Three Questions with Rob Venette
Director of the new Terrestrial Invasive Plants and Pests Center
What does "terrestrial invasive plants and pests" include, and why should people worry about them?
For the center, "terrestrial invasive plants and pests" include the pathogens, weeds, insects, and other animals that are not native to Minnesota and have the potential to damage our forests, grasslands, agriculture, urban greenspaces, or wetland shores. Spotted knapweed, emerald ash borer, and the fungus that causes oak wilt are good examples. Invasive species drive up management costs, drive down the diversity and productivity of valued plants and animals, and reduce the attractiveness and competitiveness of the state. The total economic damage to Minnesota is at least $3 billion annually.
Your recent expertise is in entomology but you have a broader background in ecology; how did you become a specialist in invasive pests?
Invasive species are such a widespread, serious problem that I have always found my skills in demand. For each species I study, I think about the general lessons it has to offer. For example, during my PhD, I studied nematodes to learn about traits that can help insects and pathogens become good invaders. I've also been very lucky to work with many talented experts in entomology, plant pathology, weed science, forestry, and economics who have helped me along the way.
What are your priorities for the center in its first year and its first five years?
The primary goals for the first year of the center are to get organized, complete a 'Research Prioritization,' and launch our first research projects. The prioritization is needed to objectively identify the greatest invasive species threats and the most promising lines of research. By year five, we will have fully functioning research teams of faculty, students, postdocs, and external partners. By then, new tools and techniques for prevention, rapid response, and suppression of invasive species will be coming on line and ready for widespread testing.
Is there an invasive species that you personally find really disgusting or scary?
I worry about a new fungus Hymenoscyphus pseudoalbidus, probably native to Asia, which is killing ash trees in Europe.