in the end. If you are not having fun, go do something else. I’m in the right place at this point in my career. I’m utilizing all of the knowledge I have gained all along my journey from business owner to academic to public servant. Can’t wait to see what tomorrow brings.

Gloria DeGrandi-Hoffman

Gloria DeGrandi-HoffmanGloria DeGrandi-Hoffman is the research leader and center director for the USDA-ARS Carl Hayden Bee Research Center in Tucson, AZ. The Center conducts research to optimize honey bee colony health through improved nutrition to maximize production of honey bee-pollinated crops.

When did you graduate from MSU? I earned a PhD in Entomology in 1983 with Roger Hoopingarner as my lead professor.

How did MSU prepare you for your career’s success? MSU taught me how to be a mathematical modeler and look at things in a systems format. I worked with Roger to build the first interactive pollination and fruit-set model ever as part of my dissertation. Learning the tools of simulation modeling was extremely helpful. It’s a unique way of thinking, especially when studying apiculture and bees. It’s also an effective way to run research programs. Other influences were Jim Miller, who had a great impact on my thinking as a scientist and how you build a research program, Stuart Gage as a modeler himself and Frank Dennis in horticulture taught me a lot about apples.

Why did you choose entomology? I was one of those kids that played with bugs and knew I wanted to be an entomologist at a very young age. In elementary school, I caught an insect and tried unsuccessfully to look it up. I really wanted to identify it. My mom took me to Harrisburg, PA, to the state agriculture department. A very kind entomologist looked at the bug and identified it, and explained what he did in his job. I looked around the room and saw people working with bugs, and I realized ‘you could get a job doing that!’

At Penn State, my master’s project was with honey bees and pollination in birdsfoot trefoil. I also worked hourly in Zane Smilowitz’s lab. Dr. Smilowitz did research in biocontrol of plant pests and he was a modeler. His graduate student happened to be Mark Whalon. I would tell Zane that in my field plots, there would be different numbers of bees and plants each day, everything changing with time and I felt like the variation in the day-to-day was where the interesting information was. He told me to learn simulation modeling so I could capture how systems change with time. I was very excited about learning how to build simulation models, and that the best graduate program for that was at MSU. I applied to the MSU Entomology Department, and Mark Whalon, who was by then on the faculty, probably helped me a lot in getting accepted.

What are your best memories as an entomology student? Some of the best are of playing a lot of racquet ball with the guys in the Department. Jim Bath was department chair and he really knew how to build community and prepare grad students for careers. The Department is really dedicated to grad student education. Roger taught me a lot about bees and how to conduct yourself as a scientist. He still sends me papers and I continue to learn from him. Being out in the apiary and going through colonies with Roger were great times. I have so many memories; those were wonderful years.

Any advice for current students? Never stop learning, never stop taking chances and never be afraid to fail. If you have an idea, run forward with it. Never be discouraged. Let it continue to evolve and be true to it. It might be a good idea and the world just hasn’t caught up with it yet. Roger and I built the pollination model for apples and published it in the mid-80s. I always dreamed that Washington State, the country’s lead producer of apples, would be interested and adopt it. Models were on computer mainframes at that time and were not portable. We did some work with the model here in Arizona and Michigan, but the model and all the papers sat for almost 30 years. A few months ago I got a call from Washington State saying they have a Decision Aid System for apple growers and were looking for apple pollination and fruit set models. The only publications they found were the ones that were mine and Rogers’. I went to Washington State last week to work on updating the apple pollination model with their team. We talked exactly about what Roger and I talked about in grad school. Hold onto your great ideas!

My husband was in the MSU medical residency program while I was a grad student and we both had a terrific experience at MSU. We look back with great fondness and think what a wonderful University we were lucky enough to attend. I can’t say thank you enough for all that was done for us at MSU.

Jan Nyrop

Jan NyropJan Nyrop has been a senior associate dean in Cornell University’s College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. This summer, he is transitioning to director of the Cornell University Agricultural Experiment Station.

When did you graduate from MSU? I earned a master’s degree in entomology in 1979 and worked simultaneously on a master’s in systems engineering and a Ph.D. in entomology, both completed in 1982.

Why did you choose entomology? I choose entomology because insects fascinated me and I could do work that I felt would benefit society. I received a B.S. in wildlife ecology from the University of Maine. Gary Simmons was a professor there and became my mentor. He taught an introductory statistics course that got me interested in quantitative sciences. I took other math and modeling courses after that and it provided a framework for my entomology studies. Eventually, I ended up at MSU as did Gary Simmons. He guided me in both of my entomology degrees. Jeff Granett, also at Maine when I was an undergraduate, was another influence. Jeff and Gary pushed me academically and this encouragement was very influential. I felt especially fortunate that my committee at MSU included Dean Haynes, Stuart Gage and Tom Edens, all excellent mentors. I also had lots of discussions with Rich Merritt that were very meaningful.

