A Question and Answer format interview with Dr. Matthew Thomas, who leads the young UF/IFAS Invasion Science Research Institute
Q: In your presentation, “Introduction to the Invasion Science Research Institute,” you stated that you will be seeking external partners to collaborate with UF in the war against invasive species. Which external partners will you add to collaborative partners already in place?
A: We are emphasizing the need for more partnerships, and that the answers don’t necessarily lie with a single institution. You might imagine that as an individual researcher you work with multiple collaborators from different institutes, but that’s not always the case. I think it’s important to be able to bring together the diverse disciplinary skills to come up with a more integrated solution. We always need more information than you think.
In the work I did most recently in Africa, for example, we had a big collaborative team. We had entomologists, sociologists, epidemiologists, health economist, and these were all from different institutes working together towards this common problem. So, if the skill set doesn’t exist within your organization, we need to go out and reach where it does. I think the other part of partnerships which we need to really encourage is a closer integration with the end-users. We need to make sure we are asking and addressing the right questions. It’s very easy in isolation to come up with a technology or a solution which you think will be the answer only to find out that that isn’t the problem we were trying to fix.
So, I think partnerships are key. We need co-development where the idea and the solutions are developed in parallel and then there is an iteration between the end-users and the researchers.
Q: Regarding the written goals and vision for the Invasion Science Research Institute, you mentioned socio-political drivers. Please elaborate:
There are major drivers that lead to invasions or the arrival of invasive species. We’ve got transportation and trade, movement of people, movement of commodities. We have urbanization, land-use change, and habitat loss–all of these have a big socio-political component to them. And so, understanding those drivers of change is as important as understanding ecological aspects of environmental change or aspects of climate change. Even whether you consider a particular species damaging or not very much depends on what you value about a particular commodity.
One might imagine a situation where consumers like perfectly looking tomatoes or peppers. And that you have an invasive species which causes some blemish to the skin. It doesn’t change the fruit yield, or the nutritional quality and you can cook with the vegetable. But it’s a societal or consumer perception that the fruit is damaged in some way that creates the need for control. There are complex reasons why insects become pests and we need to understand some of those drivers.
It’s also important in terms of defining what it is we are trying to do. We have a cultural perception of the landscape we are trying to preserve. But that’s very context dependent and the habitat that I am familiar with, and I would like to see maintained is perhaps the one that I grew up with and that’s how I remember it. But if you asked my parents, it’s different. The habitat that they would like to preserve or restore is not the same that I think should be protected. So, when you think about removal of invasive species and management of invasive species, we must think about what we are trying to preserve and it’s a constant moving target.
Q: Florida has a long heritage for citrus production. Do you think the Asian citrus psyllid can be managed by biological control? Please elaborate:
A: I don’t know what the biological control solution for this is. I think what I’d like to encourage is that first, we need to recognize that this is a very hard nut to crack. We need to consider what kind of alternative projects there are and what new technologies can we bring the problem.
“We have been trying this for a while and it’s been hard. But that doesn’t mean we give up on longstanding projects. We should take those through to completion. But we need to explore “What are the new tools available to us that perhaps were not available to us 10 years ago?”
New tools and opportunities are available through the ongoing advances in biotechnology and genomics. So, I think there could be new opportunities we need to explore.
“What can we do now that we couldn’t have done 10 years ago?” “What might we be able to do in five years’ time that we can’t quite do now?” And in order to do it in five years’ time, we need to start to address it now, so we have that as a future goal.
The other thing that we need to do is to avoid the next citrus greening or the next citrus psyllid so we can get ahead of the game.
What can we do to better understand where species are coming from and which of the species are at the greatest risk and manage those pathways. We need to have better detection so that the first time an invasive species arrives, we can jump on it before it’s too late.
Q: What do you think of the Norman C. Hayslip Biological Control Research and Containment Laboratory? How does it compare to similar facilities?
A: I was really excited to see the laboratory. I used to do a lot of hands-on work in biocontrol. In the last 15 years my research has moved away from biocontrol, but I am still working in pest control, although in a slightly different way. It was interesting for me to come back to biocontrol and see a containment facility–to see a diversity of projects and the diversity of agents evaluated and screened inside isolation.
I met graduate students who are really energized and enthusiastic to develop biocontrol solutions. It was great to see an infrastructure that really allows that—there are very few well-regulated, well-maintained quarantine facilities to bring in exotic natural enemies. It’s a hugely valuable resource for the state and beyond—for the country.
Q: Have you ever worked with entomopathogenic fungi? And if so, please elaborate.
A: I have worked variously with pathogens and insects. I was very fortunate–and it was a very formative experience for me–to be part of a big project in Africa developing a fungal biopesticide to control locusts and grasshoppers. The project was hugely successful in that it went from initial isolation of a candidate strain right away through to development, formulation, production, testing, registration and regulatory approval from FAO (the Food and Agriculture Organization) and national countries, through to handing over to a commercial producer. I was only one small part of that, but it was a real eye opener to see the whole process of how you take something from concept through to implementation. And since then, I have taken some of the insights and lessons learned and applied them to other systems–sometimes with success– sometimes with failure. But nonetheless, that whole framework of product development and what it takes to go from innovation through to implementation has shaped my thinking. I have worked on house flies and mosquitoes with fungal pathogens. And I worked on bed bugs, again playing a small part in the development and successful commercialization of a biopesticide product for bed bugs.
Q: If you were before the public and all its segment audiences, what would you tell them about invasive species in Florida?
A: Scientists used to be respected and trusted and I feel we’ve lost a lot of that trust for whatever reason. We really need to build trust. We are trying to do this for the right reasons. We are trying to get over rather complex problems for which there isn’t a single, simple answer. There may be indeed conflicts and dilemmas associated with that message. So, providing as much as possible accurate and interpretable information is important. We need to better disseminate and better communicate science to improve science literacy. It may make our job harder, but it will make our job more impactful and more robust.
I would say to the public, in terms of simple messaging around invasive species: invasive species are a massive problem that are already affecting your life. They affect your life in terms of the natural environment you live in, your home—your health. Invasive species also impact the food you eat and how much it costs. So, this is a major disruption for you, and what we are trying to do is reduce those existing disruptions, make your lives better as a consequence, and prevent other invasive things from coming.
What we know is that the species we have now is only a subset of everything that could be here and is likely to be here in the future. We need to get ahead of the curve and stop the next major invasive species that could impact your health, that could impact the food we eat, the environment that you walk in, or the rivers in which you fish.
The work we are doing is important and we are doing it for the benefit of wider society. And I think we have to accept that as much as we would like to do something about this, sometimes it’s just hard. We don’t always have the answers. It’s not always black and white. There are sometimes controversial, complicated solutions that come at a cost. And that cost is not always bought equally by different segments of society. We look to do things as equitably as possible but sometimes this is hard. Part of understanding and dealing with resolving these dilemmas is through open communications and clear understanding with objectives. And I would encourage more dialogue and more interaction with scientists so we can reach agreement together.