Interviews with Australian scientists

Dr Jane Wright
Entomologist

Jane Wright was born in 1954 in Ontario, Canada. She received a BSc (Hons) in 1976 from Queen's University, Canada. She studied lady beetle biology at the University of Guelph, Canada, and received an MSc there in 1978. In 1984 she was awarded a PhD from the University of California, Berkeley, USA, where she researched the biology of a parasitic wasp.

In 1984 Wright took a position with CSIRO Entomology and is still with that organisation. She spent 1984-1988 working on the biological control of dung-breeding flies in South Africa and Brisbane. In 1988 she moved to Canberra as an insect ecologist and behaviourist with CSIRO Entomology’s Stored Grain Research Laboratory (SGRL). At SGRL her work has included trapping and detecting insects in stored grain products and the distribution, ecology and control of the warehouse beetle.

Head of SGRL since 1997, Wright is also currently program leader for CSIRO Entomology's Stored Products and Structural Pests program.

Interviewed by Dr Victoria Haritos in 2000.

Contents

The road to academic enjoyment
Around the corner into applied entomology
By snowshoe in search of sleeping lady beetles
The tortuous pathway to a PhD topic
Sucked in: the life journeys of a parasite and its host
An African complement to dung beetle activity
Odiferous searches for a buffalo fly predator
From the perils of the game park to the naming of an insect
The fall and rise of dung beetle research
Catching stored grain beetles and recruiting a husband
Quarantine or control? Tracking the warehouse beetle
Pursuing a moth-free breakfast
A new staging-point: science management for accountability, integrated solutions and commercial value
Botanical by-ways
A woman at home in science

Teachers notes to accompany this transcript.

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Funded by the Australian Government as an ongoing project from the 1999 International Year of Older Persons. .

The road to academic enjoyment

Jane, perhaps you could begin by telling us about your childhood in Canada.

I think it was like most people's childhoods, almost anywhere. It was a happy childhood and a perfectly normal upbringing – mother, father, three children, house in the suburbs, nothing dramatic one way or the other. I had all the normal oldest-in-the-family issues to deal with, but then my sister had the middle-child issues and my brother had the baby issues. I admired my parents. My father was a successful steel businessman; my mother was the president of every volunteer organisation she joined.

My parents certainly had a strong influence in relation to education being important, but not on my career choice. They both had degrees and my maternal grandmother got her Bachelor of Arts degree in 1920, and whether we would go to university was never in question at all. But exactly what I studied was more or less up to me – my father just gave me some advice about what I should not do. I fancied going into engineering as he had, but he said it probably wasn't a good idea because that was still a very male chauvinist profession. He didn't really feel that I should necessarily be the one to break down the barriers. But when, like other children with their fathers, I discussed with him what I should do when I grew up, he would say I could be anything I wanted – an actress, a doctor, a business person. I could do anything. That was terrific in a way, but it put a lot of pressure on me. I had a lot to live up to.

Did you enjoy your schooldays?

I absolutely loved going to school. When I was a child I could hardly wait to go to school and learn how to read – and as soon as I did, I devoured books all the time. School was great fun, and high school too (academically, anyway) was lots of fun. Things came unglued in the social part, however. At my school, if you were a brain, someone who did their homework and actually tried to do well, you were definitely 'not in'. I wanted very badly to be 'in', to be popular, but not enough to throw away the academics. So I was really glad to finish high school.

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Around the corner into applied entomology

Where did the interest in entomology start?

Most entomologists start off with a childhood collection of insects, but I didn't discover entomology till my third undergraduate year. I was interested in things biological from an early age, though: in junior high we would make up infusions of hay, put spoonfuls of water from puddles into them and grow up ostracods. I spent lots of lunch hours looking down the microscope at these things whizzing around in various kinds of dishes, and for me that was really great. A little later, when I took biology and we were learning about the cell and the organelles within it, I became fascinated by the 'Golgi apparatus' – but they didn't tell us very much about it so I went to the library and got out all the books on the cell that I could find. I came to the conclusion that nobody really knew anything about what the Golgi apparatus was for. They could recognise it, they had a name for it, but they didn't know what it was for. This was a huge eye-opener for me: I suddenly realised there are things that people don't know all about yet. That was so exciting that I got hooked on biology.

Delhi Tobacco Research
Station, Ontario, Canada,
1975: Sieving cutworm
pupae from soil.
Delhi Tobacco Research
Station, Ontario, Canada,
1975: Hand picking
tobacco.
In the laboratory with a
(live) silkworm moth.
Graduation.

You attended Queen's University, in Kingston, Ontario. Why did you go there?

My grandmother, my mother, my father all went to Queen's. It was a very traditional university, and at that time a high proportion of the students had parents who'd gone there, so it seemed a natural progression. My parents maintained staunchly they would never try and influence my choice, but my grandmother wasn't quite so restrained: when I was coming to the end of high school, wonderful books about Queen's University kept appearing in our house. And then my father detoured through Queen's – a beautiful place – on the way to the cottage one year. That happened to be graduation weekend, and there were all these incredibly gorgeous men. So I enrolled at Queen's the following year.

