Dr. Jennifer Gillett, 2008 Friends of IPM Award Winner
I first met Dr. Jennifer Gillett a few hours before our summer Advisory Council meeting, when she arrived in our office from an early morning flight. After she unpacked some of her brochures and papers to prepare for the meeting, she walked to my office, where I was stuffing papers into folders, and began to help.
To Gillett, no project is too big or too small, an attitude that has earned her much respect as Associate Integrated Pest Management (IPM) Director for the University of Florida’s Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences (UF/IFAS). Last fall, the Southern Region IPM Center Advisory Council rewarded her efforts with a Friends of IPM Future Leader Award.
Wanting to give IPM professionals like Gillett something more tangible than a “pat on the back,” the Southern Region IPM Center started the Friends of IPM award program last year to recognize outstanding efforts in IPM. Nominations included individuals and teams. Gillett’s Future Leader award includes an engraved plaque and $2,000 for development or dissemination of the work that earned the award. The Future Leader category recognizes extraordinary potential and promise for IPM. Other categories included IPM Implementer, IPM Teacher, Outstanding State Program, Lifetime Achievement Award and Pulling Together.
Those who have worked with Gillett say that a better descriptor is “ Growing Leader.” Whether she is working with her Extension specialists and agents, conducting training or bringing experts together to work on a growers’ guide, Gillett has already proven her leadership qualities in the field of IPM.
“I really depend on Jennifer,” says Norm Leppla, Florida IPM Coordinator and director of IPM Florida. “Her skills, interests and abilities complement mine, so we actually depend on each other. As a plant pathologist, she helps IPM Florida extend beyond my field of entomology. IPM Florida can’t do without her.”
Her interest in integrated pest management began in high school, where she gave an extemporaneous speech on the topic for a Future Farmers of America speech competition. While still in high school, she began working for the USDA-ARS Center for Medical, Agricultural, and Veterinary Entomology, near the University of Florida campus in Gainesville. Here she gained hands on experience in developing entomology based IPM programs for several southern crops. But her first direct experience implementing IPM came during her time in the Peace Corps, where she taught residents in Morocco about pesticide safety.
When Gillett returned to the US, she enrolled in the master’s program in plant pathology at the University of Florida in Gainesville. “I worked on plant pathology IPM because I wanted to have a more holistic approach,” she says.
As she began her doctorate program in plant pathology, Gillett maintained her job with the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and taught plant pathology classes at UF/IFAS. When she finished her degree, she joined USDA full-time as a molecular biologist. While she was there, Leppla contacted the chair of the UF/IFAS plant pathology department, Dr. Gail Wisler, seeking a graduate with exceptional interpersonal skills to help build his statewide IPM program. Wisler recommended Jennifer as an ideal candidate but advised that she might not be willing to change her career direction. Fortunately, Gillett enthusiastically made the switch.
Leppla said that Gillett was the only candidate he considered. “My requirements were so specific for the position that there weren’t any other candidates,” he says. “I wanted someone who was committed to advancing IPM, really good at working across disciplines and with all kinds of people, highly energetic and responsive to clientele, service oriented, determined to maintain high scientific and ethical standards and was known for having an excellent work ethic. There was no one I’d seen with all of those qualifications, except Jennifer.”
When Gillett started at UF/IFAS, IPM Florida was a young program beginning its third year with a full-time director, a recent entomology graduate and a couple of Plant Medicine students. Leppla welcomed fresh ideas, assistance in addressing a growing workload, and collaboration in designing a new action plan that would cover the IPM needs of the entire state. Today IPM Florida incorporates seven areas of activity: deciduous and small fruit, citrus, pasture and forage, watersheds and riverbasins, vegetables, ornamentals and turf, and people and communities with major emphasis on school IPM. Leppla attributes much of the program’s success to Gillett’s work.
“Dr. Gillett has helped to design IPM Florida so that it encourages collaboration in advancing IPM among UF/IFAS faculty members and their clientele,” wrote Leppla in his Friends of IPM award nomination letter for Gillett. “Her novel approach is to build partnerships, encourage synergy, create opportunities, and assure program recognition.”
During the three years she has been with IPM Florida, Gillett has empowered UF/IFAS personnel and other IPM professionals in the state by giving them ownership over the products they create. “The most important thing we have is building through partnerships, so we have the opportunity of synergy through those partnerships,” she says. “We want people to develop things together.”
One of those collaborative efforts involved the development of an IPM growers’ guide for tomato and pepper. Gillett assembled a multi-disciplinary team from various parts of the state to contribute the contents. After two years of work, the guide contained more than 200 pages of IPM information useful to growers, in addition to detailed descriptions and high-quality, colorful photographs of tomato and pepper pests.
Currently, Gillett is working with the Florida Landscape Maintenance Association on a new IPM manual for landscape maintenance that will be the basis for a new landscape maintenance certification program. But when she isn’t busy helping to develop new IPM materials, she assists extension specialists and agents with in-service training, works with the Southern Plant Diagnostic Network to teach extension personnel about the importance of proper identification, manages IPM Florida’s mini-grant program and works with UF/IFAS’s other IPM groups, including the School IPM team, 4-H and master gardeners.
While Gillett loves what she does, she dreams of being involved in something even greater. “I would like to be in a position to make American agriculture sustainable and affordable so we don’t have to rely on foreign imports,” she says.