Doctorate in entomology is a springboard for three careers for this alumnus

Entomology alumnus Dan Herms has flourished working in the non-profit sector, academia and now with the corporate world.

Dan Herms

Every once in a while a job will metamorphose into an opportunity to earn a doctoral degree. Dan Herms was directing pest management at Dow Gardens in Midland, Michigan, when leadership asked him to earn a PhD to lead a new research program at the gardens. Herms was agreeable but realized his only real option for study was at Michigan State University (MSU). After his studies were underway, Herms found MSU was a surprisingly good fit for him. In a recent interview, Herms shared his experiences.

When did you graduate from MSU? I finished my PhD in 1991 with a specialization in ecology, evolutionary biology and behavior. As I was finishing my MS, Bill Mattson was on my short list for a PhD advisor but I did not know he was in East Lansing, Michigan, as he had recently transferred with the U.S. Forest Service from Minnesota. It was like a match made in heaven. Despite not having any choice where I would study, I couldn’t have had a better PhD program. My doctoral research was on the effects of environmental factors on expression of trees’ resistance to insects and tree defense.

Why did you choose entomology? My family had a greenhouse business in southern Ohio, so I earned a bachelor’s degree in horticulture with a specialization in plant protection at Ohio State University (OSU). I took an entomology course from a wonderful teacher and decided to continue at OSU for a master’s degree in entomology. My first job was at Dow Gardens, which led to studies at MSU, which worked out so well. MSU had a critical mass of faculty and students in the area of plant insect interactions with Bill Mattson, Guy Bush, Mark Scriber and Jim Miller. It was a very stimulating environment to conduct research. So many of my grad student colleagues went on to faculty positions.

What are your best memories at MSU? One of the highlights were the informal plant/insect discussions and pizza dinners at Chairperson Mark Scriber’s home. There, we had a chance to informally present our ideas and discuss papers with other students and faculty. Anyone who wanted to could come—students, post-docs, faculty. Many of the students are faculty members now including Matt Ayres, Janice Bossart, Kelly Johnson, Joe Spencer and Rich Cowles. Working with Jim Miller to develop the course The Nature and Practice of Science was another highlight of my graduate program. My greatest memory, of course, was meeting my wife Cathy who was a technician in Dave Smitley’s lab and became Deb McCullough’s first graduate student. Cathy is a lab director at OSU in weed science now.

Where did your career take you after MSU? After Dow Gardens, I was a faculty member in the Department of Entomology at OSU and now I’m vice president for research and development at The Davey Tree Expert Company. I oversee the strategic goals of our research program, which currently include repurposing a golf course into a research and training facility for Davey Tree. I’m also leading research on climate change to project how it impacts our tree care operations and strategic plan. Davey Tree is the largest full-service tree care company in the world, a billion dollar company with more than 10,000 employees. So it’s been a really great experience for me after first working in the public garden non-profit sector at Dow Gardens, and then 21 years in academia at OSU and now to have the chance to influence a company with the size and impact of Davey Tree. I feel like I’ve had three separate careers.

Best advice for current students? Develop communication skills. Take advantage of every opportunity to give a presentation. Work on your writing skills. Mattson used to say read more and write less—I think he meant write with impact and make it count. Most papers are rarely cited, so really strive to make your work impactful.

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