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Young biology alumnus looking to kick some as

Signs of the ash borer
Jon Lelito, below, is on a mission to stop the population explosion of the emerald ash borer beetle, which causes damage like that above, and is killing ash trees by the millions in the U.S. and Canada. 

Jon Lelito

If you’ve gone camping, or even just driving, throughout the Great Lakes region in the last few years, you’ve probably seen the warnings: “Don’t Move Firewood.”

This isn’t a modern-day, Smokey the Bear, anti-forest fire campaign. It’s an effort to stop the spread of the emerald ash borer beetle, a tiny insect that is destroying or threatening more than 7 billion ash trees within at least 14 known states to date. 

And one of the scientists at the forefront of the fight to halt to the spread of these insects is a 29-year-old Fredonia alumnus.

Dr. Jonathan Lelito, ’03, ’06, is a researcher with the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS). He has been studying the devastating effects of the beetle since 2006, while pursuing his Ph.D. at Penn State University.

Now, just four years later, he’s leading one of the USDA’s highest profile – and most important – initiatives against the emerald ash borer. Dr. Lelito’s laboratory is working to keep the beetle infestations from spreading further, in addition to treating those areas which are already infected.

He manages a laboratory about 40 minutes outside of Detroit, Mich., designed to study and mass produce a type of Chinese parasitic wasp, the natural predator of the beetle’s larvae. The larvae are the highly undetectable form of the insect that destroys the trees’ insides and ultimately causes their death.

“The beetles are small, only a centimeter long, and they live in the tops of the trees,” Lelito explained. “It’s a pretty shocking sight to see all of these acres of dead trees. It might be the middle of July, and you’ll look right up through the canopy and it’s like it’s the middle of winter, because there are no leaves on any of the trees.”

The beetle’s devastating impact is not only felt in the ash forests themselves. It is affecting everything from baseball bat manufacturers to the woven baskets made by Native Americans.

This year, Lelito’s lab will produce over 45,000 wasps and distribute them to at least five of the 14 infested states in an effort to help save trees. Lelito’s early success goes against the traditional career path of new science doctoral graduates.

Typically, they participate in one or more “post-doc” assignments, followed by assistant professorships en route to becoming full time professors. For Jon to have made a “bee-line” to leading his own lab – one with 12 employees, no less – before the age of 30 is really quite remarkable.

“There are certainly other options for scientists than being a professor,” Lelito reported. “There are other avenues that are just as, if not more, rewarding.”

His decision to choose Fredonia was easy, as he was offered scholarships and knew the school had a great biology department.

His mother, Mary (Schwindler) Lelito, ’75, also had some influence. He took almost every course the biology department offered and credits its “outstanding quality of education.”

Biology professors Dr. Bruce Tomlinson and Pat Astry were exceptional role models for him, as was his advisor, Dr. Bill Brown, who encouraged and inspired him to pursue a career in research. He immediately drifted toward entomology (the study of insects), and began researching the behavior of the praying mantis.

Lelito also worked in Reed Library, a job he loved because, he says, it gave him “a break from the ‘nerdiness’ of the biology department.” “Librarians are not as nerdy as everybody gives them credit for,” he laughed.

Kidding aside, this Blasdell, N.Y., native greatly enjoyed the camaraderie within Fredonia’s biology department. He remains connected with his former faculty and classmates at Fredonia, and returns every couple of years to join them on an area wine tour.

“I’ve been very fortunate,” Lelito admits of landing such a prominent position so early in his career. “But Fredonia prepared me for this. It’s a very exciting field. There are so many questions we have. There’s probably a lifetime of work ahead of me, because there is so much we don’t know yet.”

In other words, Jon realizes his beetle battle is far from over. Fortunately, time is on his side.



posted @ Friday, August 27, 2010 4:32 PM by Christine Davis Mantai

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