How did entomology contribute to what you do today? I continue to do some research and teach a course on invasive species in a global world with Ann Hajek, so on one level I am still an entomologist. Now in my career I have other opportunities to grow intellectually that are less discipline oriented. I feel that my education at MSU really prepared me well, not just for a career in entomology, but for the type of college administration I do now. Entomology at MSU is very special because it is an interdisciplinary hub of biologists, economists, engineers and more. MSU Entomology really embraced a systems perspective. This provided me with a  paradigm for looking at issues and understanding the world that really helped as I moved from thinking and working on my research within a department structure to thinking about the whole college. Now I ask, how can programs across the college function as a system to positively impact peoples’ lives and how can we continue to evolve that system to improve what we do? My background at MSU taught me to think in a formal and structured way that has been very helpful.

Any advice for students? I chose to begin college with studying wildlife ecology because I pursued the things I liked. If I have a message for young people, that would be it. First and foremost, you need to  enjoy what you do, which I have. Obviously you also need to earn a living, but if you enjoy what you do, you will excel, and the financial gain will come. I’ve been very fortunate about that. I’ve not always been completely purposeful. I’ve been presented with opportunities that offered me different ways of making a contribution, so I’ve taken those opportunities.

Best memories as an entomology student?

I met my wife and got married while at MSU. We had a wonderful community of students who did things outside of work. It’s a unique time of your life when you are a grad student. You have an incredible freedom to pursue what it is you’re passionate about and you are unlikely to ever experience it again. My wife and I developed a passion for cycling and it remains – we just biked the Texas Hill country. Those years at MSU also included the 1979 basketball NCAA championship win. That was huge.

How does your work impact people’s lives? When I was working as an entomologist, my motivation was to improve crop protection and make it more sustainable. I was influenced by IPM (Integrated Pest Management) programs at MSU and their development. I approached my research from an engineering perspective. Here’s a problem, let’s research it and find a solution and make things better. I liked fundamental questions, but they were always influenced by how we could improve or better manage growing a crop. Then when I began to have opportunities with leadership roles, I was motivated by taking the particular unit – department, college, experiment station – and doing things that will benefit people on a lot of levels. How can we keep the organization as strong as it can be in resources, people and constituencies? If you firmly believe in the organization, you have to think about how to make it stronger, which is measured in many ways including scholarship, student education and direct societal impacts.

Kirsten Pelz-Stelinksi

Kirsten StelinskiKirsten Pelz-Stelinski is faculty at the University of Florida’s Citrus Research and Education Center in central Florida.

When did you graduate from MSU? I earned my masters with Rufus Isaacs and Larry Gut in 2004 and my doctorate with Mike Kaufman and Ned Walker in 2008.

Why did you choose entomology? You can do a lot of different types of science all within entomology, from the smallest molecular interactions to observing insect behavior. As a researcher, you can also manipulate your host more than in many other types of science.

What are your best memories as an entomology student? I can’t say enough about the Department - the people were fabulous, particularly my professors. I have great memories of field seasons travelling all over Michigan and interacting with growers and the staff at the research stations. George Ayers influences how I teach, he was a great teacher. Rich Merritt’s aquatic entomology and Jim Miller’s Nature and the Practice of Science were highlights.

What is your current appointment and work at the University of Florida? I’m an associate professor with a 15% teaching/85% research split. My program focuses on insect microbial ecology, particularly the microbiome of the Asian citrus psyllid (ACP), which transmits pathogen responsible for citrus greening disease. Currently, we are investigating the use of insect endosymbionts, such as Wolbachia, to reduce pathogen transmission by ACP.

What keeps you engaged in your work? I enjoy exploring nature from the smallest molecular scale up to the big scale to discover how and why something happens; for example, determining how a bacterium can manipulate an insect for its benefit. It is also fulfilling to work on something the growers urgently need. Our work on citrus greening has immediate direct impact for the 9 billion dollar citrus industry in Florida.

Any advice for current students? Make sure you have a broad understanding of biology, from ecology to the molecular basis of physiology. You never know when those skills will be helpful.

What is it like when a marriage includes two entomologists? Overall, it is really positive and we certainly enjoy sharing ideas with each other, although it can at times present challenges. You may be experiencing the same stresses but you are also uniquely positioned to understand what the other person is going through. That is very valuable.

Last comments? Having a breadth of knowledge has been really important for me. I didn’t intend to do applied science but delved into that with my masters’ study. I focused on insect vectors and medical entomology throughout my doctoral studies. But then it made sense to be in Florida and here I am, working on a pathogen in citrus in a way that brings all my experience together. I’m an advocate for cultivating as many tools as you can in your scientific toolbox.

Lukasz Stelinski

Lukasz StelinskiLukasz Stelinski is faculty at the University of Florida’s Citrus Research and Education Center in central Florida.

When did you graduate from MSU? I finished my masters with Oscar Liburd about 2001 and continued with doctoral studies and a post-doc with Larry Gut and Jim Miller. I left MSU for University of Florida in 2006.

