Penn State Entomology and our Future Outlook

Posted: December 21, 2011

A message from Gary Felton about the restructuring process of the College of Agricultural Sciences and future outlook for the Department of Entomology at Penn State.

Dear Friends of Penn State Entomology,

This has been a difficult and challenging year at Penn State.  I am confident in the leadership and resiliency of the Penn State community that we will emerge as a stronger institution and that our future remains bright.

Early in 2011, the College of Agricultural Sciences undertook a restructuring plan to reduce the number of academic departments.  Following the recent approval by the Board of Trustees, we are pleased that the Department of Entomology will continue as an academic department.  In July, we faced considerable financial pressures with a 19% cut in state appropriations.  Despite these budgetary pressures, we have recently hired four faculty members as part of the campus-wide cluster hires in Infectious Disease and in Genomics.  We obtained significant leveraging for these positions from the Huck Institutes of  the Life Sciences, the Penn State Institutes of Energy and the Environment, the President’s Opportunity Funds, and private donations.  Without the private donors this would not have been possible. 

Drs. David Hughes (Harvard) and Jason Rasgon (Johns Hopkins) joined the Department in 2011 and will strengthen our focus in infectious disease.  Drs. Andy Deans and Heather Hines (North Carolina State) will join our Department in July 2012 and will strengthen our efforts in genomics, pollinator research, and systematics.  We are looking forward to the contributions these outstanding, young scientists will bring to the Department and University.

During the restructuring process this past year, the Department prepared a document outlining our current status and future.  Below is the document for those interested. 

Let’s hope for a quieter and peaceful year in 2012.

Best wishes,

Gary W. Felton
Professor and Head, Entomology

Penn State Entomology and our Future Outlook

The Entomology Department at Penn State has made remarkable progress over the last decade to be ranked among the best in the U.S. While this progress is in part due to the efforts of individual faculty, staff and students, it has also benefited from a synergism, esprit de corps and a well-managed vision that has propelled the department to develop in new directions while maintaining a solid footing in the science. By any measure of productivity- attraction of quality faculty and students, research funding, published output, service to community and undergraduate education, the Department has been exemplary. Encouraged by the reception our achievements have received, we as a department look forward to a continuing evolution of our role as a cohesive unit in the College, University and society.

The Department currently includes 24 full-time tenure track faculty, 58 graduate students, 33 postdoctoral scientists, and more than 40 technical and office staff. The Department and its graduate program were ranked highly by the National Research Council (NRC), the metrics used for this ranking have improved steadily since the NRC assessments were conducted, and the future outlook for the Department is very bright. 

According to the latest evaluation of the NRC, the Department and its graduate program ranks among the best in the country.  The reputation of the Department has been built by developing critical mass in focus areas that address important societal issues.  The programs are centered on historical and emerging areas of strength, which include:

  1. future MosquitoVectors and Disease: We have particular strengths in the biology and management of insect vectors of disease—insects that transmit some of the most devastating infectious diseases in the world such as malaria, dengue, yellow fever, and various encephalitis strains.  Several of our faculty are principal investigators on two newly established NIH Malaria Research Centers in Southeast Asia and in India.  One of the primary aims of this research is to better manage insecticide resistance, not least by the development of  environmentally safe biopesticides for malaria  control, and to better predict vector-borne disease risk under climate change  These are critical components of PSU’s Center for Infectious Disease Dynamics.
  2. future honey beePollinator Health and Sustainability: Honey bees and other pollinators account for billions of dollars in pollination services annually as they are critical for production of many fruit, nut, vegetable, and crop plants.  Entomology scientists have led the efforts in identifying the causes and the solutions for honey bee decline.  Entomology scientists recently led the formation of the Center for Pollinator Research and hosted the First International Conference on Pollinator Biology, Health and Policy.  An NSF-Gates BREAD program grant is seeking new insights into African bee resistance mechanisms to diseases and parasites.
  3. future stink bugPest Detection and Response:  Entomology scientists have taken leading roles in developing spatial and temporal models for predicting the outbreak and spread of insect pests and infectious diseases.  Applications of these models have led to PestWatch and the PA PIPE programs for pest monitoring, detection, and early warning.  Entomology scientists with both research and extension appointments are actively working implementing environmentally safe methods for insect pest management (IPM) to protect human, animal, and plant health.
  4. Volitiles illustrationChemical Ecology:  Chemical ecologists study the interactions between insects, their hosts, and their natural enemies.  Applications are leading to new methods for detecting invasive species, disrupting pest populations through mating disruption, and detecting the outbreaks of key pest species.  Research is also supported by two Gates Challenge grants to discover novel methods of interfering with the ability of mosquitoes to locate their human hosts, and thus transmit diseases. Penn State has formed formal collaborations with the Max Planck Center for Chemical Ecology (Jena, Germany) and the Swedish University of Agriculture Science to deliver an annual summer course in Insect Chemical Ecology. The Center also has a MOU with the International Center for Insect Physiology and Ecology (icipe) in Nairobi, Kenya, to promote collaboration and cooperation in research and capacity building and exchange of staff and scientific information.  In 2008, Penn State Center for Chemical Ecology hosted the annual meeting of the International Society for Chemical Ecology.

