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Student Profile: Samantha Willden

Performing sweet research for New York’s strawberry industry

Samantha Willden is an entomology doctoral student studying the ecology and management of strawberry pests under the guidance of professor Greg Loeb. Photo by Justin Muir. 

Samantha Willden is a doctoral student in the field of entomology studying under the guidance of entomology professor Greg Loeb.

What is your research focus area?

My research focuses on the ecology and management of strawberry pests, specifically describing how and why growing strawberries under plastic tunnels affects the presence and abundance of pests. One of the most important elements of my research relates to managing these pests and understanding how biological and physical control practices (i.e., utilizing natural enemies and ultraviolet radiation for management) can be tailored for low tunnel systems. My research goal is to promote integrated pest management in agriculture by providing control recommendations for strawberry growers that are sustainable, compatible and effective under low tunnels.

What is the most exciting thing you’ve discovered through your research?

The standard biological control agent for two-spotted spider mite management on strawberries is the predatory mite, Phytoseiulus persimilis. This species is often an effective, selective and highly mobile predator of spider mites. One of the most exciting discoveries at Cornell AgriTech is that Neoseiulus fallacis, a naturally occurring predatory mite, can be more effective because it can reach higher densities under low tunnels. This discovery lends to interesting hypotheses about the feeding ecology of different predatory mite species and how certain abiotic and biotic factors influence biological control.

Why is research like yours important to NYS growers?

The fact that New York is among the top 10 strawberry producing states in the U.S., and that strawberries are ranked the third most important fruit crop in the state, underscores the importance of research on this system. Growing strawberries under plastic low tunnels can meet consumer demand by extending the growing season and protecting plants from damage caused rain, frost and disease. Unfortunately, these benefits may be negated by the presence of certain pests that are especially damaging under plastic tunnels. Determining the extent to which growing berries under plastic augments pest pressure and developing effective tools for pest management is critical to New York’s strawberry growers. By developing biological control options, we also hope to reduce reliance on pesticides for pest management in strawberries.

What has been your most valuable experience at Cornell AgriTech?

My most valuable experience has been working and collaborating with the people here. What I really love are the students, faculty and staff who have made me feel that I am valued and supported, and that I have a home here. I truly appreciate the social events that unite people using food incentives. Examples include food trucks, cookie and chili bake-offs and cider pressing. Overall, the culture that I’ve experienced here is such a great model that I would like to see emulated in any career that I pursue.