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Entomology alumnus receives Presidential Early Career Award

Posted: February 14, 2014

Justin Runyon, a 2008 graduate of the Ph.D. program in entomology at Penn State, has received a Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers (PECASE), the highest honor bestowed by the United States Government on science and engineering professionals in the early stages of their independent research careers.

The PECASE awards -- established by President Clinton in 1996 -- are coordinated by the Office of Science and Technology Policy within the Executive Office of the President. Awardees are selected for their pursuit of innovative research at the frontiers of science and technology and their commitment to community service as demonstrated through scientific leadership, public education or community outreach.

Now a research entomologist for the U.S. Forest Service, Runyon was nominated for the award for his outstanding and sustained accomplishments that significantly increased knowledge in biocontrol of invasive species, chemical ecology of plants, and insect diversity and taxonomy. He is one of 102 researchers to receive the award and one of only three recipients nominated through the U.S. Department of Agriculture. A White House press release said the awards ceremony will be held sometime this year in Washington, D.C.

Runyon's research has resulted in a number of discoveries. As a master’s student at Montana State University, he and his colleagues discovered a new type of long-legged fly that lives in Arizona, in large, dark cavities formed by overhanging rocks near streams. The male's left wing is larger and a different shape than the right wing. As a result, the entomologists named it Erebomyia exalloptera. Erebos, in Greek mythology, is the dark place under the Earth through which the dead pass before entering Hades. The second part of the name is Greek for "quite different wings."

As a Ph.D. student at Penn State, Runyon and his collaborators explained how parasitic plants use chemical cues to guide them to their host. The parasitic plants can even pick between potential hosts based on those chemicals. They can tell the difference between tomatoes and wheat, for example. The team published some of its findings in the journal Science in 2006.

"It would not be an exaggeration to describe Justin's doctoral research at Penn State as ground breaking," said Gary Felton, professor and head of the Department of Entomology, Penn State. "His discovery that a parasitic plant can 'smell' its host plants and move in their direction was a landmark finding. The behavioral response of detecting a scent and moving in a directed response is a behavior we normally associate with animals, not plants. It is no surprise that Justin has continued his outstanding work with U.S. Forest Service. Jason was the only entomologist in the country to receive this award."

Runyon added, "We expect our findings to have broad implications for research in a variety of fields, including chemical ecology, parasite-host interactions and plant biology. Moreover, these results provide knowledge that may be useful in developing new tactics for controlling parasitic plants that attack agricultural crops."

Runyon earned a master’s degree at Montana State University in 2001 and a Ph.D. degree at Penn State in 2008. In 2012, he received an Early Career Scientist Award from the U.S. Forest Service. He now works as a research entomologist for the Rocky Mountain Research Station, a branch of the U.S. Forest Service located on the Montana State University campus. 

Most of his work at the Rocky Mountain Research Station involves trying to understand the role that chemistry plays in interactions between insects and plants, and then applying those lessons to biological control. He also conducts research on bark beetles and fire, and on interactions between plants and pollinators.