Connecting the Dots

Entomologist Chris Philips explores how ecosystems interact

Chris PhilipsTo Chris Philips, there’s almost never just one right answer.

The assistant professor of entomology, who is based at the North Central Research and Outreach Center in Grand Rapids, approaches his research and teaching with a philosophy that emphasizes the connections between seemingly different ways of addressing a challenge.

“We talk about management of any system—weeds, insects, disease—as separate. I’m trying to put those pieces together and explore how they interact, how a management approach affects outcomes across habitats,” he says.

His work ranges across a variety of topics, but focuses on evaluating the impact of management practices on insect behavior and ecology and understanding how these changes impact ecosystem functioning, and ecological processes in a diversity of cropping systems including high tunnels. In fact, he is leading a project team working on diversification of crops grown in high-tunnel systems.

“When I first got here, I would ask people what they grow in their high tunnels and it was ‘tomatoes, tomatoes, tomatoes,’ because that’s the most profitable crop for growers,” he says. But growing tomatoes over and over in the same environment can lead to disease and other problems, so researchers are testing whether the season-extending tunnels might be able to produce two harvests of different crops in a season.

“Maybe you start one crop earlier and run another one later,” he says, so even though the crop isn’t as profitable as tomatoes the grower can sell twice as much. But because insects show up at roughly the same time each year, Philips is investigating how shifting the growing season will affect the insects. Will they evade predators? Will they attack different plants? How could pest management be altered to coincide with the new plant-production schedule?

That multi-faceted problem solving approach also drives the syllabus in the online course he teaches for CFANS students, “Agroecology and Insect Pests.” He’s one of only two instructors in CFANS who teach online courses from the off-campus research and outreach centers. “It’s a challenge,” he says. “The perfect online course doesn’t exist. But I have learned that when it’s more conceptual (rather than routine online discussions and quizzes) it works better, and the students pay attention.

“I stress to them that we have to move away from the idea that there’s one answer. That’s not the way it works. You have to move away and think through the process.” Eventually he’d like to create an online course that uses individualized simulation activities, along the lines of a video-game environment. “They’d have to solve real-world problems, with individual challenges that would force them to figure out how to solve those problems collaboratively and innovatively.”

He was always fascinated by nature, “but I didn’t know it was a career path. Like most people, I thought that the only good insect was a dead one.” As an undergraduate, he attended a seminar about birds and the links between trophic systems—organisms’ place in the food chain—and found his niche.

He believes that broader perspective will help solve both big and small challenges. “Ultimately it’s about how to optimize management, not just for pests, but all over the landscape,” he says. “It’s on us to figure that out.“

—Becky Beyers