[2003 Leadership Awards Profile] Pat Zungoli

Features - PCT News

October 17, 2003

In many ways, Clemson University Professor Pat Zungoli’s ability to communicate, listen to and learn from others has been as integral to her success as her technical expertise.

For the last 21 years Zungoli has built deep relationships with pest management professionals, pesticide regulators, homebuild-ers and others. These relationships have helped Zungoli better understand the challenges of the pest control industry and have given her the support needed for successful research projects.

In return, Zungoli has given back to the pest management industry on several fronts. In addition to providing South Carolina PCOs with important research to meet new and ongoing challenges, Zungoli’s contributions include her work with pesticide regulatory issues and her role as industry ambassador by encouraging Clemson students to seek careers in pest control.

NON-TRADITIONAL ROUTE. Perhaps Zungoli’s ability to work with such a diverse group of people can be traced to her educational background. Unlike most industry researchers who pursue degrees in entomology or related sciences, Zungoli graduated from the University of Maryland with a B.A. in psychology in 1974.

In fact, prior to entering college Zungoli had what she describes as an "aversion to insects."

"I was afraid of insects for the longest time," she recalls. "When I got to college I decided to take an entomology course because I thought it was time to learn something about them."

Although the introductory course sparked an insect interest, Zungoli was still on a path towards a career in a psychology-related field. In fact, throughout college Zungoli honed her crisis intervention skills while volunteering at mental-health care facilities.

But like most college students, Zungoli was cash-strapped and during her junior year sought a part-time job. Zungoli’s roommate, Ingrid Sunzenauer, mentioned that the University of Maryland, Department of Entomology, was hiring college students to work on research projects.

In the 1920s, Mexican bean beetles invaded the U.S. and by the 1960s were wreaking havoc on the country’s soybean crops. As undergraduate students, Zungoli and Sunzenauer helped with the task of implementing a biological control project for these pests. Specifically, they helped rear and-release parasites and then followed up this work by sampling soybeans.

While traveling abroad in Madrid, Spain, Zungoli and Sunzenauer received a letter from the department chair at the University of Maryland. The university wanted to transfer the Mexican bean beetle project to the Maryland Department of Agriculture, but also wanted the two students to stay on board to help with implementing and transferring the program. Zungoli and Sunzenauer accepted the university’s offer, divided up the state and continued the project until the state took it over one year later.

"We both felt pretty attached to it because it was saving growers a lot of money because the parasites were resolving pest problems that otherwise would have had to been resolved using vast amounts of pesticides," Zungoli said.

The project also ignited the spark that would lead Zungoli towards a career in entomology.

"Suddenly this whole new world unfolded for me," she said. "I began thinking about how the world fit together, all of the niches that are out there, and why insects are out there."

Zungoli continued on at Maryland where she earned a master’s degree in entomology in 1979. During this time, she married Bob Bellinger, also a grad student at Maryland. After earning his master’s degree, Bellinger was offered an assistantship at Virginia Tech, so the couple moved to Blacksburg, Va., home of the university.

In a new city and fresh with her entomology degree, Zungoli was anxious to work in the pest control industry. The problem, Zungoli quickly discovered, was that in 1979 opportunities for women in pest control were limited.

"I called a (PCO) as a follow-up and said that I had applied for a position as a technician and I explained my background and that I really wanted to learn about this industry," Zungoli recalls. "He then asked me questions like: How many houses have you been under and what would you do the first time you saw a snake under a house? He then said, ‘We already filled the position.’"

Frustrated by the lack of interest from pest control companies, as well as a lack of other job opportunities in the Blacksburg area, Zungoli decided to pursue her doctorate at Virginia Tech. In many ways this move turned out for the best as Zungoli was able to work alongside noted researcher Dr. Bill Robinson. It was also during this time that Zungoli gained a more thorough understanding of pest control and became more interested in urban entomology.

NEW CHALLENGES. While at Virginia Tech, Zungoli was exploring career options. One day, while perusing the Entomology Society of America newsletter, Zungoli noticed that the Clemson Department of Entomology was seeking a research/teaching entomologist. "I had heard of Clemson but really knew nothing about it," Zungoli recalls. "I didn’t even know (exactly) where it was located."

But what did appeal to Zungoli were the prospects of teaching, researching and working closely with the urban pest management industry in the state of South Carolina.

