Jul 7, 2010
Michigan growers pull for new entomologist

By Matt Milkovich, Managing Editor

Michigan State University’s (MSU) new vegetable entomologist is in the midst of her first field season, observing Michigan vegetable production from beginning to end. It’s an exciting time, and a great opportunity to learn as much as possible about the industry and its insect pest problems.

Zsofia Szendrei joined MSU last summer. As MSU’s lone vegetable entomologist, she replaced Ed Grafius, who retired a few years ago. Grafius had been in that position for three decades, but when he retired, university officials – worried about ever-tightening budgets – hesitated to replace him. Grower groups pushed for the position to be filled, however, and Szendrei was hired last August, she said.

“We were thrilled when MSU agreed to hire Zsofia,” said John Bakker, executive director of the Michigan Asparagus Advisory Board (MAAB). “We and others in the vegetable industry worked hard to get the position filled.”

Szendrei, 34, is originally from Hungary. She took advantage of an opportunity to study in the United States in 2000, when she became a visiting research assistant for MSU’s small fruit entomology lab. After obtaining a master’s degree in horticulture from a Hungarian university in 2001, she returned to MSU, where she earned a Ph.D. in entomology in 2005 (she also spent time studying in The Netherlands).

She chose entomology because she enjoys research and the “mental puzzle” of solving challenging problems. She also likes working with insects and other animals, she said.
After obtaining her Ph.D., Szendrei spent a couple of years as a post-doctoral researcher at the USDA-Agricultural Research Service lab in Beltsville, Md., where she studied the behavior and biology of the Colorado potato beetle. In 2008, she became a research associate at Rutgers University, where she worked on blueberry pests.

Szendrei is the only faculty member in MSU’s vegetable entomology lab, but she’s getting help from five undergraduate students, and two graduate students were expected to join her lab in June. She also hired a post-doctoral researcher to work on molecular projects, she said.

She also gets help from research assistant Adam Byrne, who’s been doing vegetable entomology work for MSU for 13 years, he said.

Byrne worked with Grafius for several years. After Grafius retired, the university didn’t have a full-time entomologist for a while. Byrne and a few others kept the entomology work going, but on a limited scale. Since Szendrei arrived, they’ve been able to stretch out their services again and help a broader range of growers, Byrne said.

Szendrei’s molecular background is a plus for MSU. She’s bringing in a new perspective and new ideas, Byrne said.

Szendrei, based on campus in East Lansing, Mich., is working on several projects right now, some in collaboration with other MSU researchers and Extension educators. Growers generally bring problems to her attention, such as the Colorado potato beetle. She’s trying to figure out why that pest is resistant to just about every insecticide tried on it. There’s also the aster leafhopper, a severe problem in Michigan carrot production. Onion thrips are a challenge, too.

Then there’s the asparagus miner. Szendrei plans to assign one of her grad students the challenge of developing monitoring tools for that pest.

Michigan growers have been dealing with asparagus miner for about 30 years, but haven’t found a way to control it. For a long time it didn’t matter that much, because the damage was limited. About 10 years ago, however, a link was discovered between asparagus miner and fusarium, one of the state’s worst disease problems, said Bakker, MAAB’s executive director.

Szendrei hasn’t been on the job long, but she’s working well with the industry and has a hand in a lot of different projects, he said.

“I can’t believe all she’s got going on right now.”

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