Although an incredible variety of consumer goods has been brought to market through technological advances during the past century, agricultural products remain the most important things humans make. It is possible to live without a car, a computer, or an eight-speed kitchen blender. It is even possible to live without a TV set, although for many people life without Seinfeld, NYPD Blue, and Big Brother 3 might feel empty and pointless. Life without food, on the other hand, is simply not going to happen.
Over the centuries, we have become pretty good at growing our own food: high-yielding cultivars, smart machinery, advanced agronomic techniques--you name it. We can grow a lot of stuff on a fairly limited acreage. The problem is that we are not the only creatures who like to eat that stuff. Estimates vary, but up to one-third of the world's agricultural production is lost to insect damage. This means that we could have fed a lot more people on what we grew or converted huge areas of land into national parks, wildlife refuges, or golf courses. Farmers might even have been able to go on vacation once in a while.
Right now, though, we are on the defensive, mostly trying to keep current damage levels from increasing. Although our technologies allow us to blow up the whole world if we choose to, we are still threatened by small six-legged creatures that appeared on Earth before the dinosaurs--and none of them hold advanced degrees.
I like food. It might not seem that way when you look at me--I'm 6'4" and weigh 160 lbs.--but I really do. Part of it might be growing up in the old Soviet Union, where an incredibly inefficient government-controlled economy created food shortages, not to the point of starvation but definitely to the point where you eat what's available, not what you want to. And part of it might be a serious attitude toward food in my family--no snacks, no skipping breakfast or lunch, everybody gets together for dinner at one big table--and on top of everything my grandmother's excellent cooking. Whatever it was, it makes perfect sense that I became an agricultural entomologist.
It could have made a truly inspirational story, how a young boy born in a city of 8 million fulfilled his dream of becoming a crop-protection professional and now passes his wisdom and practical experience along to the eager next generation. I could even have said something about walking barefoot 5 miles to school in the snow. But the truth is that I had little idea of how my career would develop until it started developing. I took a few chances and chose not to grasp a few opportunities. But it has all worked out well in the end.
I became interested in biology when I was 8 or 9 years old, mostly from books by Jane Goodall, Dian Fossey, and the like. During my freshman year at college in Moscow, I wanted to try doing some science, but at the time nobody was heading off to Africa to live among the great apes. However, an ongoing project in agricultural entomology needed a student assistant. I tried it; I liked it; and people in the department liked me (well, most of the time). The first project that I took part in led to a second, then a third, and so on. The university even paid me money for my work and sent me catching bugs in the fields located all over the rapidly disintegrating Soviet Union.
During my junior year, I got a scholarship to spend a year as an exchange student at Baylor University in Texas. At Baylor I got involved in forensic entomology research, figuring out how to use insects in murder investigations. I liked the U.S. system of higher education and decided to get a graduate degree from one of its universities. But as fascinating as forensic entomology was, spending most of my life surrounded by decaying, maggot-infested cadavers did not particularly appeal to me. So I decided to go back to agriculture and ended up getting a Ph.D. from the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. At that time transgenic plants carrying bacterial genes that made them toxic to insects were just beginning to appear on the market. My dissertation research was on how Colorado potato beetles will adapt to such plants (they adapt to everything) and what we can do to postpone such adaptation.
As I approached graduation, it suddenly occurred to me that I would need to get some kind of job afterward. Agricultural pest control is a fairly big industry, with a number of different players. First of all, there are large multinational chemical and biotechnology companies that produce insecticides and insect-resistant plants and sell them to farmers. They do a lot of research both developing their products and proving to government regulators that their products are safe to use. Originally, I was hoping to work for one of those companies doing business back in Russia. But I graduated in the midst of the Asian financial crisis, and there were not a lot of jobs available overseas. Furthermore, many of these companies were going through a series of mergers and acquisitions, accompanied by the usual (in such circumstances) chaos and confusion. As a result, the industry job market in the United States did not look much better. And although there are a number of relatively small agricultural consulting companies that, among other things, give farmers advice on insect control, I found out that with my Ph.D. I was overqualified to work for those.
There were other possibilities. Believe it or not, the government takes our tax money for a reason. The U.S. Department of Agriculture has an extensive and very active research program. Unfortunately, they could not hire me because I was not a U.S. citizen. Also, each state department of agriculture usually has an entomologist or two on its staff. The key phrase, however, proved to be "an entomologist or two" and not "has."
Finally, there was the option of remaining in academia as a postdoctoral research associate (the scientific equivalent of a peon). Usually this step is intended to prepare people for faculty jobs, although many end up working for the private sector or for the government.
I took that last road. After sending out a bunch of applications, I received three offers: one from New York, one from California, and one from Hawaii. From the résumé-building standpoint, it would have probably made the most sense to go to New York, as it was (and still is) regarded to be the top university in the field. But I thought about the time when I was a little boy reading all those great books and dreaming of going to all those exciting places. To spend the next 2 years of my life among cabbage fields in upstate New York would have meant betraying that little boy, so I packed up all my possessions in a backpack and a cardboard box and headed for the South Pacific.
In Hawaii, I studied impacts that the biological control of agricultural pests may have on fragile island ecosystems. People usually think of biological control as a safe alternative to pesticides, and in many cases it's true. But natural enemies may also attack nontarget organisms: organisms that we do not want them to attack. Predicting such developments is obviously very important when making decisions to initiate any biological control program.
Except for a few minor accidents (once I inadvertently walked onto a nude beach armed with a video camera, binoculars, an insect net, and a shovel; another time, I melted the bottoms of my shoes on an active lava flow), things went great for me in the Aloha State. I even got promoted from postdoctoral research associate to junior entomologist. (Seeing "promoted" and "to a junior" in the same sentence should give you some idea of how high postdoctoral associates rank.) However, my job was a series of 1-year contracts that depended on the availability of federal funds. Therefore, when I learned about an opening for a faculty position at the University of Maine, I applied for it and eventually got the job.
So, here I am, doing research on potato pests and their natural enemies. There are Colorado potato beetles that become adapted to virtually any insecticide, and they can completely defoliate potato plants if left uncontrolled. There are aphids that suck sap from potato vines and transmit a number of plant viruses. There are wireworms that burrow inside potato tubers and then show up in French fries served at a restaurant. There are Asian ladybirds that do a good job by eating aphids but that also eat other ladybirds and annoy the heck out of people by invading their houses in the fall. And then there is me, who is trying to find out how this ecosystem works, and how we can turn it to our advantage.