Montana State University

MSU graduate, entomologist wins presidential award

January 22, 2014 -- By Evelyn Boswell, MSU News Service

Justin Runyon uses a collection system to capture airborne compounds released by plants in a greenhouse at the Rocky Mountain Research Station on the Montana State University campus in Bozeman. (MSU photo by Kelly Gorham).    High-Res Available

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MSU News Service
Tel: (406) 994-4571
msunews@montana.edu

BOZEMAN – A Montana State University graduate who received a national award last year has now won the highest honor the United States government gives to science and engineering professionals in the early stages of their independent research careers.

Justin Runyon, an entomologist on the MSU campus, was one of 102 researchers chosen to receive the latest Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers (PECASE) and one of only three recipients nominated through the U.S. Department of Agriculture. A White House press release said the awards ceremony will be held sometime this year in Washington, D.C.

“I have no idea how they made the decision, but I’m glad,” said Runyon, 37.

Deborah Finch, Runyon’s supervisor at the Rocky Mountain Research Station, said the PECASE honors Runyon for “outstanding and sustained accomplishments that significantly increased knowledge in biocontrol of invasive species, chemical ecology of plants, and insect diversity and taxonomy.

“Justin has a bright future owing to his strong ability to tease out the intricacies of relationships between plants and insects and his aptitude for building collaborative research projects,” Finch said.

Runyon said the fact that he won the 2012 Early Career Scientist Award from the U.S. Forest Service could have contributed to his PECASE selection. He has also published papers in major scientific journals, including Proceedings of the Royal Society and Science. The first is an international journal that published Runyon’s findings about a new type of fly. The second – the world’s leading journal of original scientific research, global news and commentary – ran his paper about parasitic plants.

When Runyon was in his 20s and working on his master’s degree at MSU, he and entomologist Richard Hurley discovered a new type of long-legged fly that lives in Arizona, in large, dark cavities formed by overhanging rocks near streams. The male’s left wing is larger and a different shape than the right wing. As a result, the entomologists named it Erebomyia exalloptera.  Erebos, in Greek mythology, is the dark place under the Earth through which the dead pass before entering Hades. The second part of the name is Greek for “quite different wings.” 

In his 2006 paper in Science, Runyon and his collaborators at Pennsylvania State University explained how parasitic plants use chemical cues to guide them to their host. The parasitic plants can even pick between potential hosts based on those chemicals. They can tell the difference between tomatoes and wheat, for example.

“We expect these findings to have broad implications for research in a variety of fields, including chemical ecology, parasite-host interactions, and plant biology,” Runyon said. “Moreover, these results provide knowledge that may be useful in developing new tactics for controlling parasitic plants that attack agricultural crops.”

Runyon said he has always been interested in nature, perhaps because he grew up exploring the woods around his house near Clintwood, Va. He lived in the southwest part of the state, where his grandfathers worked in the coal mines and his family still lives.  As a third grader, Runyon was obsessed with planets and astronomy. In fifth grade, he became hooked on bugs.

Runyon earned his bachelor’s degree in entomology from the University of Virginia’s College at Wise, then enrolled at MSU for graduate school. He had never been west of the Mississippi, but he came to Montana because of an undergraduate instructor who had attended graduate school in Montana. The instructor hadn’t been back in 35 years, but he couldn’t stop talking about Montana, Runyon said. His enthusiasm was infectious.

Runyon earned his master’s degree from MSU in 2001. David Weaver, an associate professor in the Department of Land Resources and Environmental Sciences and Runyon's major professor at MSU, then hired Runyon as a research associate to manage his lab. Runyon worked there until 2003. From there, he went to Pennsylvania State where he earned his doctorate in entomology in 2008. When a federal job opened up in Bozeman, Runyon said he jumped at the chance to return.

“I haven’t regretted one second of it,” he said. “I really like Montana.”

Runyon is now a research entomologist for the Rocky Mountain Research Station, a branch of the U.S. Forest Service and located on the east side of the MSU campus. Runyon is also an associate Curator of Diptera in the Montana Entomology Collection and an adjunct/affiliate in MSU’s Department of Plant Sciences and Plant Pathology and the Department of Ecology. He collaborates regularly with MSU faculty members.

Most of his work involves trying to understand the role that chemistry plays in interactions between insects and plants, then apply those lessons to biological control, Runyon said. He also conducts research on bark beetles and fire, and interactions between plants and pollinators. One of his favorite jobs is classifying flies.

Runyon is the fifth person affiliated with MSU to win a PECASE award, but the first entomologist. The fact that he won is exciting, but it also challenges him to continue to conduct good science, Runyon said.

“People will expect more of me now,” he said. “I don’t know if that’s a positive or a negative.” 

Evelyn Boswell, (406) 994-5135 or evelynb@montana.edu