[2012 Leadership Awards] Dr. Susan Jones

Features - 2012 Leadership Awards

For decades, one of the nation’s leading termite experts, Dr. Susan Jones has become a tireless champion for individuals, families and communities suffering the ravages of bed bug infestation.

October 19, 2012
PCT Magazine

Susan Jones had a very patient mother. She never knew what might appear in the family freezer next to the ice cream and green beans, but she was relatively certain it would have wings and some type of antennae. And while the other children of Calcasieu Parish were playing tag and Red Rover, her mom watched with a slight measure of concern as young Susan skipped off to the local hardware store to buy the carbon tetrachloride that would offer her insect captives a speedy, humane demise before she pinned them. Well, a child needed a hobby, her mom supposed.

For Susan Jones, that hobby of collecting and mounting insects had grown out of a natural curiosity about the creatures of the outdoors and a need to find her own space. Growing up in the small Louisiana parish without much money or even a TV, Jones, the second oldest of five children, spent most of her free time exploring nature’s bounty of wonders in the field behind her house with one of her younger brothers.

“When seven people live together in a two-bedroom house that lacks air conditioning, you don’t stay indoors much,” Jones explains. “On weekends, our father would take us on adventures to learn about plants and animals, supplemented by trips to the library and discussions around the dinner table. He instilled a tremendous passion for knowledge – and nature – in my siblings and me.”

Through her library excursions, Jones discovered naturalist Gene Stratton-Porter’s classic novel, A Girl of the Limberlost. She identified on several levels with Elnora Comstock, the story’s heroine, who collected, pinned and sold moths to earn money for the tuition and books her family couldn’t afford. Jones reveled in Stratton-Porter’s vivid descriptions of the moths’ pheromone communication channel and was enthralled as each page took her more deeply into the incredible world of these fascinating insects. She sought them out at every possible opportunity, going so far as to set up her sleeping bag near the outhouse at Girl Scout campouts so she would have access to the moths and other insects attracted by the light.

Education Takes Center Stage

As Jones grew older, she became an excellent student. And as racial desegregation finally made its way into her junior high school in the early ’70s, it seemed there was as much to learn about social issues as academic studies.

“Having come from the West Coast, my father understood the importance of racial equality and had always taught us that we were no better or worse than anyone else,” Jones shares. “He often reminded us that the Holocaust could have been prevented if enough people had simply stood up for what they knew was right. He made it clear that he expected us to uphold our moral obligation to speak up, no matter the consequences, if we were to see someone being treated unfairly.”

This lesson would come into play many times throughout Jones’ career. It also inspired her to join the debate team in high school. She became an accomplished debater, in part due to her father’s encouragement and in part because Tony Kushner, who would later become a Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright, pushed her to excel.

“I was painfully shy and absolutely hated public speaking,” Jones admits, “but Tony sat behind me in homeroom and would always tell me, ‘You are so smart. You need to start asserting yourself.’ His encouragement helped me soldier on. Had I not faced my fears at that moment in time, I might not have had the confidence or tools to do all of the public speaking that I do today.”

Jones went on to become valedictorian of Lake Charles (now Lake Charles-Boston) High School and to earn scholarships that made studying at Louisiana State University (LSU) possible.


NAME: Dr. Susan Jones


LOCATION: Columbus, Ohio

CAREER HIGHLIGHTS: Valedictorian of Lake Charles High School; earned doctorate in entomology from the University of Arizona after receiving bachelor’s and master’s degrees, also in entomology, from Louisiana State University; published industry-leading research data on termite baits in the mid-1980s; worked in a termite research station for the U.S. Forest Service in Gulfport, Miss., before being named state extension entomologist and assistant professor of entomology at The Ohio State University in 2000 (received tenure and associate professor rank in 2005); served on the National Pest Management Association’s Blue Ribbon Bed Bug Task Force; currently serves on the Joint Bed Bug Task Force in Cincinnati/Hamilton County and the steering committee of the Central Ohio Bed Bug Task Force in Columbus/Franklin County.

PERSONAL: Sons, Nathan (18) and Samuel (16); Nathan plans to study biology at Ohio University, and Sam is interested in chemistry; Susan, Nathan and Sam all enjoy whitewater rafting, canoeing, kayaking, backpacking and hiking; Susan also enjoys gardening.

In spite of her burning interest in insects, Jones pursued psychology upon entering LSU. “I had read that a career in entomology demanded physical strength and stamina, and I had always been kind of puny, so I chose a ‘softer’ science for my academic pursuits,” she explains. “I volunteered with the entomology department, though, and found it to be a much better fit. I realized quickly that I needed a hard science. I changed my major to entomology and earned my bachelor’s and master’s degrees in that field at LSU, and my doctorate at the University of Arizona.”

Passionate about Termites

While attending LSU, Jones experienced her introduction to termites … and she hated them. “I wrote home to my mother that I hoped to never see another termite,” she recalls with a smile. “My first urban entomology class was termite taxonomy, taught by Jeff LaFage, who later became one of my most influential mentors. He was tough! We had to distinguish the various species of termites, which is difficult even for well-versed entomologists.”

In a fortuitous twist of events, LaFage, who became infamous for his work with Formosan subterranean termites prior to his death in 1989, invited Jones to work in his lab as part of her work-study program. She began to see termites in a different light. Jones recounts, “When Dr. LaFage went on an extended vacation, he left me in charge of the termite colonies. To my dismay, that was the time they chose to swarm. I had no idea what to do. So as they attempted to fly away to begin reproducing, I read – fast. I learned how to sex them, pair them and set up new colonies. I loved it and decided this was something I would like to continue doing.”

