Where did you conduct your undergraduate and graduate studies?
I did both in Neuchatel, Switzerland. That’s my hometown, and it’s where I was born. The master’s I have is in Behavior, Ecology and Evolution.
I was lucky enough to be successful in my master’s and right at the end of it, the lab I was working in got a new grant and I followed up on a Ph.D. project with the research I was already conducting. Once I got my Ph.D., I worked for the University’s promotion and marketing service.
I had a position there and I worked for nine or ten months and in the meantime, I was writing a grant with a professor in my former lab and we got funded so I left that administrative position and went back to the lab for my first postdoc.
What are your research interests?
I’m very much interested in insect pests and insects feeding on roots—with a deep interest in roots. I think there is a lot to discover and a lot to do on the roots and that’s really the foundation of the plant. If you have no roots, you have no plant and I think it’s important to do research on that and to understand what’s happening in the vicinity of the roots.
It’s challenging because while you can look at leaves and monitor what insects are doing on leaves, you never see the roots so you have to be a little bit imaginative just to be able to see what’s happening down there without disturbing it too much. Then you have to measure, qualify and quantify what’s happening and try to turn that into useful information for growers or society itself because soil is a limited resource and we all rely on it. It’s what provides us with food.
At our human scale, over using soil is damaging it forever because restoring soil takes hundreds of years but destroying it could just take five minutes. Pouring chemicals in the ground or putting your cigarette out in the park, it pollutes all that is surrounding it and it may not offer the service it normally would in a healthy state. Whatever we do to soil now is having an impact for the next centuries. To protect that, we have to understand it and that’s why I think it’s important to take that challenge and get our hands in the dirt and see what’s happening there and how we can protect that.
How exactly do you go about examining the roots?
You have various ways of looking at what’s going on with the roots. You could measure traits above ground and try to correlate that to what’s happening below ground but this is usually inaccurate.
What I normally do is have two complimentary approaches. One where you’re in the field and you apply insects or eggs at the beginning of the season. Then they hatch and you have the larvae establishing on the roots, starting to feed and doing some damage and at one point you can dig out some of these roots and evaluate the damage and try to find the insect on the roots. You still keep one set of these plants healthy—or unhealthy depending on the treatment—and then at the end of the season, you collect emerging adults.
You have one set that is completely undisturbed and you have one set that has been disturbed and you can see whether or not the information you gain from these two measures are correlating.
As soon as you want to directly sample the roots, it’s a destructive approach so you have to be very careful and understand that you have one shot. It’s also hard when you want to try to understand over a time scale because if it’s a destructive approach, you need to have a lot of plants and a lot of replicates if you want to sample different time periods.
I’m working on a data set now where I scanned the roots with software that was programmed to scan the root system every other minute and the roots were laid on a transparent Plexiglas sheet with soil on top and I could monitor the behavior of the insects on these root systems without disturbing them too much and they were still in their environment.
What’s going to be your main focus at UD?
I’ve always been interested in trophic interactions. The roots and herbivore interaction is one trophic level but I am also working on higher trophic levels and we can demonstrate that roots damaged by insects might emit volatiles in the ground and these volatiles attract some of the insects’ natural enemies. For instance, little tiny worms called nematodes are coming towards the damaged plant and finding and killing the insect larvae so that’s a way for the plant to defend itself. I’m going to work on that using corn as a model plant.
I also want to work on vegetables but still try to incorporate soils and food webs in the context of how can we improve agriculture and its control in terms of insect pests.
How did you hear about this opportunity at UD?
After that first postdoc in Switzerland I moved to Missouri for a second postdoc. I got a grant from the Swiss government to do a postdoc abroad so I stayed two and a half years in Missouri. At the end of that, I found a postdoc down in Australia where I spent the last two years.
A little bit more than a year ago, I was at the Entomology Society of American annual meeting in Minneapolis and I met with a good friend of mine who graduated from UD and he knew I was looking for positions and he said, ‘I heard they have this opportunity at UD. It’s a great school. You should apply.’
Then one night we had a university mixer and I got to meet with some of the faculty members from UD. I applied and got the chance to be interviewed and finally selected for the position.
What’s your overall impression of UD, the college and the department?
The college is fabulous. The department is great. We are entomology and wildlife which seems to be completely different fields of research but people interact and collaborate and help each other. I felt really welcomed and I’m looking forward to getting established here and starting to do some research.
College wise, I’ve been impressed with what’s going on and I’ve been meeting quite a bit of people in plant and soil science and am impressed by everything that’s going on in the pursuit of research and all the opportunities we could have together. With my research, I’m standing at the edge of different topics and fields and so I need to have these interactions with people that have the expertise that I don’t and I need to integrate that into my research program.
Also at the University level, the facilities here, the [Patrick T. Harker Interdisciplinary Science and Engineering Laboratory] is fabulous. I think there are a lot of resources I can use and I’m looking forward to getting my research group up and running and using some of these facilities and hopefully generating some nice data sets.
Any interesting hobbies outside of work?
Crafting is something I really enjoy. Crochet and wood carving. I like building things with my hands. Crafting helps in my field because I have an idea of how to make something with my hands and it helps me measure something I want in the roots. It helps with having the mindset that I can build something that is completely designed for that purpose and that purpose only.
Article by Adam Thomas