Understanding the agricultural, veterinary and medical importance of insects

Posted on June 06, 2021

NAS featured scientist:
Dr Mesfin W Gossa - SANBI
Postdoctoral fellow in the Department of Zoology and Entomology and the Forestry and Agricultural Biotechnology Institute (FABI).


Q: Why did you choose to study Entomology?
My interest in entomology vividly developed when I attended the course Agricultural Entomology as part of the requirements for my BSc degree in Plant Sciences. Following the course, I realised that insects are the most diverse group of organisms on earth that cause harm to plant, animal and human health, as well as understood their beneficial role in pollination, biological control and the production of valuable products such as honey and silk. Understanding the agricultural, veterinary and medical importance of insects, I decided to specialise in entomology.

Q: Why is science, (including entomology) important?
In general, science is important in improving the quality of life by creating new knowledge, improving education, and leading to innovation and technologies that provide solutions to the challenges of society. The role of science is invaluable in every part of our life. For example, the current Covid-19 pandemic caused by the novel coronavirus, SARS-CoV-2 has taught us how important science is in understanding the biology and ecology of the virus and in developing vaccines and drugs that could safeguard the human population. The science of entomology is equally important in understanding the diversity, biology and ecology of insects and their beneficial role and the damage they cause to plant, animal and human health. Entomology is also important in conserving and utilising beneficial insects and in the management/control of harmful ones.

Q: What is your view on pests/what is their role?
Pests are organisms that cause harm to human, his plants, animals and properties directly by their feeding effect or indirectly by transmitting disease-causing organisms. These include arthropods (insects, mites and ticks), snails, slugs and rodents. Damage by pests decreases the quantity and quality of agricultural and forest products, thereby negatively affecting food security and the sustainable supply of goods. For example, the recent outbreak of desert locust has threatened food supply in East Africa, the Arabian Peninsula and the Indian subcontinent. Pests also threaten plant biodiversity and the associated ecosystem services.

Q: Why is #WorldPestDay important (celebrated on 6 June)?
World Pest Day, also known as World Pest Awareness Day is celebrated every year on 6 June. It brings together members of the pest management industry, academia, the public, the government and the media to increase awareness of the role of pest management organisations. It also promotes professional pest management based on robust scientific evidence and socially and environmentally responsible approaches.

Q: Highlights of your career so far?
Fortunately, I had the chance to study and work in Africa and Europe in different systems. Early in my career, I gained research experience on insect pests of cotton and low land oil crops in Ethiopia. Following an MSc in Insect Sciences, I had the opportunity to lecture entomology and plant protection courses for undergraduate students. An MSc in Agricultural Nematology from a consortium of universities and satellite laboratories in Europe has complemented and broadened my knowledge in plant health. A PhD in Entomology from the University of Pretoria (UP) followed by four years of postdoctoral research on tree pests has helped me to advance my knowledge and experience in plant health. It has also allowed me to establish valuable collaborations with scientists in Africa and beyond Africa.

Q: Please give us a glimpse of your most recent research.
As part of my postdoctoral research, I am currently monitoring plant health in botanical gardens in South Africa to detect and identify pest and pathogen risks by using plants in botanical gardens as sentinel sites. This project was developed under the framework of the International Plant Sentinel Network and funded by the South African National Biodiversity Institute (SANBI) and hosted by FABI. Many introduced and native pests and pathogens were detected through this project. Training in monitoring, detection and management of plant health problems were also given to garden and city park horticulturists, interns and students.

Q: Describe a day in the life of Dr Gossa.
Research involves diverse activities which makes it enjoyable. As a researcher, my days are often filled with different activities, including reading, laboratory experiments, fieldwork, data analysis, paper writing, preparing presentations for conferences, attending scientific meetings/seminars, research discussions, journal clubs and many other research-related activities.

Q: What qualities does a good scientist need?
Scientists need many qualities, including curiosity, passion, perseverance, and excellent skills in problem identification, planning and implementation of projects. Communication/networking skills and experience of working in a team are also vital.

Q: What words/beliefs do you live by?
I believe that I am the master of my own destination. Therefore, I focus and work hard towards it despite the challenges and difficulties I face. I also grab valuable opportunities in my career and try to maximise the benefits.

Q: Do you have any advice for prospective entomologists?
There is much fun in the science of entomology. Do not hesitate to go for it should you appreciate studying diverse group organisms!

Q: Who is your role model/mentor?
Most importantly, my parents are my role models as they knew the value of education and sent me to school and supported me throughout the process. It isn’t as easy to pick a role model from a number of my mentors as all of them were wonderful and have inspired and helped me in acquiring critical skills. However, I should not forget to mention Prof Brett Hurley, my PhD supervisor, and later a mentor for my postdoctoral research. Prof Hurley has inspired me as a scientist and significantly influenced my thinking in the field of plant health.

- Author Martie Meyer
Published by Martie Meyer

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