Forest Frontiers: Deborah McCullough
American Forests Science Advisory Board member Dr. Deborah McCullough is a professor in the Departments of Entomology and Forestry at Michigan State University. She studies a variety of forest insects, with recent research focusing on the emerald ash borer and other invasive forest insects.
Why did you choose to go into forest entomology?
I grew up in Flagstaff, Ariz., and have always spent lots of time outside. I took a course in forest entomology when I was a senior in college at Northern Arizona University. The combination of forestry and entomology seemed to encompass everything I liked. I’ve always been interested in forest ecology, and the more I learn about insects and how they interact with trees, their natural enemies and their environment, the more incredible they become. As a forest entomologist, I get to integrate ecology, biology, economics, policy — it can be complicated, but it is never dull.
If you weren’t a scientist, what would you be?
Heck, I’m not sure. Shortstop for the Minnesota Twins? On the professional bass fishing circuit? Microbrewery owner and brewmaster?
What is your favorite aspect or favorite part of your field?
I like just about everything related to forest entomology and my position here at Michigan State. I get to work outside in a variety of forest types during the summer (and sometimes the winter), which I enjoy greatly. I also get to develop and design research studies to address issues related to forest and tree health. I get a lot of satisfaction when we can use our results to improve forest management or develop solutions to problems. Working with graduate students and seeing their progress and their enthusiasm for their work is also one of the best aspects of this position. I also teach undergrad students and get to see them begin to appreciate the diversity and importance of forest insects.
Where was the most interesting place you were able to travel to in the name of science and why?
Sweden and Finland — the similarities and differences between those forests and forests in the North Central U.S. were striking. And it was beautiful country!
What is the most surprising thing you have learned or discovered?
I’m always surprised when I work with foresters or arborists who are not aware of how important insects and pathogens are in forests. Insects play critical roles in ecosystems, and if you manage trees or forests, it’s important to be aware of how your actions can affect beneficial insects, as well as pests.
Do you have a favorite story from your years in studying forest entomology?
I have lots of stories — not sure they are necessarily suitable for a family publication :).
What do you think the biggest issue facing forest health is today?
I think invasive forest insects and pathogens are the major issues. These pests cost property owners and municipalities billions of dollars every year. There are cultural impacts and even human-health impacts. They have major effects on species composition, productivity and wildlife habitat. Given increasing global trade and travel, combined with reduced funding for efforts to manage established pests and exclude potentially new pests, this problem will likely get worse.
Where is your favorite spot to experience nature?
North America has so many amazing places — I don’t think I can pick just one.
What was the most difficult moment that you’ve experienced in pursuit of your work?
The emerald ash borer (EAB) saga has been difficult. We’ve come a long way and learned a huge amount about EAB since this invasive pest was identified 10 years ago. The ecological and economic costs of EAB, however, are terrible. It’s like watching a catastrophe unfold.
Who is your favorite fictional scientist?
Dr. Sheldon Cooper from “The Big Bang Theory”