It was a great university. My experience there was marvellous, but not a straight path. I had pretty good biology marks in high school but I was quite insecure about whether I'd be accepted to Queen's in biology. I had extremely good math marks, though, so I decided to apply in maths and I was accepted. I did biology as well, and over time I realised that combining computing science with biology to do population work would be even better. This was where it was going to happen, I thought. (This was very early days: we were still punching cards and putting them through card readers.) But my idea was too new for Queen's University. When, eventually, they designed me a program with a joint major in computing and biology, it was too late – by then I had plumped strictly for biology. So I had maths, computing and a lot of biology, and I tried to do both the plant and the animal sides in biology.

The entomology came as a course in my third year – the only course in entomology available at Queen's University – and it was marvellous. I love creepy-crawly things, so I had enjoyed invertebrate zoology and marine biology. And being really interested in plants, I had taken botany courses. When I got to entomology, I realised this was a chance to combine the creepy-crawlies and the plants and to do something useful in applied entomology, so this gave me the direction for the future. The wonderful thing about insects is that even if everyone was fired, in no time there would be an insect plague and at least some of us would get our jobs back. You can always count on the insects.

For my honours thesis in fourth year I worked at a tobacco research station in southern Ontario, looking at tobacco cutworms. This was my first chance to 'play' in the field with real insects. It was fascinating and opened my eyes to the potential in research. It was also my first experience of parasites. Whereas a predator eats many prey items in its lifetime, a parasite just consumes one host. Generally a parasitic wasp, say, will lay an egg into a caterpillar, the egg will hatch and the wasp larva will develop inside the host, completely consuming and killing it. Then the larva will pupate and you'll get a new wasp. In the cutworm project I was absolutely fascinated to see, for my very first time, that whole process in action.

Did it turn you into a mad insect collector?

Not at that point, but I took on the job of emptying a light trap which the research station people had been running for years to keep track of the moth populations in the environment, and counting the different kinds of moths. I learnt how to spread and mount them, and that was actually the beginning of my insect collection. I still have those moths – the ones that haven't been eaten by carpet beetles, that is.

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By snowshoe in search of sleeping lady beetles

It is a North American tradition to study for a master's degree prior to going on to doctoral studies. Which university did you attend for this?

The University of Guelph, in southern Ontario. It is known to be very strong in veterinary medicine and applied agriculture, and at that time had the only proper entomology department in Canada, so I felt it was worth making a shift again to a new place. In Canada there's a lot of coursework all the way through, even when you are doing your PhD, and oh my, was there ever a lot of coursework for my master's! I had only one entomology course from Queen's University, but in the entomology department at Guelph the undergraduate students had already taken five or six entomology courses. I felt very far behind so I immediately threw myself in – I did a lot of collecting, working out what things were, and I studied like crazy. It was enormous fun, like discovering a whole new world.

What did you study for the research part of the degree?

The research part was fun. I chose to do my degree with John Laing. When I arrived he told me he had money for three different projects and I should go away to the library for a few months in the summer and work out what I was going to do for my degree. So I went off to the library. I researched a couple of topics, made up my mind, came back and said I wanted to work on apple maggot. 'What's wrong with the other projects?' he asked. I told him what was wrong with this one and that, and why I didn't want to work on ladybird beetles, and I said I really thought the apple maggot project would be wonderful. 'What about the lady beetle project?' was his response. Back and forth we went, and finally I understood what was going on. So I worked on lady beetles for my master's degree.

Lady beetles are very common, naturally-occurring predators of aphids, primarily, and I was looking at them feeding on aphids in corn (maize). I studied a lot of aspects of lady beetle biology. It was quite a lab-based project in terms of the temperature and development studies, and there was even a parasite that attacked the adult. That was very interesting. But I also spent a lot of time looking at how the beetles would be attracted to the cornfields as the corn started to grow and the aphid population rose. I did lab work all year and field work in the summer – and even in the winter.

There are sometimes metres of snow where I was doing my work in Canada and I was interested in how well these beetles survived the winter, particularly by coming together in great big congregations. I created cages that had mesh on the bottom and the top. I put in the soil and leaf litter, added all these beetles, closed up the cages and put them into the ground – in several places in the orchard where I had found the beetles congregating normally – so that they would be level. I marked where they were with coloured tags in the trees above, and went away. I would then come back at intervals through the winter and collect some of the cages.

That all sounds very straightforward until I tell you that no roads were ploughed to go into the orchard in the winter, and so I used to have to snowshoe in – carrying with me a big snow shovel, a brick hammer, a chisel and a great big bag to carry everything back with. And so, several times a winter, I would find my coloured tags, dig down sometimes almost two metres into the snow, chip all of these cages out of the frozen ground, put my cages in the big bag, close everything up and go back out again. It was interesting to find that the adult beetles that had been parasitised were less likely to survive the winter than unparasitised ones, so it seemed the parasites caused a problem to those beetles through the winter.

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The tortuous pathway to a PhD topic

After enjoying some research experience, Jane, you decided to undertake a doctorate.

I did. About halfway through the master's, while I was teaching students – doing the labs – for some of the courses and doing my own research, I realised this was what I wanted to do. It just felt right for me. So I would have to have a PhD, but where to go and what to do? I thought I had learned as much there as I could, and it would be a good idea to move some place new. I'd already been to what I considered the best entomology department in Canada, so now I had to leave home.

