Featured entomology alumni David Epstein

David Epstein is a senior entomologist with the USDA Office of Pest Management Policy and our latest featured alumni.

April 1, 2016

David Epstein

When did you arrive at MSU? In 1999, I was hired to coordinate a three-year effort, the Michigan Apple IPM Implementation Project. In 2000, the second year of the project, I was hired as the MSU IPM Program Tree Fruit Integrator, with continuing coordination of the apple IPM project a primary responsibility. About four years into that position, I began my PhD studies with Larry Gut, graduating in 2010, meeting my goal of achieving my PhD before age 60.

What is your current job? I am the senior entomologist with the USDA Office of Pest Management Policy, starting this position in 2011. Our office heads up the strategic planning and activities related to pest management for the USDA. We are part of informing the pesticide regulatory process and we promote development of new pest management approaches needed by farmers and others to sustain U.S. agriculture. That means I work across the various agencies of the USDA and with the EPA on pesticide registration issues. I also act as a liaison between the research community, farmers and EPA to ensure that those voices are heard in the process. I work with universities, growers and others on a variety of pest management issues including invasive species, like spotted wing Drosophila and brown marmorated stinkbug. For example, a multi-state group of researchers, including MSU entomologists Rufus Isaacs and Matt Grieshop, have a grant investigating efficacious means of controlling spotted wing Drosophila. I organize discussions between EPA and stakeholders so that researchers and growers can address their pest management issues. If I read about a pest management issue in the paper, I’ll probably be working on it that day, literally. In recent years, I spend maybe 40-50 percent of my time on pollinator health issues.

I’ve also become involved with an educational campaign, the Food Narrative Project of the organization IPM Voice. Our goal is to educate the public about what farmers do and why they do it. I feel this conversation is absolutely critical as people know so little about how food is produced, or have never stepped on a farm, and that is a problem, in terms of developing policy and regulation in a political climate informed by the less-than-accurate information spread through social media.

Why did you choose entomology? Because insects are fascinating! I’ve had a lifelong interest in growing crops. I first studied plant and soil science at California State University-Chico, and while there, took an agricultural entomology class and was instantly hooked. The range of strategies used by insects to prosper and evolve, and the challenges in managing pest insects to produce food and fiber just fascinated me. I went on to Washington State University to earn my entomology masters, followed by a year of working in the WSU Honey Bee Biology & Genetics lab, where I also managed the University’s 200 bee colonies. Larry Gut was still working at WSU when I was there, and he recruited me to MSU to run the apple IPM project.

How did entomology contribute to what you do today? I was 48 years old and working full-time when I started my PhD, so I didn’t have the typical student experience. I worked in construction for 17 years between my first stint as an undergraduate and my return to academia at CSUC! Larry Olsen used to tell me I should just do what I needed to do to get my “union card,” which meant get my PhD. What I did love about doctoral research was brainstorming with my committee members. Designing experiments and evaluating what we learned, developing further testing, the whole process of experimental design. I also truly loved working on farms with growers and learning their challenges. It helped me see that what we did (IPM) was a small part of what they do, and I saw how it fit in with their larger challenge. The grower has to be an entomologist, plant pathologist, horticulturalist, labor contractor, business person and more. That is part of the knowledge I bring into discussions with EPA, what makes sense academically may not always apply in the real world of the farmer.

Any advice for current students? Get out to as many meetings and events as possible so you meet as many scientists as you possibly can. Develop broad networks that you can draw on for the rest of your career. My networks are extremely valuable now as I draw on expertise from across the country. I’m the sole entomologist for this office and have to be the voice for entomology of all crops across all states, and that’s impossible if you don’t have a network. For me, that has been absolutely essential.

How does your work impact people’s lives? The work we do here at OPMP is critical to making sure Americans maintain access to abundant, healthy and affordable food and fiber, that farmers have the tools and knowledge they need to manage pests, and that all is well-balanced with the needs to protect people, environmental resources and living organisms dependent on those resources. I had no idea when I started working at USDA that I would spend so much time on pollinator issues. I deal with all aspects of pollinator health, from nutrition to insect and disease pests, genetics, and the effects of pesticides at the interface with agriculture, as well as for public health, such as mosquito control. I have several projects looking at how farmers can mitigate potential harms to pollinators by increasing awareness and adjusting management practices. There are some real tough challenges, and you have to take into account the competing needs of everyone involved, the beekeepers, the farmers, the public and the policy and rule makers. I was deeply involved in developing the President’s pollinator strategy. I worked across 15 different agencies, each with a different perspective and knowledge. It’s not about what I think, I have to meld it all together. There are always tradeoffs and we have to be sure to address the needs of pollinator health while providing farmers with the tools they need to feed the nation.

It’s all fun in the end. If you are not having fun, go do something else. I’m in the right place at this point in my career. I’m utilizing all of the knowledge I have gained all along my journey from business owner to academic to public servant. Can’t wait to see what tomorrow brings.

Read about past featured alumni in the Alumni Profiles section.

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