The strength of the Entomology programs is more than the sum of the parts: active synergies among these groups are apparent when reviewing the funded projects, published papers, and active collaborations. 

Collaborations are prevalent both within the Department and across Penn State, and through extensive domestic and international research, educational, and outreach collaborations.

The importance of the discipline of Entomology is recognized by the National Research Council (NRC), where it was categorized as a unique life science discipline.   The NRC, which functions under the auspices of the National Academy of Sciences (NAS), the National Academy of Engineering (NAE), and the Institute of Medicine (IOM) recognized the uniqueness and importance of entomology with its comprehensive assessment of doctoral programs released on September 28, 2010.  Disciplines that were chosen for assessment depended upon several criteria including a minimum number of doctoral degrees granted over a five-year period (i.e., 500).  Entomology was one of the 19 life science disciplines/programs ranked in this assessment (total fields of study = 62), while only 6 disciplines traditionally located within a College of Agriculture were chosen for inclusion.

Entomological research and extension focuses on many of the most important agricultural and societal issues facing the world.  Entomologists are providing safe methods for food production, ensuring sustainable environments, responding to threats posed by invasive species, safeguarding agricultural biosafety, and addressing human and animal health as it is impacted by arthropod vectors of infectious diseases, and with the general public. These areas of focus closely align with the mission of the College of Agricultural Sciences, with our stakeholders, significant funders like the NIH and NSF, and with the general public. The presence of a strong nationally and internationally renowned Entomology department is in the best interests of the College and Penn State.

Entomology: An Emerging Strength

Developing critical mass in our four areas of expertise has greatly enhanced the national and international visibility of the Entomology Department.  The Department is building strong momentum that is resulting in: 1/ growth and recognition for the productivity of our program; 2/ synergy in education, research, and extension through enhanced national and international partnerships and collaborations; and 3/ the ability to attract outstanding scientists.  Since the data was compiled for the NRC rankings, Penn State’s Department of Entomology has shown steady improvements in virtually every metric used for ranking programs.

1/ National Research Council and Benchmarking

Entomology was ranked among the top five entomology programs in the country.  To reiterate, this is the most comprehensive academic rankings yet available:

A Data-Based Assessment of Research-Doctorate Programs in the United States provides an unparalleled dataset that can be used to assess the quality and effectiveness of doctoral programs based on measures important to faculty, students, administrators, funders, and other stakeholders.  (NRC 2010)

In addition to the graduate program rankings, the NRC report is also a measure of faculty productivity. 

The data, collected for the 2005-2006 academic year from more than 5,000 doctoral programs at 212 universities, cover such characteristics as faculty publications, grants, and awards; student GRE scores, financial support, and employment outcomes; and program size, time to degree, and faculty composition. Measures of faculty and student diversity are also included.  (NRC 2010)

In fact, of the five highest weighted factors, four are faculty measures (i.e., cites per publication, publications per faculty, awards per faculty, and percent faculty with grants). Since the collection of data during 2005/2006, our Department has shown significant improvements in nearly every measure.  For example:

  • The total number of graduate students enrolled in our Entomology degree program was 24 in Fall 2005 and enrollments have steadily increased to 45 for Fall 2010. 

graphic 2This represents a doubling in enrollment.  The Department now has one of the largest entomology graduate programs in the country (see below).  The Department has the largest doctoral program in the College with 41 Ph.D. students enrolled in our program for Fall 2010.  These numbers do not include graduate students enrolled in the Intercollege programs such as ecology, genetics, and plant biology.  The total graduate student pool has been between 58 and 60 student during the last two years.  Also, Entomology has many graduate students during the last few years that are visiting scholars and completing part of their graduate education at Penn State.  For instance, Entomology recently hosted graduate students from France, Belgium, Japan, China, and Brazil.  These numbers will increase as the international reputation continues to climb. Entomology is home to a vibrant program that is rich in disciplinary and interdisciplinary based graduate education and is attracting visiting students from across the world. 