I went to Berkeley, California, which for me was academic nirvana, just brilliant. I was able to take courses from people who wrote the books that I'd studied from, and I discovered that they were real people, warts and all. We'd have seminar classes where the graduate students like myself would give seminars and the professors would come in the evenings to listen to what the grad students had to say. I felt like I was being treated as an equal, and it was the most marvellous experience – the best.

What did you research at Berkeley?

Berkeley, like Queen's University, puts a lot of emphasis on coursework and exams, but there is also a research component. For the research component I had an arrangement with Professor Carl Huffaker, who had supervised my previous professor, John Laing, back during the crazy '60s. Carl was about to retire but he agreed to shepherd me until I was able to find a proper supervisor. I started going round talking to the other professors about what was possible but no-one seemed interested. So here I was in the centre of the most incredibly wonderful entomology department, and I couldn't find a supervisor. I was getting a little desperate. Finally Carl Huffaker said, 'Well, I've decided to phase my retirement until I'm 70. We'd better find you a project. You're my last student.' That seemed terrific.

I settled down to find something in his area, and decided on the blue-green aphid on alfalfa (lucerne). There wasn't much money for such a project. And this had to be original research, but every time I seemed to hit on something original I would discover that other people had already done it. Just when I thought I finally had it right, a professor who was visiting from Canada said to me, 'Oh, we've already done that. I'll send you the data.' And he did that over and over.

Desperate for a new project, I thought the man who ran the quarantine facility might have something interesting among the wasps and beetles that people brought in for biological control. After showing me some things, he came to part of a project by another professor, Dr Ken Hagan – who is world renowned for ladybird beetle studies, by the way. One cage had small moving yellow dots in it, another had small moving grey dots, and a third had an insect that was two millimetres long. Its females looked a bit like ants. Their wings were short, so they couldn't fly, and they had the most gorgeous white ends on their legs. And as I looked I thought, 'That's them.'

So I went and told my professor I had to change my project, and why. He asked if I had any other ideas and I told him, 'Well, there's this two-millimetre-long wasp in the quarantine.' He agreed to that and so I switched to working on the wasp. It is a parasite of scale insects – plant-sucking insects – that were decimating a particular ornamental plant along the freeways in California. That was a completely different kind of project, but probably the nicest one I've ever worked on.

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Sucked in: the life journeys of a parasite and its host

Encyrtus saliens – female wasp
measuring the size of the host
scale insect with her antennae.
She will lay a female egg into a
host of this size.

The interesting thing about this project was that everything I did was brand-new. There was no danger of someone saying, 'Oh, we've already done that. Let me send you the data,' because this insect had only got a name four years before. Even things like how many larval stages it had were not known, so I got to work out all of that, as well as how the insect itself developed within the host without killing it until the insect was completely finished developing and emerged as an adult – and also how the insect could assess the size of the host. This is important because when a female wasp lays a haploid egg (which has only one set of chromosomes) it develops into a male; if she lays a diploid egg – two sets of chromosomes – it develops into a female. The wasps choose the smaller host to lay the male eggs in and the larger host to lay the female eggs in: when it comes right down to it, it takes a lot more energy to make eggs than it does to make sperm, so for more energy you go for the big ones. I was able to work out how the female would measure the hosts' size – by walking over them – and what cut-off determined which would get male or female eggs.

Among other aspects, it turned out that the wasps learnt. When a wasp that had never ever experienced a host before experienced a small host, she would often lay a 'female' egg anyway, but once she experienced a large host she would never make the mistake again. If the very first host she experienced was for some reason not going to be satisfactory for development – another wasp had put an egg in it, or it was damaged in some way and wouldn't survive – she would actually accept it, even though it wasn't going to work out. But once she'd experienced a good one she would never make the mistake again. So she was able to learn. Working out these kinds of things was absolutely fascinating.

There were interactions between those little moving yellow and grey dots, which were actually related species in a different genus, but very small. They could sometimes compete within the host, depending on who got there first and how it all worked out. So I was able to do work on a lot of interesting behaviour that I had never ever done before, and it gave me an even greater appreciation for how interesting insects are and how much behaviour is involved in them. They're certainly not just little automatons.

You also studied the development of your wasp's host.

I did, and I found something really interesting. The scale insect is like a little flat pancake that sits on the leaf with its mouth underneath, down with its siphon in. The female wasp will go round and check it, and then she will lay her egg into the side, leaving a little stalk sticking out for air. When the egg hatches, the larva stays attached back to the base of the egg with things that look like air hoses. And when it moults again, it just pushes them back, and pretty soon there's this scale insect with a quite large wasp larva inside and air hoses right back to the base of the egg. (Because the host is still alive, the larva is still in a sort of soup and needs the connection to the outside air.)

Things get really tricky when the larva needs to pupate, for which it needs an airspace. I found that it was able to make a little shell, a container, inside the host and then actually get the host's air tracheae to come up and join to this. The physiology is still not clear, but somehow it managed to convince its host – which it was going to kill – to supply the air it would need for the pupa. Eventually, the larva would break its own first connection to the outside and pupate in its little air-filled sac inside the host. Finally, it would chew a hole, weld together the two bits of outside and inside skin, and come out. And only after that did the host die.

