Ken Raffa shares his passion for working with people to understand insects as agents of change

This is the third in a series where I peek into the lives of scientists. Click to read part 1 and part 2.

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Ken Raffa pauses to take in the scenery during a hike at the IUFRO World Congress in Utah, 2014. Image courtesy of Ken Raffa.

Ken Raffa has had a storied career. His research has made great strides in advancing current understanding of how insect populations can rapidly explode. His work has revealed fascinating specifics and generalities that take place between pine trees and bark beetles during a beetle outbreak. An army of beetles is needed to attack and kill a tree and the tree has two different lines of defense. If both are compromised, the beetles win; if the tree can combat the beetles, the tree wins. It turns out this binary outcome is decided by the number of beetles attacking the tree; if enough beetles arrive for the attack, the tree will surely lose the battle. There is more: the first line of tree defense not only kills beetles by drowning them in pine sap; it also interferes with communication among beetles by physically blocking transmission of a pheromone the beetles make that attracts more beetles, which prevents beetles from assembling the numbers (the army) needed to kill the tree (see these ground-breaking studies for more details: Ecol. Monogr. 53: 27-49; Amer. Nat. 129: 234-262; Oecologia 102: 285-295). Ken used these key findings along with insights from others’ work to put forth a sophisticated model that explains how insect-driven disturbances operate across the landscape (BioScience 58: 501-517).

Throughout his career, Ken has won numerous awards (including the Entomological Society of America’s Founders Award in 2010), garnered over $9,000,000 in research grants, published over 250 papers in the primary literature, and trained 43 graduate students and postdocs, who have all gone on to be leaders in government, academia, and industry.

People are naturally curious about someone with such an impressive list of accomplishments (see his website for the full-length version of his CV). How did he arrive at forest entomology? What inspires him? How does he train students to be great leaders? I sat down with him at the recent International Congress of Entomology to find out. I discovered someone who is deeply passionate not only about the natural world (maybe not so surprising given his career path), but also about people. He believes in the strength of professional relationships—that are at their core really personal relationships—to solve scientific problems. This may be surprising, given his experience as a student. Here is what I learned from Ken about career paths, studying trees and insects, training graduate students, and the likely future of all three.

Read the full story on Entomology Today.

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