Continue she did. Jones worked under LaFage throughout her master’s degree, then took a position in 1981 with the U.S. Forest Service in Gulfport, Miss., doing Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)-mandated efficacy testing for termiticides. Later, through a cooperative program with the Forest Service and the University of Arizona, she studied subterranean termites under Bill Nutting as she worked toward her doctorate in entomology. It was a broadening experience, she says, as Nutting introduced her to insect diversity and ecology.

While working for the Forest Service, Jones became one of the first researchers in the country to do field studies on termite baits. She has continued that work, going out not only on her own but also with PMPs and other members of the industry to study the biology of these creatures in search of new management approaches.

“Manufacturers consistently choose Dr. Jones to field test new termiticide baits and liquid concentrates because she has a commanding knowledge of the insect’s physiology and behaviors,” says Dr. Gerald Wegner, staff entomologist and technical director at Varment Guard Environmental Services, Columbus, Ohio. “The scientific community and professional pest management industry have benefited tremendously from the research of Dr. Jones and her graduate students.”

Juggling Priorities
In 2000, Jones was appointed state extension entomologist and assistant professor of entomology at The Ohio State University (she received tenure and associate professor rank in 2005). Her extension and research program focuses on household and structural arthropod pests, and she provides research-based information on urban pests to the pest management industry as well as the public.

What began as very intensive termite work broadened to include bed bug research beginning in 2003. “I hadn’t even studied bed bugs during my education and training,” says Jones. “We thought this pest had been wiped out for good in developed countries, and we were shocked to see that it was making a comeback. As much as I didn’t want to compromise my termite research, I knew that the public and the pest management industry needed our help. Today, bed bugs consume about 90 percent of all of our efforts.”

Jones enjoys a variety of outdoor activities with her sons (left to right) Nathan and Sam.

In part, that’s because bed bugs are so difficult to work with in the lab. It took Jones and her team a solid year to get a workable feeding system into place due to the insects’ finicky behaviors. They have found the insects to be both time- and labor-intensive as they work their way through the bed bug learning curve. To date, Jones has set up about 30 bed bug populations, which she isolates with a moat system designed to stop the rare escapee.

Jones’ termite work today focuses on laboratory and field research on baits and soil termiticides. Her laboratory contains hundreds of termite colonies, each of which originated from a single pair of winged reproductives (swarmers). These colonies serve as an invaluable resource for her students. Her efforts have always focused on integrated pest management (IPM), which she studies in relation to both termites and bed bugs. She rejects the widespread notion that IPM is an alternative – rather than a partner – to insecticide usage.

“Some people have come to use the term ‘IPM’ as meaning ‘no insecticides,’ but that is inaccurate. IPM is – and has for decades been (although it hasn’t always carried the label ‘IPM’) – simply using multiple approaches in a targeted manner; that often means combining insecticide use with other efforts. The two insects I work with – termites and bed bugs – require an integrated approach that includes insecticides. Even in the case of heat treatments for bed bugs, for example, unless you use heat in combination with insecticides, you have no residual long-term effects. The key is using insecticides rationally. When you see people suffering from bed bug infestations, you realize that insecticide use is a very rational approach.”

Bed Bugs Trump Termites … For Now

Why the dramatic shift in research toward bed bug control? Several years ago, Jones got a call from a woman in Cincinnati who described the daily torment of living with bed bugs. She was a resident in one of the city’s projects, and her family, as well as the other families in the development, could find no relief from these creatures of the night. The city took no responsibility for the situation, and the personal efforts of residents were of no avail. Jones realized that the mental anguish brought on by bed bug infestations was beyond her wildest imagination. Remembering her father’s teachings, she knew it was time to stand up and speak out on behalf of those whose voice was simply not being heard.

“People are at the mercy of these insects, and local and state authorities aren’t recognizing the gravity and depth of the situation,” says Jones. “I started by filing a complaint on behalf of this citizen to bring this matter to light; then I went out in the field to start collecting bugs so we could begin addressing this epidemic in a structured fashion. It is an outrage how under-recognized and underfunded this problem is.”

Dr. Jones is a state extension entomologist and associate professor of entomology at The Ohio State University, where 90 percent of her time is focused on bed bugs.

Lonnie Alonso, president of Columbus Pest Control, notes the true value of Jones’ bed bug work: “Dr. Jones is playing a pivotal role in answering the questions we all have about bed bugs. Her work is particularly meaningful because she brings important information to not only the pest management community, but also the elected officials who influence policy.”

Jones has made significant inroads into both of these areas, traveling across the state to help PMPs understand how to best manage bed bugs and to help policymakers recognize the importance of addressing infestation issues. She served on the National Pest Management Association’s Blue Ribbon Bed Bug Task Force, which was designated by NPMA as 2011 Committee of the Year, and is an active member of both the steering committee of the Central Ohio Bed Bug Task Force in Columbus/Franklin County and the Joint Bed Bug Task Force in Cincinnati/Hamilton County.

“The EPA needs to come into these homes to see the extent of this devastation and the misuse of pesticides,” Jones concludes. “When I go into these residences to collect bed bugs, the insects are falling on me from the ceiling, and I’m often bitten. This is what people are living with every day. And their attempts to use pesticides on their own are only making their lives worse, as they repeatedly subject themselves to chemicals without getting any relief. No one should live in these conditions. Until they get the support and relief they deserve, I will continue to be their voice.”