Why did you choose entomology? I always had an inclination for biology and for some reason insects. At first I thought medicine, but then while at Kalamazoo College I was fortunate to take entomology and ethology courses with Dr. David Evans. After that, I knew what I wanted to do. For my senior thesis, I contacted Larry Gut and he, along with Oscar Liburd and John Wise, agreed to let me work on my project at Trevor Nichols Research Center. That was my introduction to MSU.

Anyone with special impact on you and your career? Along with my graduate committee mentors, there was George Ayers. I worked with George over several years assisting and co-instructing courses. He had a big impact on me personally and on how I teach. I also had the opportunity to briefly interact with Ke Dong as one of my committee members. I never thought my career would include toxicology; however, three of my former post-docs are now industry toxicologists.

What are your best memories of MSUI was amongst a great cohort of peers, who are all very successful. We built lasting friendships. Also, every time I go back I have to get a burger at Crunchy’s.

Describe your current work. My appointment is 80 percent research, 20 percent extension. I love my job. I typically have a large lab with 2 or 3 students, 4 or 5 postdocs, 2 or 3 permanent staff scientists and a bunch of undergrads. People enjoy coming to work and collaborating on serious challenges. I never thought I’d be working on insect pathogen interactions and toxicology – it’s been transforming. I enjoy working with citrus growers. It’s great to see my work in high impact journals, but seeing growers implement my findings is also rewarding.

How does your work impact people’s lives? Citrus is a huge part of the Florida economy. Economists tell me some of our low volume pesticide treatment methods are saving the industry $40 million dollars per year.

Any advice for current students? I would tell every student to be as broad as possible and take some molecular biology. Right now it is hard to exist as a biologist without the ability to apply molecular techniques to your science. My lab routinely does research that involves molecular techniques from simple PCR to  next generation pyro-sequencing. I’ve had to learn many aspects of applying molecular biology from scratch. Also, if you’ve found a place where you are succeeding, don’t be pressured to go to multiple institutions. It made my life more normal to stay at MSU and I don’t regret it.

Any comments about how you’ve juggled dual careers and a family? Every time Kirsten and I finished one degree there was opportunity for the other. We felt fortunate to have someone offer us funding.  There’s nothing we complain about being in dual careers. The tricky part is we can become saturated with what is happening professionally and then need to be careful not to burden one another with that at home. 

Mark “Shep” Sheperdigian

Mark SheperdigianMark “Shep” Sheperdigian recently agreed to represent the Department of Entomology on the MSU College of Agriculture and Natural Resources’ Alumni Board. We spoke with Shep on the phone recently to thank him and learn about his experiences with a degree in entomology.

When did you graduate from MSU? I earned a bachelor’s of science in Entomology in 1982.

Why choose entomology? I took Roland Fisher’s introductory entomology course along with Fred Stehr’s systematics class, and became convinced entomology was the major for me. I worked in Ed Grafius’ lab and Roger Hoopingarner was my advisor, so they were certainly guiding influences. In reality, I had no idea what an entomologist does. After graduation, I moved to Georgia thinking I might go to graduate school, but the economy did not improve, and instead, I applied for a job with a small urban pest management firm. I didn’t know the field of urban pest management existed before moving to Georgia and it combines two of my favorite things: insects and people! Eventually, I applied to work at larger companies with more mobility and, by 1987, I joined Rose Pest Solutions where I am now Vice President of Technical Services. We are a regional company with offices in Michigan, Ohio, and northern Indiana. We do a bit of work in Kentucky, West Virginia and Pennsylvania.

How does your work impact people’s lives? In urban pest management, we have daily exposure to the public. We are in factories where everything is made as well as in the wealthiest homes and the poorest neighborhoods. It is an amazing journey through humanity to see everything that happens. One of the problems is that so few people know much of anything about insects. They know they are bigger than the insects, but they don’t know how to control them. You can talk to these CEOs who handle millions and millions of dollars but can’t handle a thousand cluster flies. It’s a very powerful feeling.

Any advice for current students? Along with the fundamentals of entomology or another field, the most important skills you need to learn are communication skills. If you can’t get your point across—I don’t care how smart you are – you must learn to communicate. If you shy away from the limelight, you’ll really cut back on the opportunities open to you.

How have you used communication skills in your work? Many ways. I do a lot of training, mostly adult education, like how to be a good client in a pest management program. I’m also speaking to groups about bed bugs. There is a tremendous knowledge gap related to bed bugs and we are hurrying to bring people up to speed as the populations explode. The resurgence of bed bugs is the most amazing development I’ve seen in my career. I, and others at Rose Pest Solutions, do programming with kids. The general populace has little understanding of science. We need to teach kids to think with a science mind or we’ll be blown to and fro as change occurs in our world. Rose promotes science education from elementary school on up. We help with bug rodeos for summer camps where kids catch insects out in the field and then pin and identify them. Science education is vital to the well-being of the country.