  • Extramural funding is increasing due to critical mass and synergies

Extramural funding (grants, gifts) has steadily increased, from $2.5 million in FY 2005 to nearly $11 million in new funding in FY 2011.  This represents a 3.62-fold increase in extramural funding from the time the NRC data were acquired.  Extramural funding for FY 2011 is on par with FY 2010 levels.  With the additions of Dr. Hughes and Rasgon, we expect further escalation in extramural funding in the coming years.

graphic 3 & 4

Extramural funding for extension and outreach has also showed a steady increase since FY 2005 with the Department now one of the leaders in the College in this area of extramural funding.  The pace for FY 2011 is very similar to that seen in 2010.  We expect Extension funding to continue to climb with including our increasing synergies that are resulting in multifunctional objectives embedded in grant proposals. 

  • Faculty publication rates have nearly doubled since the NRC data were compiled.graphic 5

During the last two years Entomology faculty and students have published multiple articles in the most prestigious scientific journals including Science, Nature, The Proceedings of the National Academy of Science, Nature Genetics, Nature Communications, Nature Reviews, PLoS Biology, PLoS One, PLoS Pathogens, Current Biology, and The Proceedings of the Royal Society.  This is a testament to outstanding faculty and students.  Contrary to some perceptions that entomology is a narrowly defined discipline, this illustrates the broad, interdisciplinary nature of our research programs.  In the last year, approximately 75% of our papers were published in interdisciplinary-based journals.  The trend illustrates that the breadth of the science extends into many life science disciplines.

  • Faculty citation rates have risen dramatically since NRC data were complied.

graphic 6The annual number of faculty citations has more than doubled since the NRC. These data indicate the quality of the research being published by the faculty is RAPIDLY increasing in international prominence. The number of publications in high profile journals (Science, Nature, PNAS, Current Biology, PLoS, etc.) has also risen dramatically in recent years.

2/ Synergy Among Internal, National and International Networks

Developing critical mass in the four areas of research focus has enabled an increasing number of collaborations outside of our Department.  Within Penn State, Entomology faculty have led the development of Two Centers of Excellence (Center for Chemical Ecology [CCE], Center for Pollinator Research [CPR] and are highly visible participants in the established Center for Infectious Disease Dynamics [(CIDD]).  All three Centers are currently directed by entomology faculty. Participation as leaders in these Centers is enabling broader and more substantive domestic and international collaborations through our increased visibility.

Penn State Entomology has a long history of being international leaders in integrated pest management programs across the world.  Through the currently funded IPM Collaborative Research Support Program (CRSP), Penn State Entomology is leading research and extension programs in South Asia (India, Bangladesh, Nepal).  Because of the critical mass we have developed, our international presence in research, education, and extension is rising dramatically.  For instance, during the last two years these highly visible programs have been established:Africa

  • NSF-BREAD sponsored partnership in Kenya is result of investments in honey bee research and extension
  • Recipient of (2) NIH-sponsored International Centers of Excellence in Malaria Research in Southeast Asia and India.  A tangible result of investments in research on vectors of human and animal health.
  • Recipient of (3) Gates Grand Challenge Grants in Global Health.  Further tangible results of investments in vector research and infectious disease.  Also, these initiatives demonstrate the high degree of synergy within the Department because two of the grants have brought together expertise in chemical ecology and infectious diseases.
  • The new partnership with the Swedish University of Agriculture Sciences (SLU, Alnarp, Sweden) and Max Planck Center for Chemical Ecology (Jena, Germany) to teach an annual Insect Chemical Ecology summer course.  This is a direct result of our international reputation in chemical ecology. This course has been in existence for over 15 years.  The host institution will rotate and Penn State is scheduled again to teach this in 2013.  Some of our faculty will teach every year in the workshop as it rotates among locations.
  • Entomology was instrumental in establishing the new dual-title degree in International Agricultural Development. This will allow graduate students in collaborating departments to obtain official credentials that certify knowledge of applying their science in developing countries.
  • Entomology is a partner in U.S. Department of Education-funded faculty and graduate student exchange programs with Western Europe and Brazil. These grants have allowed long-term relationships among universities and multiple short-term graduate exchanges.