That sealing may be just a tidy way of getting out, but whatever its function, the result was that the host didn't die instantly. I don't think that was of any particular advantage to my wasp, but it did mean that some of those other tiny parasites could develop in the little bit of stuff left over around the edges. So I could sometimes get two species to come out, whereas normally they would fight to the death. In this case, if the timing was right, I could get one big wasp out and a couple of little ones.

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An African complement to dung beetle activity

Having finished your doctorate, how did you find work in scientific research?

This is always a big problem. I had an office mate who used to apply for every job that was ever advertised, and papered her wall of the office with rejection letters. I was a little more selective, applying for three jobs in my final year. I was only looking for jobs in Canada or the United States, but somebody told me, 'No, Jane. If you want to see about the foreign jobs, you really need to read Nature.' A foreign job seemed too scary to me, but I did want a job. So on the 4th of July long weekend in the United States I pulled down the last few issues of Nature, and there was an advertisement for a job with CSIRO Australia, to work on predatory dung beetles in Africa. I thought, 'Wow! Now, that's a job. But everybody knows that Australians are chauvinists. There's no way they'll hire a woman to do this job.' Anyway, I decided that if I didn't apply I couldn't turn the job down. The deadline was the following Thursday so I prepared my application over the weekend, and it went into the express mail on Tuesday morning. I got the job.

We have heard a lot about the CSIRO dung beetle project. What was your part in it?

My part was to do with complementing the previous introduction of dung beetles that eat dung. Historically, Australia didn't have large mammals that produce large pads of dung. It was all small pellet, and the dung beetles in Australia were adapted to that. But we brought in cattle, with dung of a very different consistency, and very few native beetles went across to it. The original dung beetle program was all about getting these large pads of dung buried into the soil, getting the nutrients down and – as a secondary issue – helping to control the flies.

There are a couple of kinds of flies in Australia. The 'Australian salute' results from the bush fly, which, although it's actually a native insect, goes very well in dung. My project, though, was about the buffalo fly, which is a pest of cattle in Queensland. The adult flies stay on the cattle and take blood meals – sometimes 20 a day – all day, every day. You can imagine how much irritation that will cause an animal, and high numbers will even make open, bleeding lesions on the animals. So buffalo fly is a very serious pest.

Its life cycle begins when the females get blood meals and use that protein to develop the eggs. When the cow produces a pad, the flies that are ready to lay go down onto the hot dung and lay their eggs around the edges or just underneath the bottom, and immediately fly back on top. Once the dung starts to cool, flies of this particular kind won't lay eggs any more, so on the pad you get a set of eggs that are all laid within a few minutes of each other. These eggs hatch very fast, the larvae eat the dung very fast – they complete development in only about four days in summer – and then they dig into the soil underneath and make a pupa. After a couple of weeks in that stage, they come up as adults and have to find another host. This is the insect we were concerned with.

In some places, some of the time, the dung-burying dung beetles were not able to get rid of the dung fast enough to prevent the flies from breeding. My project was to look at those kinds of insects that are attracted to dung and feed directly on the eggs and the larvae, so that at times when the dung-burying dung beetles were not sufficient we would have direct predators to feed on the fly populations and help suppress them. I was to go to South Africa and work on a very closely related fly on African buffalo dung, in order to select the right species to bring from Africa to Australia. So my job fitted into the whole by providing complementary beasts to help the dung-burying dung beetles along.

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Odiferous searches for a buffalo fly predator

Just how did you look for suitable predators of buffalo fly?

I was hired originally to discover exactly which insects had fed on the buffalo fly, by finding the proteins of the buffalo fly in the guts. (A lot of different kinds of beetles would come to the dung, but not all of them would be necessarily eating the fly we were interested in, so this was a way of catching them in the act.) We took an immunological approach. We created antibodies to the fly eggs or the larvae and then used a test in which we took the gut contents from an insect that we thought could have been feeding and mixed that with the antibodies. A reaction would show the protein was in the gut and therefore that particular beetle ate the insect you were interested in. Sounds terrific. The problem was that although we could determine if an insect had eaten a fly, we could never get it detailed enough to determine one particular fly or even one family of flies, so it really didn't work out very well. I tried all sorts of things. I got lots of help from the people in the research farm where we were stationed, I got help from the Onderstepoort Veterinary Institute, but in the end I just had to do something else.

Setting up field experiments on
dung beetles, Hluhluwe Game
Reserve, Natal, Republic of South
Africa, 1985.

If you can't catch them with a smoking gun, you find the opportunity and the motive. We decided to look for insects that would be in the right place at the right time, and that for other reasons we knew were likely to feed on eggs or larvae of the flies. Place and time was important because ultimately we were going to bring these insects to Australia, and we wanted them to prey on the flies in the places where the flies were going to be – in dung pads out in the open in grassy areas, not in the bushes, often on hard rather than sandy soils – and also very early, when the dung pad is very fresh. (The flies lay their eggs when the dung is hot, and five days later they're out of there, so it all has to happen early on.)

In a fairly standard ecological approach, we set up a number of experiments where we would put cow dung into open grassland areas, on hard soils or on sandy soils, in some scrubby bushland, in some dense forest, and see what insects came each day to these kinds of dung pads. That allowed us to work out the habitat preferences of the insects that were available to us in that environment. Then we had to narrow it down: of the ones that went to the grassland, which were actually going to be interested in cow dung? There's lots of dung out there, and lots of other things that these insects could be having a look through in order to find tasty fly larvae to eat.

