Monday, January 5, 2009

An interview with Dr Helen Hull-Sanders

This interview is with Dr Helen Hull-Sanders, the Editor in Chief of International Journal of Insect Studies and Associate Professor in the Department of Biology at Canisius College.

Tom: What would you say is the primary focus of your research effort (and how do you refer to your 'sub-area')?

Dr Hull-Sanders: Broadly, I think I would classify myself either as an “evolutionary ecologist” or a “plant-insect biologist” depending on whom I need to impress. My research to date has addressed two evolutionary questions: What role do insects play in the maintenance of plant mixed-mating systems? and Do invasive plants maintain their secondary defenses in the absence of insect herbivores?

Tom: What do you consider to be the most significant developments arising from research in your area?

Dr Hull-Sanders: There are many significant developments in the field. We are sharpening our understanding of the complex interrelationship between insects and their host plants. Plants may not be able to avoid their attackers, but they do seem well equipped to either fend off or to tolerate the damage caused by herbivores. On the flip side, insects have become more sophisticated at avoiding plant defenses and often providing pollination services to strengthen their relationship with the host plant.

Tom: What do you consider to be the most significant open questions and research challenges in your area?

Dr Hull-Sanders: I think we need to increase our understanding of the consequences transgenic (genetically modified) plants have to the insect biodiversity while still providing food resources to the world. We are now more cognizant of the ramifications of pesticide use and the development of insect resistance, but the human population will always demand a higher crop yield while requiring minimal damage to the ecosystem. The only way this will happen is by using new and better technologies that will minimize traditional pesticide use.

Tom: Tell us about your collaborative research. Who else do you directly work with and what are the aims of your collaboration?

Dr Hull-Sanders: Currently, I am collaborating with Dr John Losey at Cornell University testing the non-target effects of the Cry III Bt transgenic corn. We are also trying to determine the changes in competition interactions between beetles within transgenic and traditional crops. I am also working with Robert Grebenok of Canisius College, Spence Behmer of Texas A&M University and Angela Douglas of Cornell University elucidating the relationship between changes in sterol content in transgenic tobacco and insect growth and fitness.

Robert Johnson of Medaille College, Gretchen Meyer of the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee Field Station and I have been testing the Evolution of Increased Competitive Ability hypothesis using native and invasive Solidago. While the field components have been tested, we are now trying to determine the evolutionary relationships between populations in Europe and the United States and quantifying the secondary chemical defenses.

And if that wasn’t enough, I am working with the Buffalo Museum of Science and the Tift Nature Preserve to establish butterfly exhibits and habitats.

Tom: Is balancing all these activities challenging? How do you deal with it and what tools do you find useful in doing so?

Dr Hull-Sanders: Of course it is challenging! First and foremost I have a supportive family. There have been any number of times that my husband has been my field assistant. I could not do my job without the people around me being understanding. Scientists are not normal people – we don’t turn off at five o’clock and go home. It is the challenge that we love. Each new question, new experiment, new discovery just propels us to the next.

As far as tools go, I am grateful for the cell phone. I lived on an island for three months while doing my Master’s research where I couldn’t contact anyone easily. That was really difficult. Now, I can call home every night and share my experiences.

Tom: When did you decide to be primarily involved in the field that you are now in?

Dr Hull-Sanders: Sometimes I believe that my field chose me; that I did not choose it. I began working with the cotton boll weevil (Anthonomous grandis) at the University of Texas at Austin. At the time, I was working with graduate students and post-docs in Dr. Mary Ann Rankin’s lab. I really wanted to be an ornithologist, but each time I proposed some kind of bird project, the job opportunities brought me back to insects. My master’s degree enabled me to live and study in the República de Panamá working with leaf-cutting ants (Atta colombica) which led directly to a PhD opportunity in the Department of Entomology at Auburn University. I look back now and realize how absolutely lucky I was to have the opportunities I’ve had. Insects, especially beetles, are so complex and fascinating that I cannot believe I ever wanted to study something so limiting as birds!

Tom: What resources do you find indispensible for your research work?

Dr Hull-Sanders: Computers. I cannot imagine trying to do a literature search or analyze data without computers. It is hard to imagine that 15 years ago the Science Citation Index was a book. Scholarly resources like ‘Google Scholar’ and ‘JSTOR’ are just so amazing. Even inter-library loan requests come to you within a few days and more often than not, they are .pdf files. Have some non-parametric data? The home laptop can analyze most data within moments. Even the collection of field data has gotten easier because of the convenience and accessibility of computers.

Tom: What do you think about the development of open access publishing and open access development? How has it changed your perspective on research or development practices?

Dr Hull-Sanders: Others have said this and I agree - open access journals are wonderful. The time it takes to make significant (and maybe not so significant, but important none-the-less) discoveries available has shortened considerably. This has enabled students, especially, to formulate and refine their research questions to reduce time wasted.

Tom: What books do you think should be required reading for researchers working in your area?

Dr Hull-Sanders: The Growth of Biological Thought: Diversity, Evolution and Inheritance (1982) by Ernst Mayr (

Tom: What books are current on your reading list?

Dr Hull-Sanders: A great friend and mentor recently gave me her copy of The Origin (1980) by Irving Stone ( Oddly enough, I’ve never read this book before. I was privileged enough to visit the Darwin exhibit at the Natural History Museum in New York City in 2006 and find his life to be inspiring.

Tom: Do you teach any courses? Is so, which ones?

Dr Hull-Sanders: I am currently working at a Jesuit teaching college, so I teach a multitude of undergraduate courses. Each fall I teach Ecology, Evolution and Population Biology as well as an Entomology course. Each spring I teach an introductory or non-majors biology course as well as an upper level Evolution course.

Tom: Which historical research figures do you think have most influenced you in how you think about research? Why are they significant?

Dr Hull-Sanders: Well, of course Darwin and Wallace are by far the most important influences to my research. However, I cannot allow Lamarck to go by unmentioned. He coined the term “invertebrate” while at the Muséum national d'histoire naturelle and continued to work and research under the villain, Cuvier. Ehrlich and Raven were/are so very important to our understanding of the co-evolution of plants and insects.

Tom: Which meetings do you attend on a regular basis?

Dr Hull-Sanders: I regularly attend the Ecological Society of America meeting, the Entomological Society of America meeting, the Society for the Study of Evolution, and the Botanical Society of America meeting.

Tom: If you could change something about how research in your area is conducted, used, perceived, or resourced, what would it be?

Dr Hull-Sanders: It would be ideal if there were greater translation of research findings. I know that there is great research being done in every country on the planet. Our problem is not that we don’t have a universal language – we do, it’s called science. Our problem is that we don’t have enough international collaborations, translations, and funding foundations. It is my hope that the International Journal of Insect Studies will begin to close the gaps between researchers and provide a means to have conversations that were impossible 20 years ago.

My thanks to Dr Hull-Sanders.