Today, Zungoli’s teaching responsibilities vary from semester to semester, but they usually involve teaching both upper level and lower level entomology classes. One of Zungoli’s teaching objectives has been to make entomology students effective communicators. This was triggered after Zungoli observed that a pesticide industry researcher was hiring English majors and finance majors. "I told this person ‘you know I have some entomology and horticulture students who would love to have these jobs,’" she said. "To which (the researcher) responded, ‘We can teach English majors and finance majors all the entomology they need to know for this job. Getting science kids to talk to the real world – forget it.’"

With this new-found insight, Zungoli decided to make communication an integral part of her curriculum.

"I try to get my students to do a lot of writing and speaking," she said. "Our graduate students are asked to write extension publications. It gets them to think about how to write scientific information and transfer it to a lay audience."

Teaching also gives Zungoli an opportunity to be creative. For example, as part of a 200-level entomology course (for non-entomology majors), Zungoli has her students do a creative project. "It can be just about anything as long as it’s factual," she says. "I’ve had everything from poetry about insects to incredible wire insect sculptures and clay models. The students seem to enjoy their projects while at the same time they learn something."

LEARNING THE INDUSTRY. When Zungoli came to Clemson she had impeccable credentials, but few contacts in South Carolina. So, she made a point of developing relationships through-out the state. Among the pest control operators Zungoli credits with helping her get up to speed on the pest management challenges in South Carolina are Bud Snyder, Denny Ford, Tom Fortson and Phil Gregory. In turn, Zungoli has worked tirelessly to provide pest control operators in South Carolina with valuable research.

Throughout her tenure at Clemson, the department has provided research on pest problems that arise in South Carolina such as Formosan termites in Charleston and other areas, and smokybrown cockroaches (statewide). In the mid-90s, Zungoli was instrumental in helping the industry re-write the building code (see related story).

"From the day I started, my goal was to do research that would feed back to the real world," she said. "Sometimes we are doing just basic research, but always in back of my mind I try to determine how it can be applied to the real world."

These contributions do not go unnoticed by South Carolina PCOs. "Pat has a genuine interest in the success of the pest management industry," Fortson said. "The industry in South Carolina has a very symbiotic relationship with Pat. She is always open to hearing from PCOs and providing them the research they need."

The relationships Zungoli has built also have provided her graduate students important hands-on learning opportunities.

"We may have someone come in and visit our class and talk about pest control or we may take a trip to Greenville to visit Phil Gregory’s pest control company," Zungoli said. "Also, the pest control operators in South Carolina are always willing to help us find homes that meet our research needs."

These interactions with PCOs, as well as Zungoli’s positive reinforcement of the pest control industry to her students, have other benefits. According to Gregory, Zungoli encourages top entomology students at Clemson to seek careers in the structural pest management industry.

"We used to lose students to the chemical manufacturers and distributors, but since Pat has been at Clemson we are now getting more into the PCO side of the business," Gregory said.

FINDING A BALANCE. The move from Blacksburg, Va., to Clemson, S.C., was made possible because Pat’s husband, Bob Bellinger, also is involved in academia. Bellinger is State Pesticide Coordinator and Director of Pesticide Programs at Clemson University.

Zungoli also has been actively involved with their children’s pursuits such as marching band and theater. Zungoli and Bellinger are parents to Chris, 23, and, Caitlin, 16. The couple is coping with the loss of their son, Nick, 14, who unexpectedly passed away in June.

LEAVING HER MARK. Since arriving at Clemson University, Pat Zungoli has left her mark in numerous ways. With her emphasis on providing students with a comprehensive entomology background, including extra emphasis on the written and spoken word, she has helped put her own "signature" on teaching entomology.

At the same time, Zungoli has been an invaluable resource to pest control operators throughout South Carolina by providing important research, presenting the pest control industry in a positive light to prospective industry professionals and working closely with PCOs on various regulatory and industry challenges.

It is this last responsibility that has been one of Zungoli’s most gratifying career highlights.

"When I started at Clemson I was very green in terms of my knowledge of the pest control industry, but I’ve been so fortunate to be in a state like South Carolina that has such phenomenal national leadership in the pest control industry," Zungoli said. "The PCOs in this state have just been tremendously helpful. They have really given me an understanding of the subtleties involved in pest control."