And so we set up experiments to look at the attraction of these predatory insects to lots of different kinds of decaying material. All of this was being done in a game park in South Africa, so as well as decaying bananas we had rhinoceros dung, cow dung, African buffalo dung – those were quite similar, being both ruminant dungs – and then we started to get into the smellier end. We moved into sheep dung, on into pig dung as an omnivore kind of dung (quite a lot like human dung, which is why we find it so offensive) and then into rotten chickens. We also had plain traps with no bait, to account for the ones that happened to walk by. With our experiments set up in several places with all these different kinds of baits, we could see from the insects we caught each day who was going to what kind of thing.

Aside from being very smelly, it produced a really interesting result. There was no doubt we had specialists in rhinoceros dung, which is quite a lot like horse dung, we had specialists in the ruminant dung, and we had some – the numbers rose as you got smellier and smellier – that were mostly in carrion and only occasionally back in cow dung. In choosing insects to bring to Australia, we wouldn't consider carrion specialists even if numbers of them appeared reasonably often in this dung, because we already have carrion specialists in Australia. We would concentrate on the ones that were in the grassland, on hard soils, coming very early to fresh dung and concentrating on the cattle or African buffalo dung. This was our way of determining guilt by association.

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From the perils of the game park to the naming of an insect

Were there any logistic difficulties in carrying out work in a game park?

In the game park in South Africa,
1985.

Well yes, there were some. We did have accommodation and our own little kitchen cum lab in the research compound where the Natal Parks Board people worked, so that part went very well. But when it came to field sites it was different. We worked in this game park because it had African buffalo, which we could use as models for the Australian cattle. But probably they were the most dangerous animals in the whole reserve. If you think of a bull with a really bad temper, this conjures up African buffalo. And of course there were rhinoceros. White rhinos are kind of nice but huge, and black rhinos get very irritated very fast. So there were some logistics about keeping safe in this environment. At times we would arrive to the field site – after driving through the ford and enjoying the sight of hippopotamuses in the water off to the side – only to find an enormous rhinoceros and her calf right in the middle of it. So we would have to make noise and so on until she moved off.

Then, in our experiment on different dung and carrion types, hyenas would dig up the chicken baits. We knew this was likely to be a problem and so when we set our traps up we put very big, strong cages over the top, and put great big spikes into the ground to hold them in place. But it didn't matter; the hyenas dug them up and ate all the chicken bait, so I have one whole experiment that's missing the chickens.

Painting lab-reared buffalo fly eggs
onto dung pads for experiments.
Hluhluwe Game Reserve, Natal,
1985.

But I think the worst happened one day when we were putting out our experiments. We used to 'create' dung pads with fly eggs on them. We would grow the flies in the lab in Pretoria, get the eggs – remember, they hatch very quickly, so we had to keep them cool – and drive really fast for six hours to get to the game park, paint them onto fake dung pads and put them out in the field. And that day, while we were trying to put them out we heard lions on the site. My assistant and her assistant, a young Zulu lad, came running back to the car so fast! We were pretty nervous so we sat inside the car to put all the eggs on the dung pads, and then we drove this brand-new vehicle – not our normal big truck that day – through the field site, running out with the dung pads and back extra quickly so as not to be eaten by the lions.

In this project you researched not only predators but also parasites of the buffalo fly, didn't you?

Yes. Beetles are seldom parasites, but some beetles turned out to be both predators and parasites at the same time. These insects have a particularly interesting life history. The adult beetle comes to the pad and eats eggs and larvae as a predator does. It then lays its own eggs in the pad, and they develop while a buffalo fly is turning into a larva and doing its own developing. At about the time the fly goes down into the soil to become a pupa, the egg of the beetle hatches. I found that its larva actually followed the smell of the fly maggot down into the soil, chewed a hole into the puparium and developed to an adult as a parasite on the fly pupa. So it was first a predator and then a parasite – it caught the buffalo fly coming and going.

That was a really fascinating study, because we found that when the little larva of this beetle was choosing a host, it would parasitise anything as long as it was a fly, in the right place – under the pad – and about the right size. And that included the fly we were interested in. I looked at it more closely in the lab, where I reared flies of a number of species. I could make small, medium and large ones and I was able to show that what mattered most was the size, not the particular species. The beetles did have preferred optimum sizes of fly, however, and best of all, it turned out that one beetle, even though it would parasitise the African buffalo fly, actually preferred the size of the Australian buffalo fly. So, having been able to do that kind of work on different species, we could work out that this would go well across here in Australia.

And the species was?

With some of the staff from the Dung
Beetle Research Unit in Pretoria,
Republic of South Africa, 1986.

Well, there were a number of species. There's quite a good story with that too. As part of this work I became quite a taxonomist in order to identify all these things, and eventually we had to work out the biology of about 250 different species of beetles that came to these dung pads – not all of them in detail, but certainly the major groups. A lot of them had no names, however. Later on, when I contacted a specialist in the predator/parasite beetle group, I sent him my material that didn't have names because he was doing a revision and I thought he would be able to supply names for them. One of those species was new – he had never seen it before – and he has named that tiny little African dung beetle Aleochara wrightii, after me.

