FORT PIERCE, Fla.— A local University of Florida graduate student fostered an ability to teach school children that a group of insects would probably take down one of Florida’s most invasive trees.
The Southern IPM Center recognized Kelly Carruthers with its selective Friends of IPM Ph.D. Graduate Student Award for 2022. The Southern IPM Center is an organization of scientists who apply innovative pest management practices to protect the environment. The Southern IPM Center offers an annual awards program to recognize “extraordinary achievement in research, Extension, and implementation of Integrated Pest Management in the Southern U.S.”
University of Florida/IFAS-IRREC
Carruthers is a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Florida Indian River Research and Education Center in Fort Pierce. As a member of the Minteer laboratory, her graduate studies, and cutting-edge research are supervised by Carey Minteer, an assistant professor of entomology and an expert in invasive species and biological control. Because invasive species grow uncontrollably in their non-native region, Minteer and her lab team introduce natural enemies of insects from the invasive plant’s native habitat. These natural enemies undergo extensive evaluation to make sure that they feed only on the target plants that compromise the invaded landscapes.
“Kelly is very passionate about her research and its impact on our community and the state of Florida,” wrote Minteer in her nomination for Carruthers’ successful award. “Kelly believes that communicating our research to the public is one of the most important things we can do as scientists.”
Outreach program development and execution
In 2018, Carruthers helped develop and led an outreach program to teach sixth-grade students about invasive species and their control. This program is still running and now includes third-grade students as well. Post-program surveys revealed more than a 70% increase in the students’ knowledge of invasive species and IPM. Other outreach programs in which Carruthers participated include a Brazilian peppertree IPM Field Day, 4-H Insect-a-thon workshops, ANTvengers summer camp, in collaboration with UF/IFAS Entomology Department in Gainesville, and as a science fair judge for local middle school and high school students.
A “steminist” role
Minteer points to Carruthers’s creativity in large part for her programmatic success. Carruthers is a “Steminist,” or a scientist who promotes STEM science. Carruthers’ Twitter account offers followers micro lessons in science. Posts include images in front of microscopes and in the field, in which Carruthers is performing research she shares on the social media platform.
Biological control for Brazilian peppertree
Carruthers’ expertise is with the Brazilian peppertree, a plant that has overrun more than 700,000 of Florida’s landscape, displacing native plants and habitats. The invasive tree costs to state and federal agencies average about $2.5 million every year for herbicidal treatments on conservation lands. Ranchland and private landowners spend unquantified amounts.
As Minteer and her associates introduce biological control agents, herbicide applications must continue. Carruthers’ graduate research involved the balance of herbicide applications and biological control.
To fund her graduate research, Carruthers wrote a grant and successfully garnered $27,000 and two scholarship awards to fund her studies. During student speaking competition events, Carruthers won three second and one first place awards.
Carruthers recently accepted a position as an academic professional at the University of Georgia for the fall semester this year. There, Carruthers will serve as undergraduate coordinator for the entomology department.