Behind-The-Scenes Industry Advocate

Pat Zungoli played a critical role in a collaborative effort that led to a national building code change in the use of foam insulation around buildings.

In the early 1990s, there was a rise in the popularity of homes built with EIFS (Exterior Insulation and Finish Systems). EIFS uses synthetic materials to cover exterior home walls and it resembles real stucco. Termites will use the board as a conduit to travel (undetected) from the ground to the water-soaked wood hidden in the walls of the home. When EIFS is built all the way to (or below) grade it becomes especially problematic because traditional trench-and-treat termiticide applications are ineffective and because termites don’t have to build tunnels — a tell-tale infestation sign for termite inspectors. Termites simply bore directly into the foam board.

As a result, pest control operators, who weren’t even present during the construction phase, were being sued over termite-damaged EIFS homes.

"Initially, the foam board industry’s attitude was ‘if it really is such a problem we would know about it,’" Zungoli said. "But what happens is when you build a house and disturb the soil so much, it takes a few years for termites to find their way back. So, that house has long been turned over to the homeowner, who has it in care of a pest control company. Through no fault of their own, PCOs were losing case after case in court."

The lawsuits against PCOs were especially commonplace in the South — including South Carolina — where this type of building was popular and where more termite-conducive conditions exist.

In response, leading PCOs, researchers and regulators in South Carolina, as well as the National Pest Management Association (NPMA) and others, worked to change the Southern Building Code, which is the national building code. Specifically, this coalition wanted the building code to mandate that builders leave a 6-inch gap between the bottom of the EIFS and the ground.

NPMA Technical Director Greg Baumann campaigned tirelessly on behalf of the industry, while PCOs such as Bud Snyder of Palmetto Exterminators Inc. of Walterboro, S.C.; Phil Gregory of Gregory Pest Prevention, Green-ville, S.C.; and Tom Fortson of Terminix Service, Columbia, S.C.; also played important roles.

Upon being informed of the problem, Zungoli and others went to work gathering as much information from the various entities within the pest control industry, as well as others from outside the industry, such as regulators and those in the foam board industry. Neil Ogg of the South Carolina Department of Pesticide Regulation and Wayne Shirley of the South Carolina Building Codes also were instrumental in assembling information.

One of Zungoli’s biggest contributions was developing the language for the new building code, according to Fortson.

"Pat spent long hours talking with Ogg and others writing and re-writing the code," Fortson said. "The language is particularly difficult. I’m not sure that it would have passed if the language was not correct."

Zungoli, Fortson, Baumann, Wright and others, also testified on behalf of the pest control industry at meetings with building code officials.

"I’m sure having someone such as Pat, who is unbiased, knowledgeable and believable, strengthened our position in the eyes of the building code officials," Gregory said.

After hearing various industry representatives testify and reviewing the proposed code changes, building code officials changed the Southern Building Code.

"We never expected it to be changed," Zungoli said. "We went after it in hopes of raising the level of knowledge and level of awareness of those in the building code industry, but lo-and-behold it passed.

"I think we were a force to be reckoned with. That’s what’s been great about my involvement with this industry. The collaboration has always been there."

New Insectary Bolsters Research Efforts

A testament to the strong relationship Pat Zungoli, Eric Benson, and others at Clemson University have forged with PCOs in South Carolina was the opening of the university’s Urban Entomology Insectary in 2002. The 1,300 square-foot-facility was made possible by a $50,000 gift from the South Carolina Pest Control Association (SCPCA) and matching funds from many other generous contributors.

The insectary boasts four rearing rooms and a large common work area. The main common room is well equipped with a large industrial sink, laboratory equipment, computer station and plenty of counter tops to maintain Clemson’s insect colonies.

To help keep insects from escaping, the front and back of the building have double-door vestibules with strong air curtains. All of the conduits for the electrical lines are caulked and the air-handling units are screened with a fine mesh. The doors all have bottom sweeps that make a tight seal with the floor and the few windows to the facility do not open. The building is also incredibly well insulated and energy efficient.

The new Urban Entomology Insectary quadruples Clemson’s insect rearing space and provides an environment for better research. Inside the front door hangs a plaque with a list of all of the contributors and the following inscription: “With sincere appreciation of the South Carolina Pest Control Association and other donors whose generous contributions made the Urban Entomology Insectary a reality.”