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The fall and rise of dung beetle research

What happened to the dung beetle project?

It was a really big project and went on for almost 20 years. But the people funding it for that long, long time changed their priorities from production research to meat processing research. So, when I'd been in South Africa for not quite two years and had just started all this ecological work, the funding was withdrawn and we had only about four months' notice to close everything down in Africa – close the lab completely, close our field station, move back to Australia. I went to Brisbane and salvaged what I could from my project, but basically that was the end of the African operation. The project continued in Australia for a while longer, cropping the dung-burying dung beetles from where they were plentiful and redistributing them to speed up their rate of spread. But even that mostly finished, and because my predator work wasn't finished in time and there was no money to pursue it, everything came to a halt from the research side. But not from the beetle side. The beetles are still working hard and still expanding in their distribution.

I guess I always knew that things would come back again, and just in this last year the pastoralists in northern New South Wales and southern Queensland have approached the CSIRO to finish the job because this project has delivered such huge benefits. It's not easy, in these days when funds are not exactly abundant, to start up again. But now on the National Dung Beetle Steering Committee we are looking at what we can do for a little money and at the appropriate steps to finish it.

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Catching stored grain beetles and recruiting a husband

Your next move was to the Stored Grain Research Laboratory, in Canberra.

That was a question of needing a job. There was an opening for an insect ecologist and behaviourist, I was offered the position, and I moved from Brisbane down to Canberra to look at how insects, particularly stored grain beetles, move around and cause damage to grain in silos.

Sampling insects in stored
grain, New South Wales,
1988.

Usually a project starts with someone having an idea of what is needed. My first project was to look at ways of detecting insects early in their infestation of large bulks of grain, when there were not yet many of them and there was still very little damage, so that people would have time to do something about it before they had to ship the grain overseas. We had to develop a more sensitive method than the traditional one. We were using traps developed overseas which were used in North America and Europe but not yet in the Australian situation. The characteristics of Australian grain are quite different. At that time people were using quite a lot of insecticide on it, and also the grain was very dry and often very hot. It was my job to see how we could adapt the overseas trapping technology to our Australian grain handling and storage system to get a good result in such conditions. In my first year I did a lot of work in New South Wales – I had a total of 22 different silos or sheds around the state, with a total of 125,000 tons of grain underneath my traps. That's truly full-scale fieldwork.

The Stored Grain Research Laboratory is a marvellous organisation to be involved with. It was set up in 1969 because Australia was exporting not only a lot of grain but a lot of insects with it. This was causing trouble with the customers and the Australian Wheat Board realised that to lift the quality of the wheat it sold, it needed research to point the way. So the Wheat Board built a wing onto the CSIRO Division of Entomology, which filled it with scientists, and they got busy. For 30 years the scientists in that lab and the other staff have been developing solutions for the grain storage handling problems of Australia, making quite a significant contribution to the fact that Australian grain is now considered some of the best in the world, equivalent to Canada's. Our farmers grow excellent grain, very good white milling wheat, and we take good care of it so it arrives at the other end clean and insect free. And as a result, our farmers get a premium price for their high-quality product.

I believe that at SGRL you extended your trapping beyond the insects.

Ah yes. In about my second year there, I went to a conference in Vancouver, Canada. I attended a workshop of stored grain researchers about trapping of insects in grain, which was very topical at that time – and I met this fellow, David Rees, who was working in a similar organisation in the UK. About 18 months later there was another conference, this time in Texas, where I decided this fellow was pretty interesting. And then about a year later there was another conference, in Bordeaux, France, where we were having dinner every night and trying to avoid his work colleagues as we zipped down the back alleys. And so we fell in love.

David was working on stored grain problems in Mexico, West Africa and Indonesia, I was working in Australia, and we spent three years writing letters back and forth. After a while we paid for our own airline tickets and visited each other, and eventually I went to the UK and we were married. I came back to Australia and David followed about seven months later – prepared to try something completely different, which was simply marvellous. Not everybody finds such a spouse. Then, almost instantly after he arrived, a big problem arose with some new pests in Australia which none of us had any experience with. But he had worked on these psocids in the past, so the head of the Stored Grain Lab hired him to work on them. My laboratory head told me I had done the niftiest bit of recruiting he had seen in a long time!

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Quarantine or control? Tracking the warehouse beetle

Tell us about your project to investigate the grain pest called the warehouse beetle.

The warehouse beetle is in a group of insects that are known to be quite serious pests of stored grain and stored commodities generally. Warehouse beetle itself can do a lot of damage by feeding on grains, but in its larval stage it very closely resembles another insect, the khapra beetle, which is greatly feared around the world – there are lots of quarantine barriers against khapra beetle. The warehouse beetle got into Australia somehow (there are a few theories about how that happened) in the Griffith and Leeton area of the Riverina, associated with the rice industry, and it very quickly spread into the storages of wheat and other things because it will eat almost any dried food that you can name. The risk then was that people overseas might find warehouse beetle larvae in our exported grain, for instance, and think they were khapra beetle larvae. The trade repercussions could have been very serious. So, after the warehouse beetle was found here in the early 1970s, there was an eradication attempt – which didn't work – and then the hope was that by a series of quarantine and containment measures the beetle population could be quite well restricted to a small part of New South Wales.

