PhD’11 • Ezra Schwartzberg is the founder and director of Adirondack Research, an ecological and environmental consulting firm based in Saranac Lake, New York. Established in 2012, the firm focuses on social science, climate change and invasive species. The company’s tag lines—“We use science to inform decisions” and “We communicate science to influence policy”—describe its mission to use science for decisionmaking and for policy. Schwartzberg originally began his career in academia, with degrees from multiple universities around the country. It wasn’t until his postdoctoral research work at CALS that he gained the confidence to break off and start his own business, he says.
BS’03 PhD’09 • With a BS, a PhD, multiple research positions and postdoctoral work behind him, Michael Hillstrom has certainly put in his time at CALS. As a boy Hillstrom had always been fascinated with bugs, which made his decision to pursue a degree in entomology relatively easy. During his time at CALS he spent much of his free time volunteering for the Insect Ambassadors outreach program, which brings bug “show-and-tell” presentations to schools and other venues, and eventually he was elected program director. Through the Insect Ambassadors, Hillstrom discovered a passion for education and outreach. The experience also solidified his love for insects and the outdoors. Upon graduation, Hillstrom took a position as a forest health specialist with the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources. There he works in the diverse forests of Wisconsin to control insects and diseases across Wisconsin and serves as a public leader for insect management.
MS’10 • Patrick “PJ” Liesch—better known as Wisconsin’s “bug guy”—received his master’s degree in entomology from CALS in 2010 and worked as a research associate on campus. After Phil Pellitteri, the legendary king of insect diagnostics, retired in 2014, Liesch took on the position. As director of the UW–Madison Insect Diagnostic Lab, Liesch completes a variety of duties including communicating insect information to the public and acting as a bug identification guru to curious residents and businesses from all over Wisconsin. Liesch estimates that he tackles more than 2,000 cases per year. Liesch also serves as an instructor with the Wisconsin Master Gardener Program and the Wisconsin Pesticide Applicator Training program as well as with Farm and Industry Short Course. As part of his public outreach work, Liesch is a regular guest on Wisconsin Public Radio’s Larry Meiller Show.
MS’09 PhD’15 • Rachel Mallinger discovered her interest in insects as a biology major. An undergraduate research project involved pest control, which introduced her to entomology, a field that combined many of her passions. In 2009 Mallinger came to Madison, where she completed an MS in agroecology and entomology and a PhD in entomology. Mallinger is now doing postdoctoral work with the USDA as a research scientist in the sunflower entomology lab in Fargo, North Dakota. There she works with sunflower breeders in order to make the flowers more attractive to pollinators. When she’s not observing bees, Mallinger takes care of her six-month-old son, works in her vegetable garden and tries to squeeze in some of her earlier pastimes, including dancing, hiking and cross-country skiing.
BS’93 PhD’00 • As an undergraduate, Orth was inspired by entomology professor Walter Goodman and proceeded to write an honor’s thesis about the work being done in his lab. “I learned resourcefulness, resiliency and independence of mind because it was largely just Walt and me and a few other students,” says Orth. He remained on campus and completed a doctorate in entomology before discovering his interest in genomics. He also met his future wife, Elisabeth Gardiner PhD’00, and ventured with her to San Diego, Calif., where they both landed jobs focused on human biology. Orth works for Novartis, a multinational pharmaceutical company, where he sifts through the human genome seeking new therapeutic targets for human disease. Though his work today does not directly pertain to entomology, Orth says that the whole-organism CALS training he received was invaluable and that the methods he utilizes today directly relate to what he learned.
PhD’09 • With a PhD in entomology followed by numerous postdoctoral research positions, Bennett’s passion for entomology remains strong. Her early research at CALS focused on conserving beneficial insects in urban landscapes, an area of study and practice she continues today as an urban IPM and small farms extension specialist at New Mexico State University. Her favorite part of her job is educating homeowners on how they can create a comfortable coexistence between people and bugs in order to benefit local landscapes, prevent harmful pests and protect valuable insect populations. Her job includes a lot of outdoor activities, but Bennett’s love for nature continues even outside of her career. In her free time she enjoys hiking, biking, insect photography and tending to her family’s 30-acre tall grass prairie.
PhD’13 • Christine Buhl discovered her passion for entomology as an undergraduate at Oregon State University. “There was a moment when I looked at a small, seemingly innocuous wasp under a microscope for the first time and saw a complex world of body armor, colors and textures, and just felt the need to explore more,” says Buhl. She came to Madison to earn her PhD in entomology and begin her diverse career path. Over the years she has worked for universities in Oregon, Texas and Wisconsin, with the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the U.S. Geological Survey, county public health departments, and various environmental consulting groups. Currently Buhl is back in Oregon working as the state forest entomologist at the Oregon Department of Forestry. Her main focus is providing technical assistance regarding insects and diseases found in urban and forest trees and conducting aerial and ground surveys of damage.
