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Student Spotlight – Benjamin Lee

Once a month we sit down with an Entomology graduate student to get to know more about them, how they became interested in Entomology, and what their research is about. This month, we sat down with Benjamin Lee!
Q: Masters or Ph.D., and how far into your program are you?
A: I am in a PhD program, and am in my fifth and final year, with plans to graduate this April!

Q: What is your research project?
A: My research has focused on predator-prey interactions and disease ecology, and how we can best use beneficial insects to prevent losses to crops from both pests and diseases. Working on pea-enation mosaic virus (PEMV), a damaging pathogen of legumes in the Palouse, I’ve focused on how aphids’ fear of predators can affect their ability to transmit viruses. So far we’ve found that insect predators can both help and hurt growers, since they’re great at eating insect pests, but might scare insects into traveling faster and farther, and transmitting viruses along the way! Right now, we’re trying to figure out how more diverse predator communities might be better at complimenting each other’s strengths in combatting pest and disease outbreaks. Hopefully, this research can help growers make better decisions about which beneficial insects are truly helping to prevent damage to their crops!

Benjamin Lee sampling for insects on the Palouse with a D-VAC.
Ben sampling for insects on the Palouse with a D-VAC
Ben Lee and his predator diversity experiments.
Predator diversity experiments
Q: How did you become interested in entomology?
A: I’ve been interested in Entomology since I was a kid, always flipping over rocks in my back yard in New York to see what arthropods would be hiding underneath and building little terrariums to house to cool ones I found for a while. I think watching nature documentaries as a kid also got me interested in predator-prey interactions; the excitement and suspense in watching lions hunt gazelles on screen developed my love of watching all sorts of predatory encounters, and since insect predators are incredibly eccentric and diverse I just became captivated by them. In undergrad I learned about the import role of insect predators in preventing pest damage in farming systems, and that’s when it connected that I could join my passion for insect predators into work beneficial to agriculture and food production.

Q: Why would you recommend entomology as a career?
A: For anyone interested in the natural world, insects are always present and playing important roles in how ecosystems function, whether that’s in a tropical rainforest, a meadow in your backyard, or deep in the soil underneath a concrete parking lot. As Entomologists, we get to learn about all these incredible roles that insects play, and try to use our understanding of insects and their environment to solve problems in agriculture, human health, even engineering! It’s also a wonderful and accessible teaching tool, insects are exciting and everywhere, and are great at demonstrating key concepts in evolution, environmental science, and animal behavior.

Q: What are your future career plans after graduation?
A: I’m hoping to continue research in agroecology, and am applying for postdoctoral positions where I can use our understanding of insect behavior to develop sustainable pest and disease control solutions! There are so many exciting avenues of research into predator-prey interactions, with novel invasive species establishing and climate change affecting insect behavior, so I’m looking forward to the next project in this area.

Q: What is your favorite insect and why?
A: Praying mantises have been my favorite insect for a long time. They’re masters of camouflage, have incredibly good vision for insects, and are lightning-fast ambush hunters! Finding them in the summer is still the most exciting thing, and they’re usually happy to hang out for a while before flying off. I kept a few of them as pets in my dorm room in college, and one of their egg cases hatched early and my entire room was full of tiny baby mantises!

Visit Ben’s website here at bwlee.me or check out his Twitter @bugsbyblee!
Benjamin Lee holding a praying mantis.