As these things go, after a while people stopped thinking much about the warehouse beetle. But after about 10 years people suddenly realised it was a serious problem again and its distribution was starting to expand. The Ricegrowers' Cooperative came and asked Jonathan Banks, then the head of the Stored Grain Research Lab, if we would undertake a major piece of work to help them deal with the problem. He had done the original work, and now he asked me to take that project on. It was a very interesting and broad ranging project, because things had changed a lot in 10 years. We had to think completely differently about how to approach the problem, looking at things like where the beetle was, its behaviour, its seasonal activity, how to kill it – all of those angles.

In one of the most significant outcomes we found that the insect was so widely distributed in Australia that there was no point in trying to eradicate it or even to contain or quarantine it internally any more. We came to that conclusion by trapping it. (Traps and parasites are a continuing theme of my work.) During those previous 10 years, some quite good traps had been developed overseas which used a pheromone – a chemical communication signal – that the female uses to attract a male for mating. We could now buy little lures with the right stuff in them and hang them up inside sticky traps. Male beetles looking for females would intercept a waft of this, think it was a very big female because there was a lot of pheromone, fly in and be caught in the trap. And so we could detect the presence of these beetles.

In the first year of this we found beetles everywhere we looked. We started looking farther and farther out, and we kept finding the beetles everywhere, even quite far out into natural habitats. Finding them so far out into the natural environments told us that they had gone bush to quite some degree. Most of them were still in grain storages, but enough had gone bush that there was simply no way eradication was any longer sensible.

The next question was how much farther out they had gone. In the following year we organised a trapping survey across all of the wheat belt of Australia, enlisting the help of the bulk handling companies in each of the states and setting traps all over the country. We did that for a couple of seasons, and hundreds of thousands of insects were sent back, including lots and lots of native species of Trogoderma, which all had to be looked at and identified. In the end we detected them from Queensland through New South Wales, Victoria and South Australia, and even in Western Australia.

People realised that internal quarantine barriers just didn't make sense any more and that a lot of expensive procedures they had in place could be stopped. That's one significant outcome, and a second one was that we learnt enough about the biology of these insects to be able to give people good advice on how to control them when they actually had an infestation in the shed. What doses of fumigant were required? They're a tough beast, and it turned out you needed more than normal. And if you were going to heat the place up to cook 'em – as you can do quite well with a lot of insects – you needed a little bit longer at a little higher temperature than for the normal ones. So we were able to give good advice.

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Pursuing a moth-free breakfast

You have also become involved in solving insect pest problems in food factories.

Well, the food factories, warehouses and so on are a natural extension to a lot of the work we do in the Stored Grain Lab. We had a wonderful project over a couple of years in the food factory situation, where we applied the things we'd learned elsewhere – to the insects a large bulk of grain in a silo and a packet of muesli are both good food, and they will find it.

The project started when a breakfast food company wanted to know whether they should spend quite a lot of money on closing up all of the open eaves in their factory to prevent moths from flying in. They knew that in their factory there were always more moths in summer than in winter, and they always had more complaints about infested food coming back from product that had been packed in the summer than in the winter. So their question was, 'How can we keep those moths from getting in during spring?'

We started a trapping program, using another pheromone produced by female moths to attract males. We put some traps inside the factory, some just outside and some in the surrounding area: would we see a movement of the insect? What we discovered was that within the factory one species was predominant, but although we could regularly find five species outside the factory, none was the same as the species that was inside. So the very first thing we could tell them was that the problem inside the factory was their own problem. Their moth was a different species and didn't fly in every spring after all. As to the activity patterns, in the summer there were more moths both outside and inside – but different species. So there was no point in spending money on closing up the eaves: the moths were not coming in there. Finding that was a very simple thing to do, yet it saved the company a lot of money.

But how were the moths getting into the breakfast cereal?

There are a number of ways they can get in. A lot of food processing machinery has dead spots in it. It's designed from a food processing point of view, not for insect control, and unless it is cleaned very often and very well, sometimes insects can get going in residue build-up in some little blind corner. Also, there are times when the food is open. It tips off the end of a machine into a bin, and if the lid is off while the bin goes along for something else to happen, the moths can lay eggs there. We put a trapping grid in the factory, plotted on a graph how many moths we found, made contour maps of the hot spots and then, taking those, looked at the factory itself. We discovered that the hot spots were where the packing machines were. And way up top where the weighers were dropping the food in the packages, there were the moths flying about and sometimes just laying the eggs in as it went along. Again so obvious, so simple: you look, you find out where the problem is, you either clean the problem away or you enclose the containers so that the moths can't get there – you change something to make it that much harder for the problem to continue. We helped the company bring the moth population down quite dramatically with the cleaning and monitoring, they put in some new pest control, and through those simple things they were able to improve their product quality of its product. The complaints dwindled and things were going along really well.

Next we asked ourselves, 'Can we push the population even lower?' That's when we got into a brand-new area with stored products, where no-one had ever succeeded in controlling the insects biologically, using their own pheromones. This amounts to putting so much pheromone of the females into the air that the males can no longer distinguish where the real females are. It's called mating disruption. The females are there, they are releasing their own pheromone to call a mate, but the males are confused and can't find them. So those females end up never being mated; they lay sterile eggs which will never hatch. We set this up for the company and it worked extraordinarily well. The wonderful thing about pheromone is that you and I can't smell it but it's incredibly important to the insect; and even using extremely minute amounts we can disrupt the insect's behaviour enough to suppress the population.