PhD’00 • Elisabeth Gardiner began her training in entomology as a PhD student in CALS. “It was my hope that I could learn some really cool techniques in a lab focused on human biology and bring those techniques back to entomology,” she says. While at CALS she met her future husband, Anthony Orth PhD’00, and gave birth to their first child before completing her doctorate. During her postdoctoral fellowship with the Scripps Research Institute in San Diego, Calif., and her first industry job, Gardiner learned that her training in entomology could be directly applied to human biology, which unlocked a world of opportunity. Today Gardiner works as the chief science officer at Meditope Biosciences in San Diego, where she focuses on developing antibody therapeutics to target and eliminate cancer.
MS’99 MS’99 PhD’03 • Growing up on a corn, soybean and swine farm, Brian Aukema was drawn to bugs, trees and the outdoors at an early age. At CALS, he took advantage of the wide variety of majors, emerging with two master’s degrees (in entomology and biometry) and a PhD in entomology. After completing his doctorate, Aukema joined the University of Minnesota, where he runs a lab in forest entomology and enjoys teaching as an associate professor. Though he’s currently running with the Gophers, Aukema is still loyal to his Badger heritage. “Defending our choice of a ‘W’ in front of our house on football Saturdays” accounts for a large portion of his fall weekends, he says.
PhD’11 • David Coyle directs the forest health and invasive species program for Southern Regional Extension Forestry, an agency that works to identify, prescribe and implement a mix of education and technical services to increase the efficiency of forestry programs throughout the southeastern United States. He also is a member of the forestry outreach staff in the D.B. Warnell School of Forestry and Natural Resources at the University of Georgia. From his home base in Athens, Coyle oversees the training of federal, state and local forest health professionals. Through this work, he ensures that forestry experts are informed and knowledgeable about the region’s plants, insects and diseases.
Entomology might seem like an unlikely research area for an undergrad whose goal is medical school. But biology major Erik Sanson has clocked in many hours of lab time studying deer ticks—more specifically, Borrelia burgdorferi, a bacterium transported by deer ticks—because of its role in causing Lyme disease.
“Entomology sparked my interest as a young undergraduate because it deals with public health issues throughout the state of Wisconsin,” says Sanson, who works in the lab of entomology professor Susan Paskewitz.
His research on genotypes of Borrelia burgdorferi is a good example, he says. “Lyme disease is prevalent in the Midwest, and analyzing possible new strains of the disease can help alert physicians in the area. This would allow them to establish better treatment plans and prevention for their patients.”
Sanson’s been conducting research in medical entomology since his freshman year under the auspices of the Undergraduate Research Scholars (URS) program, which offers research positions to freshmen and sophomores from historically underrepresented groups on campus. Sanson now serves as a URS Fellow, a position in which he mentors a group of URS underclassmen in their projects.
That’s not his only service gig. He’s president of the CALS Student Association, a CALS Student Ambassador, and a mentor with the PEOPLE Program, offering support and guidance to a dozen freshmen throughout the year. Off campus, he has provided in-home patient care as a Certified Nursing Assistant and a Certified Phlebotomy Technician, and he has volunteered at Meriter and William S. Middleton Memorial Veterans hospitals.
Sanson hopes to continue that path of service as a physician.
“I’d like to pursue a career relating to research or public health in urban areas,” he says. “For research, I’m interested in pursuing an MD–Ph.D. dual degree, where I can focus on infectious diseases relating to human illnesses. If I choose the public health route, I’d like to focus on urban areas, working to reduce health disparities and promote health equity to all communities.”
Over the past 10 years or so, massive die-offs of the European honeybee—a phenomenon known as colony collapse disorder (CCD)—have sparked increasing concern about the fate of agricultural crops with the loss of these important pollinators. At the federal level, a White House Pollinator Health Task Force was formed and in May 2015 released a national strategy for pollinator protection.
In support of that effort, a number of states are following up with plans of their own. In Wisconsin, professor Claudio Gratton and postdoctoral research associate Christina Locke PhD’14 from the CALS Department of Entomology were invited to partner with the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection (DATCP) in leading a broad array of stakeholders to create a state pollinator protection plan.
The goal of the plan is to provide best management practice recommendations and educational materials for beekeepers, growers, pesticide users, homeowners and landowners who want to improve the health and habitat of managed and wild pollinators. A draft of the plan was open for public review as of this publication’s press time in early 2016, with the final report expected soon thereafter.
How bad is the bee situation in our state?
Locke: We have had very few reports in Wisconsin of colony collapse disorder, a phrase I don’t like to use because it refers to a collection of symptoms rather than a specific disease. One identifying characteristic of CCD is the disappearance of worker bees. Beekeepers go out to their hives and have a healthy queen and healthy brood cells, but the worker bees have somehow disappeared. That is not happening much in Wisconsin as far as we know.
