A letter from the Director: 2021 in review

Rob Venette

December 14, 2021


As December comes to a close, it is a good time to reflect on 2021, a year that I can best describe as an unexpectedly wild rollercoaster for MITPPC.

In the first part of the year, our attention was on significant MITPPC funding proposed in the Minnesota Legislature as from the Environment and Natural Resources Trust Fund (ENRTF). Without it, there was a real possibility that the Center would close, and critical research would end abruptly. Recommended appropriations from the ENRTF ultimately became part of an omnibus environment bill that dealt with much more than MITPPC. The fate of that bill in the legislature was unclear. Just as we felt that our rollercoaster car was careening downward, we received a sudden uplift in vocal support from agricultural and conservation leaders across the state. That support was critical to MITPPC ultimately securing a $5 million appropriation for future research on terrestrial invasive species.

MITPPC also took a few twists and turns with our staffing. This spring, Communications Specialist Christine Lee left to work with BioMade. Christine did a fabulous job bringing the story of MITPPC to broad audiences. One of her many starring achievements was the production of a short video on early accomplishments of the Center. 

Though we were sad to see Christine leave, we were fortunate to hire Carolyn Bernhardt. Carolyn first became familiar with MITPPC in her previous role as research communications specialist for the College of Veterinary Medicine where she wrote stories on the use of goats for buckthorn control. Carolyn now works remotely for the Center and recently finished her MA in Science Writing at Johns Hopkins University. 

Lastly, MITPPC was able to promote Dr. Amy Morey to a staff researcher with primary responsibilities on species prioritization. Amy led the publication of the details about the prioritization process in the peer-reviewed Journal of Environmental Management, a high-point for the year. Amy also was elected to serve on the Board of Directors for the North America Invasive Species Management Association (NAISMA) to help bring broader attention to the significant results coming from MITPPC researchers.

The research projects funded by MITPPC also were on a bit of a harrowing ride. Just as research teams had adjusted to the bumps from COVID in 2020, the national labor shortage made it more difficult for team leaders to find graduate students, post docs, and professional staff to support work on projects. Things seem to be levelling out now. A few of MITPPC’s projects have come to the end of their run, with exciting (and in some cases disturbing) results: 

  • Dean Malvick, Kathryn Bushley and their team have found that the fungus that causes soybean sudden death is a risk to more of Minnesota than we originally knew. 
  • George Heimpel and his team have revealed that a tiny wasp, Aphelinus certus, is attacking soybean aphids in more parts of the state than it did years ago and may be contributing to a regional suppression of this pest. 
  • Bob Koch, Aaron Lorenz, Demoz Gebre-Egziabher and their team have made great strides in developing remote sensing to monitor soybean aphids. They have also developed new soybean varieties with resistance to soybean aphid that are appropriate for Minnesota’s growing conditions. 
  • Mary Rogers and her team have found that spotted wing drosophila causes major economic losses in raspberries, but new, organic compatible control methods are effective and profitable.
  • Through the research of Peter Reich and his team, we know buckthorn and honeysuckle are poised to take advantage of future warmer and drier weather. 
  • Through the studies of Jeannine Cavender-Bares, Rebecca Montgomery, Jennifer Juzwik and their team, we have found that remote sensing can be used to detect oak wilt infected trees, in some cases before the trees begin to show symptoms. 
  • We have also discovered through the investigations of Brian Aukema and his team that mountain pine beetle is not likely to attract predatory insects and our pine forests remain at risk from this devastating bark beetle. Another of Brian’s teams has demonstrated that the use of naturally-derived insecticides can create a form of herd immunity, such that treated trees confer some protection to untreated trees. 

In January 2022, we begin another round of this wonderful ride. We will be issuing a new call for proposals. Undoubtedly, we will see proposals that build on previous successes. MITPPC also is excited to explore new ideas. We know things may take an unexpected turn at some point as they so often tend to do. Nonetheless, it is a thrill to keep on this ride. Thanks to all of you for your interest and support of the Center.

All of us in MITPPC wish you the happiest of holidays and a smooth 2022.