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A new staging-point: science management for accountability, integrated solutions and commercial value

At SGRL you have progressed from research scientist to science manager. How did the opportunity arise?

The opportunity to start making that shift arose with the regular rotation of deputy head of the Stored Grain Lab: the previous person in that role would not be encumbered with that any more, and it was my turn. I ended up being deputy head of the lab for five years, in which time I gradually learned all the things that are involved with science management – a far cry from what you do day to day as a practising scientist. When Jonathan Banks, after heading the lab for seven years, decided it was time for him to be a scientist again, it became my turn to be head of the lab.

It is said to be hard for scientists to become managers.

It's hard to give up the science. I had had my heart set for so long on being a scientist and had thought of myself in that way for so many years that it was hard to realise I wasn't actually going to be a scientist any more. And although it seems perfectly normal for us to go to university for many years and get a PhD in order to qualify to be a scientist, there is no sense that we need training to become managers – which I think is why science managers have such a bad name, by and large. But I could see the inevitable coming and I have always want to do a good job of things, so at every opportunity I took courses on managing people at work, finance and so on. I felt that when I did end up becoming head of a lab I would have had a little bit of theory and some practice, and would move forward from there.

Management of the Stored Grain Lab is probably more complicated than managing a group of researchers just within some other part of the Division. The link with industry and the Australian Wheat Board (now called AWB Ltd) requires a very definite structure and funding base, and industrial relevance. We have a board that looks over the running of the lab and I report at four board meetings a year. Everybody is accountable these days, but I have an extra level of financial accountability and management because of the high level of funding that we get from the industry – more than half of the cash side of the core budget.

I have to exercise a certain amount of research leadership and shepherding, trying to provide the vision that keeps people going together in the same direction. The lab has engineers, chemists, a mathematician, a physicist, an entomologist (me), some more general biologists, lots of chemists and a toxicologist, and we have to work out a way to get all those people in all those different disciplines working on the same kind of project to produce an integrated solution for the industry.

The last major part of my job is the commercialisation of the research. The Stored Grain Research Laboratory produces commercially valuable research results that we can patent and also license to companies. We have new fumigants, new equipment that can be used for disinfesting grains, say, with heat or with other kinds of physical methods – all of these things have to go through a commercialisation process. So there's a real business focus to the job as well.

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Botanical by-ways

Early on, as an undergraduate, you loved botany. What have you done with that?

My idea was to be an entomologist, with both plants and insects. I did a bit of a detour through dung. Grain is a living plant, of course, but it's not green, so I indulge my botany through the wonderful hobby of growing orchids. I have a diverse collection – a few hundred orchids of several major groups. I specialise in slipper orchids from Asia; funny little things from the cloud forests of Central and South America; and a few other orchids, mostly Asian. Orchids keep me sane. I enjoy them enormously and I've made a lot of friends through them. I was on the committee of the Orchid Society of Canberra for 10 years, ending as the president for a couple of years. It's been really marvellous. More recently I've trained and become an accredited orchid judge for the Orchid Society of New South Wales and the Australian Orchid Council, so I'm still heavily involved in different aspects of orchids.

I enjoy plants, full stop, and my husband enjoys them too. David specialises in carnivorous and alpine plants as well as terrestrial orchids, and now he's getting into the natives. Also we go on bushwalks, looking at the plants, and we look at birds – we enjoy all of that gardening-plus-nature side of things to give balance to our lives.

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A woman at home in science

As a woman have you experienced any discrimination in the workplace?

Remarkably little. The only time when I know for sure that I was discriminated against was back when I was applying for those three jobs in my final year. I talked to people at a conference about a job that was going, but one person in that group was absolutely sure that a woman who had studied in California would never ever want to go to a remote part of Canada and work on insects in the forest. I assured him I'd be very interested to do it but he was sure I would not, and I did not get an interview. (It gave me enormous satisfaction to go back to that conference a year later and tell him I was now working for the CSIRO on dung beetles – in African game parks, and dodging lions and African buffalo.)

In the grain industry within Australia I've had no discrimination at all that has mattered. When anybody from the city goes out to the field and works with people for the first time, ah! they're just a little hesitant, unsure. But I went out there and worked hard, explaining what I was doing. The work went well and my research gave them new tools they could use, and since then there's been no problem. This grain industry has been very good, and Australians should be proud of themselves.

In which direction do you see yourself heading? After so many years away from your original home, do you ever consider going back to Canada?

I think that one day I would like to do science again, probably insect taxonomy. Until I retire I want to continue facilitating science as a science leader or a research manager, because having worked these last few years to acquire these new skills I don't want to waste them but to contribute to the science by making it possible for others to do it. Later I'll go back to my own science as an honorary fellow at the Australian National Insect Collection – doing some work on African dung beetles, believe me or not.

I'm not entirely sure what the future will bring. I think I'll be staying in Australia, which gave me the chance when I needed one. It has worked out extremely well for me here and I'm an Australian citizen now, as is my husband David. From time to time he talks about going back to Wales, where he is originally from, but I really don't think I ever want to live through a Canadian winter again. Australia is home.

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