Entomologist Tracy Leskey studies insects to help crops grow

Tracy Leskey is an entomologist: a scientist who studies bugs. She's loved insects since she was a little girl with a Golden Book on monarch butterflies and "bug zoos" in her bedroom. Tracy combined her love of nature with a love of biology, and today is a researcher for the US Department of Agriculture. She works to protect food growers from invasive insects like the brown marmorated stink bug by finding sustainable, ecologically sound solutions.

Tracy loved insects so much, her first show and tell presentation was on monarch butterfly metamorphosis.

Life Cycle of the Monarch Butterfly.  (Danaus plexippus) Time-lapse video. FYV FrontYardVideo 1080 HD.

Fast facts about Tracy

Where she’s from: Western Pennsylvania
Grew up with: her mom and dad
Education: Bachelor's degree in Biology from Wilson College and a Master's in Ecology from Penn State and a PhD in Entomology from the University of Massachusetts- Amherst
Where she lives now: West Virginia
Growing up she wanted to be: a doctor
Now she’s: Research Entomologist for the U.S. Department of Agriculture

What were you like growing up?

Where I grew up was a rural community, in western Pennsylvania, about an hour from Pittsburgh. In high school and middle school, it was challenging. I wasn’t the coolest kid, particularly through middle school, and some of my interests, I don’t think, were shared by many girls in middle school.

I really did love insects, from the time I was a child, and my mother was great about letting me have insects in my room. I had little bug zoos. I would bring in fireflies at night. I had to release them in the morning; that was very important.

My very first show and tell presentation, from elementary school, I collected monarch butterfly caterpillars and took them into school, and demonstrated, over the course of a couple of weeks, pupation to my class, and I had this little Golden Book, that highlights monarch butterflies. It was my favorite book, and so that was literally my very first presentation in the realm of entomology.

What were you interested in, in and out of school?

I would describe myself as an awkward teen. I was a little unsure of myself. Honestly, I found high school cliques and some of the pressure to be a little bit daunting, and I wasn’t quite sure how to navigate through all of that.

I have absolutely zero sports ability. I was a part of the debating team and speech team. I was part of the choir. I did some theater type things, the international student club, and scholastic quiz. I was always interested in biology and ecology. I was thinking science and maybe pre-med, and thinking about pediatrics.

I needed to rebel at least a little bit. I shopped at thrift stores and had really interesting outfits that my mother, every single morning, would say, “You’re not going to school that way, are you?” I was like, “Sure, I am.”

When I was 15, I began working at a summer camp for physically and mentally handicapped people, children, adults. I was wanting to have a summer job to make some money. It was in our local newspaper. I thought I would end up working in the Dairy Queen or something, but then this opportunity presented itself. I was the youngest employee at the summer camp. My mother wasn’t quite certain whether I should live away from home all summer with these much older people, but she recognized that it was an opportunity for me to look see life on a larger scale. It was a little intimidating, but it was the first time I had a broader view of the world, working with people, working with special needs folks, and working with others to create a wonderful community.

We lived outdoors, in very primitive conditions, and I really loved that. It was the first place I had been, as a teenager, where your hair, your clothes, where you came from, how much money your family had, none of that mattered. We were all working together, and it was a wonderful, wonderful experience. It was the first time I truly felt like I was part of a team and built a community. It gave me the confidence to come back into high school and be more willing to express who I was at that point. I worked there for five summers.

Who were the adults who were important to you when you were growing up?

Certainly, my mother was. She took us on nature walks every single day, whether we were looking for crayfish in the creek or identifying birds in trees or looking at insects. That was always very important. Through high school I had some good teachers that were always very encouraging. College was really where I felt like I had adults in my life that were truly able to direct and help me articulate my interests into a true career path.

Were you aware of options for working in life science that weren’t becoming a doctor?

No. I wasn’t, and certainly, [my] parents weren’t necessarily either. They never really realized that to be a field ecologist that specializes in entomology was something that someone could do. It wasn’t until I had gotten into college and really started to see what was available that I realized that I could go back to my first love, which was science and nature combined. I preferred to be outdoors, and I really was enjoying classes that had an ecological twist to them. We had a young professor who was a trained entomologist. After meeting him, for my senior thesis, I ended up working with crane flies and collecting crane flies from different locations outdoors, then looking at them using an electron microscope. I got to go through the whole process of collecting the specimen, fixing them, creating the slides using the transmission electron microscope and seeing that through my senior year. I was becoming more and more interested in entomology and less interested in becoming a physician.

