USDA Fellowships help students defend Northwest crops, people from pests, pathogens

Group photo, outside.
Helping explore challenges facing agriculture, USDA-NIFA Pre-Doctoral Fellows Ben Lee, left, and Abigail Cohen, right, with WSU Entomology Assistant Professor Dave Crowder.

Helping sustainably protect important Northwest crops like potatoes, peas, and vegetables from pests and disease, while safeguarding consumers against foodborne illness, students at Washington State University’s Department of Entomology are putting new fellowships from the USDA’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA) to work.

Abigail Cohen, Benjamin Lee, and Olivia Smith are three of the newest WSU recipients of NIFA’s Agriculture and Food Research Initiative (AFRI) Pre-Doctoral Fellowships.

Part of AFRI’s Education and Workforce Development program, the fellowships support student research and training that benefits U.S. agriculture. Cohen, Lee, and Smith each received $120,000, two-year fellowships.

Head shot
Abigail Cohen

Stress on a tiny pest

Tiny insects called psyllids are a major source of stress for Northwest potato growers. Feeding on potato leaves and stems, psyllids spread bacteria that cause zebra chip disease, a striped, unsightly blemish that stunts plant growth, reduces yields, and renders potatoes unsuitable for chips or French fries.

Working with faculty co-investigator Dave Crowder, Cohen, from Jersey City, New Jersey, is using her fellowship to study how drought and water stress affect psyllids and the spread of zebra chip.

Two weedy plants, bittersweet nightshade and goji berry, are important hosts for the pest. Unlike potato fields, which are irrigated, these plants are subject to the Inland Northwest’s arid summers.

Cohen suspects that water stress in weed hosts drives the pesky psyllids into crop fields, spreading the zebra chip pathogen.

“If my hypothesis is accurate, farmers and scientists can use this information to improve their forecasting models and control methods for the pest,” she said. “My results could help growers make more informed decisions for more efficient pest management and reduced pesticide use.”

Head shot
Benjamin Lee

Studying pests, predators to slow disease’s spread

In farm fields, predator insects such as ladybugs are commonly welcomed as heroes, chowing down on pests like aphids that spread disease.

Lee, from Rye, New York, is researching a more complex picture: whether pest bugs’ fleeing reaction to predators actually causes diseases to spread wider and faster.

“Most past research on insect predators and prey looks at how good predators are at eating pests and reducing their populations,” he said. “But my research looks at all of these interactions, separate from consumption—things like failed hunts and prey’s constant fear of predators—which can greatly influence their behavior and reproduction.

Understanding these interactions could give scientists and growers a better idea how pests such as aphids move and feed on farm fields, helping predict and defend against the destructive diseases they spread.

Lee is studying aphid pests of dry peas in Washington’s Palouse country, but his research could also build knowledge on similar pests and diseases of the Northwest’s valuable chickpea and lentil crops.

“This work is necessary, as changing climates are causing insects and plant pathogens to spread into new regions where they’ve never before posed a threat,” he said.

Head shot of Smith
Olivia Smith

Birds as a defense against pests, disease

Helping protect important crops like kale, broccoli, tomatoes, and chard, Smith, from Tipton, Mich., is studying how native birds can help control pests but also spread food-borne pathogens including E. coli and Salmonella. 

Wild birds devour pest insects and can increase crop yields, but they also dine on beneficial predators like spiders and syrphid fly larvae. Working with co-investigators Jeb Owen and William Snyder, Smith’s project seeks to reveal birds’ overall impact on pests, predators, and yields.

Smith is also examining how often wild birds carry food-pathogens, and is seeking land management solutions to prevent infection, helping determine how birds can provide pest-fighting benefits without harming food production.

“By exploring the potential of birds as a natural pest control, my project could help growers manage for both sustainable agriculture and conservation,” she says.

Her project could help people to conserve wild birds and reduce pesticides, without compromising food safety.

Smith has already helped lead several farm field walks and webinars, sharing information with farmers on identifying and promoting birds, and co-authored online articles on managing birds for pest control in organic farms.

She plans to continue to help spread information with growers through the eOrganic website and the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s HabitatNetwork.

Better stories about science

Earning 11 NIFA fellowships since 2016, WSU students are among the most consistent recipients of the award. That’s not accidental, says David Crowder, associate professor of entomology.

With Kim Campbell, a USDA scientist and adjunct faculty in crop and soil sciences, Crowder co-teaches a science-writing course that helped students land prestigious fellowships.

Science Writing 511 challenges students to write clear, compelling scientific manuscripts and grant proposals.

“We’re giving them the tools to make their work understandable and interesting to scientists outside their field—something that’s very important for successful grant proposals,” Crowder said. “Winning recipients have really taken what we’ve said to heart.”

“Good writing is a learned skill,” added Crowder. “We want our students to learn how to tell better stories about their research. Their continued success with these fellowships is a testament to the fact that they’re mastering techniques that we know work.”

Empowering more relevant research

Fellowship funding helps these students conduct larger, more relevant field experiments, giving them a better view of Northwest farming systems and helping make their work more useful for Washington farmers and residents.

“It feels incredible to be supported by the USDA through this fellowship,” said Lee. “It’s just as much of an investment in my career and personal success as it is in the results of my research.”

  • Learn more about the AFRI Education and Workforce Development program here.
  • Learn more about the WSU Department of Entomology here.