3/ Attracting Outstanding Scientists

Entomology is well-positioned to continue to recruit outstanding faculty.  Most notable since the NRC assessment, several outstanding scientists from other institutions have been hired:

  • Andrew Read—Professor, University of Edinburgh. Author of 170 publications including multiple papers in Science, Nature, and PNAS since appointment at Penn State.
  • Matt Thomas—Professor, CSIRO.  Author of 140 publications with multiple papers in Science and PNAS since appointment at Penn State.
  • Christina Grozinger—Associate Professor, North Carolina State University.  Author of 16 publications since appointment in 2008. Director of Center for Pollinator Research, recipient of numerous USDA and NSF grants including an NSF-CAREER grant.
  • David Hughes—Marie Curie Fellowship- Harvard University.  Ph.D. University of Oxford. Author of over 15 papers in last two years including publications in Current Biology and PLoS One.
  • Jason Rasgon—Assistant Professor, Johns Hopkins University.  Author of 13 papers from 2008 to 2010.  Recipient of 3 NIH grants and a Gates Grand Challenge grant.

Drs. Heather Hines (Assistant Professor) and Andrew Deans (Associate Professor) will be joining our Department in July 2012.  Heather will work on ecological genomics of pollinators and have her primary appointment in Biology.  Andy will continue his work on systematics of parasitic Hymenoptera and serve as the curator of the Frost Museum.  Their additions will further strengthen the pollinator research component of our Department and fill a critical need in insect systematics.

A Vision for the Future

  • The Department of Entomology is well positioned to emerge as an international leader in providing research and education for human and animal disease, food safety and security, and agricultural and environmental sustainability.

The Entomology research funding portfolio is well balanced among three major funding agencies:  USDA, NSF, and NIH.  The funding portfolio of active grants (as of November 15, 2011) accounts for a total of $23,704,800; with USDA (35%), NSF (14%), and NIH (28%) accounting for the majority of the funding.  Beyond USDA, Entomology has been successful in competing for NSF funding and most notably has two active NSF-CAREER grants which illustrate the strengths of the faculty that have been hired.  The successes with NIH are shown by the two new NIH-funded International Centers in Malaria Research noted above, in addition to more conventional NIH incomes.

Overall active extramural funding exceeds $1,000,000 per faculty FTE.

  • The demand for the Entomology graduate program will grow as a consequence of the NRC rankings and the continued decline of “merged” programs. 

The graduate program is already reaping the benefits of our strong NRC ranking by enjoying its largest and best applicant pool in the Department history for FY 2011. The number of applicants from 2005/2006 to the present has more than doubled.  These trends indicate that our program is growing in recognition. Moreover, the number of top applicants with high GRE scores and other credentials is also increasing.   These data indicate that our program, although well ranked by NRC, would fare even better with current data. 

  • Leadership in forming the Center for Pollinator Research and initiation of the first (and continuing) international meeting will build upon our national and international reputation in pollinator health.

Pollinator tourThe Department led the creation and direction of a newly established interdisciplinary Center for Pollinator Research (CPR).  The CPR is internationally renowned for innovative scientific research and a dynamic outreach program, providing critical information to policymakers and the public.  The Center is comprised of a dynamic group of 27 independent faculty, including researchers, educators, extension specialists and outreach coordinators, spanning multiple departments and colleges.  It is committed to developing and implementing integrative, multidisciplinary approaches to improving pollinator health, conservation, and management for ecosystems services through research, education, outreach, and policy.  The Center has been enormously successful in securing funding from private and corporate donors (> $500,000), which has been leveraged to create scholarships, graduate fellowships and expand infrastructure.  Center faculty have been highly successful in competing for funding through a variety of federal agencies (>$6.5 million in 2008-2009); the majority of these research programs have involved large-scale collaborative efforts.  In 2010, the Center hosted the first International Conference on Pollinator Biology, Policy and Health, which attracted over 200 participants from 14 countries, and there was overwhelming support to continue this conference series.  A series of outreach programs, including workshops and classes, are currently being developed through the Center which will engage beekeepers, the public, and the scientific community; these include the PA Queen Breeding Program, Pollinator Garden Certification Program, Honey Bee RNAi Workshop, and an interactive Pollinator Garden at the Penn State Arboretum.  Finally, an exciting new graduate training program under the auspices of the Center is being developed, which will couple integrative, trans-disciplinary training in science and education with embedded, substantive real-world experiences to produce the next generation of scientists and educators who will easily move between the bench, the classroom, the public sphere and the political arena.