How did you decide to go to graduate school?

I took a little break in between, and I spent some time working at an environmental consulting firm. It was a good opportunity to learn to pay bills and have an apartment. My best friend from college and I gave ourselves a year to try to figure out what we were going to do next. Ultimately I did a master’s at Penn State then my PhD at UMass. At Penn State I ended up getting my master’s in ecology, but I was housed in the entomology department.

Can you tell us more about your graduate work?

I went to UMass Amherst and worked with an insect known as the plum curculio, a small weevil that is a native insect, and its native host plants are wild plum species. When Europeans introduced apples into North America, plum curculio found that this was also a good food source.

How, among all of the trees in the landscape, does it find an apple orchard? I was trying to understand the visual and all olfactory cues this weevil was using to locate apple trees, and, ultimately, to use that information to develop a sustainable tactic for managing them, known as behaviorally based management, where we basically disrupt their behavior by perhaps leading them in a different direction using an attractant. We don’t want for a grower to have to treat their entire orchard with an insecticide. It was really definitely taking some basic behavioral questions that we were addressing and applying them to management in commercial orchards.

How did you come to work for the Department of Agriculture?

I was recruited into the position. I had to apply and compete, but they were looking for someone that had been trained in the techniques and strategies of the behavioral manipulation of insects. I was very fortunate that that position came about just about the time I was graduating, and I walked right into this permanent scientific position. It was like, “Wow, I get to do exactly what I want to do, and try to develop sustainable practices for production of fruit.” It’s the best job in the world. It’s the best job in the world.

Tray at a farm showing damage to 'Fantasia' nectarines by brown marmorated stink bugs.

What have you been working on recently?

The last seven or eight years, invasive species have really dominated my program. Native insects have taken a backseat to the one that’s dominating most of my time, which is brown marmorated stink bug, an invasive stink bug from Asia.

There’s a hypothesis known as the enemy release hypothesis: that the natural enemies that coevolve with an organism didn’t come with it, so this allows the animal to just go gangbusters. That’s what was happening with brown marmorated stink bugs. Back in 2008 – 2009, we started to work on it and looking at the basic biology, ecology, and behavior. In 2010, we had a complete outbreak. The stink bug got ahead of us and it devastated crops, in the summer of 2010, across the mid-Atlantic. A lot of growers, of tree fruit, apples and peaches, lost their entire crops. Soybeans were highly affected, corn. Organic growers were overrun. It was a total disaster.

We were trying to develop some short-term mitigation. The only tool we had were insecticides, and even the insecticides that growers were using were not working. We had to start at the beginning, and identify some insecticides that growers could use, as they needed to. Since that time we’ve moved beyond that. Now we’re trying to develop sustainable strategies for their management, what I would call midterm types of approaches, and then ultimately a biological solution, something that could control the populations across the landscape.

For the last five years, I’ve led a national project with 52 scientists across the country to tackle this bug, and we’ve had to begin at the beginning and understand everything about its biology from the dispersal distances that it can travel, to the host plants it would eat-- over 170 so far, including many important crops-- to developing tactics for growers to detect its presence. If they do need to make a management decision and perhaps treat with an insecticide, they’re only doing it when they need to. Growers don’t want to do that because, one, it’s expensive. Two, I think growers are some of the best stewards of the land. They want to make sure that their farms can be as sustainable as possible, ecologically and economically.

A close-up of the brown marmorated stink bug Tracy researches.

How do you decide what to focus your research on?

I made the decision, in our lab group here, that we needed to put everything else on the backburner and deal with this invasive species because everything that we were working on wouldn’t matter if growers started going out of business because of this invasive. Being out in the field, and seeing what is going on is really critical to establishing what are the biggest issues that agriculture is facing at this moment. We had to put everything else on the backburner and just go.

One of the nice things about being a scientist is having the flexibility that your science is constantly evolving. There’s always something that’s going to change. Ecosystems aren’t stagnant, and we certainly know that will continue to be the case either through invasive species or climate change. What is today won’t necessarily be the same tomorrow.