What we do have are elevated annual losses and over-wintering losses in honeybee colonies. Wisconsin beekeepers averaged around a 60 percent colony loss for 2014–15, which is very high. Beekeepers will tell you that a sustainable loss is between 10 and 20 percent every year. These high losses are due to a combination of things. We’ve had a couple of really hard winters, and the honeybees aren’t necessarily adapted to our Wisconsin winters. So there are some efforts to breed queens that are cold-adapted.
The biggest thing that correlates with colony loss in the U.S. overall is the introduction of the Varroa mite in the 1980s. That correlates with steeper declines more than any other single factor we know of. The Varroa mite doesn’t just weaken honeybees, it also spreads pathogens that cause diseases. Those pathogens can spread from managed honeybees to wild bees, too, so it’s something we’re concerned about.
How are our wild pollinators faring?
Gratton: It’s really hard to track populations of our wild pollinators. We manage honeybees. We move them around, we keep track of numbers, we can open up the hive and see what’s going on. With the native bees, there are more than 500 species in Wisconsin. In any one system like apples or cranberries, we may have 100-plus different species that visit them. But many of them are solitary and sometimes rare. We haven’t really been tracking their populations very well. So to know if they are declining, we need a reference point and we don’t have one. As a consequence, we actually don’t know that much about how populations of the native bees are doing.
The few studies that do exist have looked at historical data and suggest that for the most part, most native bees probably haven’t changed that much over time. The few native species that we do have better data on are the bigger, more iconic pollinators like bumble bees. There is some good evidence that these species are declining in North America. And you can point to a couple of species that really have shown dramatic declines compared to midcentury distributions. There may be reasons for those declines—again, having to do with pathogen spread, competitors and declines in flowers in the landscape.
So, is this a crisis for wild pollinators? I think the jury is still out on that. I think there are lots of reasons to be concerned. But I’m not seeing the data out there saying that there is a massive die-off of native bees that we need to be immediately guarding against. This means we may have some time to start helping them out.
We think the way we have approached the plan is helpful because all of the things we talk about in terms of making life better for honeybees are also going to make life better for the native bees. As one example, reduction and judicious use of pesticides.
Also, when you talk to beekeepers and they say, “My bees back in the ’50s and ’60s used to give me 60 pounds of honey per hive every summer. Now I’m only getting 30”—there is not enough food in the landscape out there for honeybees. Food for honeybees—that is, flowers—is the same as food for the native bees. So all of our discussion about habitat management—getting more flowers out on the landscape, making sure those flowers are blooming throughout the entire summer—those are all things that are going to help native bees as well. I think the plan is going to be able to help a lot of other pollinators that can ride on the coattails of honeybees: bumblebees, butterflies and many of the solitary species that we never pay attention to.
What are some of the more surprising or important points in the plan thus far?
Gratton: You can do some relatively simple things and potentially have a big impact. It’s not like you need to transform the world in order to have an effect. Some really common-sense, small things can go a long way.
Locke: For example, in the agricultural recommendations there is a range of simple to more difficult practices. You can reconfigure your entire farm and make sure everything is really diverse and use blooming cover crops and all of that—and then at the other end of the spectrum, there are suggestions like leaving woody debris if a tree falls. Leave some wood so that bees can nest. That’s an example of a beneficial practice that only requires not doing something.
Based on your scientific expertise, what things would help the most?
Locke: For me, it’s habitat. We used to have a landscape in the Upper Midwest that was dominated by oak savanna and prairie. Now it’s not. That’s a lot of acres of habitat to compensate for.
Gratton: And second, as a home gardener or as a farmer, being judicious about killing bees through insecticides. I have to say that most of the farmers that we work with, cranberry and apple farmers, know this. They don’t want to kill off their bees. They are very sensitive to that, so they know the things to do to maintain their bee populations. Also, the beekeepers that they’ve rented bees from would get very mad if you sprayed insecticides during bloom. The farmers, especially of pollinator-dependent crops, know this. They are not necessarily the ones for whom we have to emphasize the importance of not spraying insecticides at especially sensitive times for bees.
What’s the overall hope in doing this work?
Gratton: I hope that people will read this and recognize that insects—in particular bees, but insects in general—play really important roles in our lives. And that, rather than follow our first instinct to squish them or want them to go away, we appreciate them and try to do things that encourage the beneficial ones in the environment. I hope even in a general sense that anyone can read the plan and say, “Wow, I didn’t realize that these little insects, these joint-legged things that fly around, do so much for us that we benefit from. And here are a couple of easy and practical things that I can do to make their lives a little better.” That’s my immediate goal for the plan.
You can view the protection plan at http://go.wisc.edu/pollinator
PHOTO—Entomologist Claudio Gratton and research associate Christina Locke in Gratton’s lab, examining part of a vast collection of pollinators. A new state plan they helped create is aimed at better protecting them.
Photo by James Runde/UW-Madison Wisconsin Energy Institute