Silvia Rondon's first day on the job was a baptism of fire. It was 2005 and she was sitting at her desk at OSU's Hermiston Agricultural Research and Extension Center when a potato grower knocked on her door. He rattled off a list of problems he wanted her to tackle—among them, tuberworms. An outbreak of the potato-burrowing insect was wreaking havoc in Oregon and Washington and worried growers wanted to know what to do.
"We didn't have many answers," said Rondon. That's because the pest wasn't thought to exist in Oregon until just a few years earlier.
Rondon set about trying to wrap her head around these bugs. She and colleagues from OSU and other states trapped and counted them, doused them with water, buried them under soil, eyeballed them under microscopes, and gathered their DNA. They identified resistant potato germplasm, tested hundreds of chemicals, and even hunted down an old specimen housed in OSU's insect collection.
They discovered that the tuberworms in Oregon and Washington were genetically different from those in the central and eastern parts of the U.S. Ominously, that means the insect has adapted to cold Northwest winters and may be here to stay. "The numbers may not be as high as they were back in 2004, but we will have tuberworms year after year," she said.
In her lab, Rondon incubated speck-size tuberworm eggs and determined that young tuberworms can survive temperatures as low as 41° F. In field trials she found that pupae can endure more than 90 days of exposure to extreme winter conditions.
Since her first day on the job, Rondon and colleagues have learned a lot and shared what they've discovered with growers. There's a lot at stake. With $150 million in gross farm sales in 2010, spuds are Oregon's sixth most important agricultural commodity. To honor the efforts of Rondon and her collaborators, the Potato Association of America gave them its Outstanding Extension Project Award in 2010.
As an OSU Extension entomologist, Rondon continues to help growers and gardeners in the Hermiston area identify insects and other arthropods that they bring to her in plastic bags and glass jars. "One of my favorites is the winged scorpion," she said. "The first time I saw one, I said 'What is this? It looks like a scorpion, a spider, and a cricket.' And it looks like it could take your finger off if you touch it. It's super cool."
Rondon, originally from Peru, got interested in entomology by a fluke. As a graduate student in biology, she was studying birds deep in the Peruvian countryside. This was during the time that Shining Path rebels were killing people in Peru and arousing fear across the country. Worried for her safety, Rondon's mom suggested she study something that would keep her closer to the city of Lima. She tried entomology, loved it, and hasn't looked back since.
"I joke with my mom, who wanted me to study something close to home," she said. "She never expected I'd end up thousands of miles away."