How is it different working for the Department of Agriculture (USDA) directly versus working for example at a university with an agriculture department?

My position, officially on paper, is a hundred percent research. I don’t have teaching responsibilities, necessarily, though I do train graduate students and postdocs in my lab group, but that’s because I want to. One of the benefits of the Agricultural Research Service, which is the department that I work in within USDA, is that we can do long term, coordinated research. Projects can last ten years or more. Being able to follow a problem, for many years-- and it often takes that long because we are working in an ecological system-- and understanding the variation that occurs from year to year is really important. Ultimately the patterns that are there can be deciphered and distinguished.

You work with a pretty wide range of people: undergraduates, postdocs, and your own colleagues. Is that typical?

I think so. In science, especially when we’re dealing with a big problem like an invasive species, and we have so much to learn, we need all sorts of expertise, whether it’s biological control or chemical ecology or issues with development of models for tracking their development. We bring everybody around the table, so ultimately we can get to the answer as quickly as possible. It’s very important to me to collaborate with researchers, not just here at my lab, but also on the outside. Often I’m collaborating with researchers the faculty members at land-grant universities. 

Every question leads to a new question, so every answer that we get, from a previous question; there’s always a follow on question. that's what keeps me interested.

What keeps you interested in your work?

Every question leads to a new question, so every answer that we get, from a previous question; there’s always a follow on question. Each question leads to an answer, but each answer leads to a new question, and that’s what keeps me interested.

What fills your time outside of work?

Any time I get an opportunity to travel I’ll do that. I’ve traveled to different places, sometimes work, but I always try to dovetail it with some fun things, too, different parts of the world, that’s always a good thing. I’m a big fan of hiking. I like to be outdoors, whether it’s hiking or swimming or whatever. I try to have some meaningful hobbies, serving on the board of trustees with my alma mater. I appreciate having the opportunity to serve and make my brain think in a different way. I think my job here helps my feedback and input as a board member; my experience as a board member, has helped me in my job here.

I participate in trap, spay, neuter, and release endeavors, locally, for cats because I’m a cat lover and I hate seeing things suffer. I’ve become an expert at trapping feral cats. I have three of my own.

If you don’t start somewhere, you’re standing still.

Tracy doing some field work in a New England orchard.

What advice would you give somebody, who was a kid, like you?

I would probably give them the same advice that I do give to all of my graduate students, my postdocs, and my undergrads: to be true to yourself and follow your interests. It’s okay to be a little bit scared about that. It’s okay to try new things and learn that it may be the best thing ever for you, but it also may not. If you don’t start somewhere, you’re standing still. In science there are two groups of scientists: those that hesitate at the edge of a cliff, wondering what they should do, and then there’s the other folks that jump and will figure it out. I’m part of the jumpers.

It’s okay to have unique interests that may not seem to be the coolest. I think if someone lands in their career and they feel like it’s almost like a hobby, then, hey, you’ve won.

I hope that any girl who has those interests will find her way there because we need great, young women to come into our field and keep moving it forward.

What would you tell somebody who is interested in nature and science and wanted to do work in that area?
There are so many good opportunities for someone who is interested in nature and in science and taking that knowledge and applying it, whether it’s to agricultural systems, forest systems, fisheries, whatever. We need good people because there are a lot of problems that continue to emerge, whether it’s invasive species, whether it’s climate change, but also opportunities as technology advances. We, here at the lab, are talking more and more about how we can apply technologies to agricultural production to make our systems more sustainable. There are immense opportunities moving forward, whether it’s entomology or working within agriculture. I hope that any girl who has those interests will find her way there because we need great, young women to come into our field and keep moving it forward.

How does your life now compare to what you thought it might be like when you were a teenager?

As a teenager, I didn’t imagine that I would become an entomologist. I always had this interest in biology and science, but I had to put it all together and realize that entomology was a perfect fit. I didn’t know, at the time, that it was going to be entomology. I knew that I loved nature, biology, and ecology, but it was just a matter of getting and finding the right career path that was the perfect fit for me.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

Check out some of Tracy's favorite books and find out more about her work!