Taking over as head of the Texas A&M University Department of Entomology is a pretty daunting task in normal times, but during COVID-19, Phillip Kaufman, Ph.D., is finding challenges and opportunities.
Kaufman, head of the Texas A&M Department of Entomology, said determining how to best serve students in-house and online amid the restrictions of the coronavirus pandemic, as well as staying on top of important research issues such as tick surveillance, mosquitoes and murder hornets are priorities.
“As we move forward, I want faculty to feel confident in looking in new directions, experimenting with new techniques and areas of interest, so they can offer our students at Texas A&M the opportunity to be at the forefront of scientific discovery, and so we can help protect Texans from pests and pathogens now and well into the future,” he said.
Kaufman joins Texas A&M from the University of Florida where he served as a professor in the Entomology and Nematology Department in the Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences.
Class is in session
“When I took this position, I had envisioned walking in and everyone being here to get things started,” Kaufman said. “With COVID-19, that didn’t happen, but we are busy preparing for the fall semester and how the students will come back to campus and how they will be supported in the classroom and in the lab.”
He said they are finalizing schedules to determine where gaps and challenges are, but overall feels the department is in excellent shape for the fall semester. Undergraduates have all had virtual advising conferences; undergraduate and graduate courses are populating well; and the faculty are preparing to deliver the course materials both in the classroom and remotely.
“We’re in much better shape now to meet the research demands of our 75 graduate students, although a handful of new students will be deferring for a semester until the pandemic hopefully settles down,” Kaufman said.
On the undergraduate side, his department has some excitement and challenges. The entomology side of the house remains fairly consistent, with about 45 majors and others who are double majors or minors. Meanwhile, the Forensic and Investigative Sciences Program has continued growing and is attracting a large cohort this year.
“We have 125 freshmen coming in for that major. That’s good but preparing freshmen for success is extremely important. We have a fantastic academic programs staff who are prepared and ready to help the students build habits that will lead to their success.”
Kaufman said all of the courses’ content is the same, “but the way we are delivering the material is changing. For example, Medical Entomology is one of the most popular classes, and it is being transferred to an online course. Students may be using a USB camera instead of a microscope in the laboratory to look at the different mosquitoes they will be learning to identify. We are all trying to find the best ways to deliver information for the highest quality learning experience for our students.”
From the classroom to the research field
Kaufman said in the research field, understanding both the applied and molecular sides of the equation can help make educational experiences far more impactful.
“We encourage students to invest time and learning in both sides of research. They need that basic understanding of how something that seems very laboratory-based can solve a problem in the field. Molecular technology can be cool, but if it isn’t translated to an application, a great opportunity to solve a problem is lost.”
On the opposite side, students working to solve field problems can harness the power of molecular biology to help producers bring high-quality crops to market.
This understanding will certainly play a role in the area of human and animal pathogen transmission that is demanding cutting-edge research.
“In Texas, I’ve yet to see an agricultural endeavor that doesn’t have a problem with insect pests. It is important to continue to address those challenges and work in those areas. We produce tremendous graduates here at the university, and it’s important to value their research contributions.”