  • Entomology is well positioned to address emerging infectious diseases.

The new departmental focus in vector biology positions the department to be uniquely qualified to make significant contributions towards understanding the role of arthropods in the epidemiology of many of the most important (e.g., Malaria) and emerging (West Nile) diseases in the world.  As we have learned, the spread of these diseases is not just a threat to the developing countries, but also to the developed part of the world.   Entomology is now well positioned to be leaders when the next emerging disease appears in the U.S.  The investments in world class infrastructure and facilities by the College are enabling of expansion of studies on the effects of climate variability on vector borne disease, as well as the population biology of human-infectious malaria mosquitoes,  etc.

  • Entomology extension programs will increase in visibility and recognition for pest prediction, public health entomology, and pollinator health.

mosquitoBecause insects are poikilotherms their development is driven by temperature.  We have developed temperature dependent models predicting development of pests and pollinators, linked them to climatology and real-time meteorology, and web-delivered phenology predictions as maps through Extension, public-private collaborations, and grower organizations.  These spatially explicit phenology maps are used by farmers and biocontrol producers for optimizing management inputs, and by researchers for optimizing field sampling protocols.  Recent efforts consider the influence of climate change on voltinism. 

A significant fraction of the pests are migrants, and estimating timing and intensity of these annual re-invasions influences management.  We have developed web-based mapping that has been adopted in 29 states and one Canadian province.  Projects analogous to citizen-science are integrated with county-based Extension and grower organizations, while helping researchers visualize insect migratory processes at semi-continental scales.  Current research is connecting these efforts with genomic markers defining natal origins of migratory populations and meteorology to consider how climate change will influence migratory processes. With Extension, Entomology is developing, cybersharing, and visualizing spatial-temporal databases of (i) modeled population phenology and (ii) measured population density that reach regional and national scales.  Efforts are being connected to climate change research, and genetic variation within these insect populations, which is necessary for resistance management in transgenic crops, and which helps model migratory processes. 

Within the US, we see landscape scale management emerging from the regional effects of transgenes on insect populations, requiring the need to connect local pest-prediction tools to regional land use patterns.  Entomology is actively engaged with the College’s Pest Prediction strategic initiative.

The information that Entomology generates is in wide demand by the public.  For 2010, our Departmental web pages accounted for 1,960,444 page views which represented 16.4% of the total page views in the College.  Based upon website visits (958,762) the Department represents 24.5% of the College’s web traffic.   Of particular note is that the urban and public health factsheets accounted for over 80% of the total departmental web traffic.  Entomology is also showing an impressive international presence with over 950,000 visits from 169 countries.  These data demonstrate that the Department is an important source of information for the general public and that there is a global scope in the outreach and extension programming.

  • Entomology will enhance our leadership in public outreach and education.

The Department hosts multiple activities aimed at K-12 students.  The activities include the Great Insect Fair, Frost Museum tours, workshops to schools, Bug Camp, Show floorand Exploration days.  These activities represent a tremendous outreach that is largely orchestrated by students and staff.  Typically close to 12,000 students, teachers, and parents are reached annually with these activities.  These numbers could easily expand to 5,000 more but are limited by the number of volunteers, scheduling conflicts, etc.  Due to increased numbers of visitors to the Great Insect Fair, we will move the Fair to the Bryce Jordan Center in 2012.


Entomology at Penn State is on an upward trajectory as indicated by increases in extramural funding, faculty productivity, enhanced delivery of extension and outreach programs, increased educational opportunities, a rising graduate program, and a greater international presence in research, education, and outreach.  Our graduate program was highly ranked by the National Research Council, and by all measures, the program is significantly more competitive and dynamic in 2011 than when the data were compiled.   The Department of Entomology at Penn State has the momentum to continue to grow as a national and global leader in research, education, and outreach for the next several decades.