A Collaborative Story

Lisa Holland Kaminsky
September 01, 1996

"It's a little ripe today," Ralph Mumma remarks. He nods out the window of the Pesticide Research Lab. "As you came into the building, you might have smelled that manure pile behind the hill. I could smell it. The University stores its manure in a little shed just over the hill. So now we are working on manure odors."

Mumma, a chemist in the department of entomology in the College of Agricultural Sciences, has also studied a geranium that is resistant to spider mites, tested the run-off on cornfields and golfcourse greens, and developed antibodies to detect low levels of pesticides in water or soil. As a hobby he keeps bees and gives the honey away.

"I have three hives, and I've had them for a good many years. But at the moment I have all dead hives," he says. "I'm getting three packages of bees from the South, three pounds of Texas bees, but they're late, thank goodness—" It's cold for April. "There's nothing out there for them to live on. The bee industry has been a disaster this year in Pennsylvania. A disaster." He glances meaningfully at my notebook. "It might even be worth a story."

When Mumma joined Penn State's entomology department in 1966 he admits, "I didn't know entomology. I taught several entomology classes and I learned a little." Having received his Ph.D. in organic chemistry from Penn State in 1960, he had spent his first five years teaching biochemistry. Now, after 30 years in entomology (and one, on sabbatical, teaching marine biology at the University of California at San Diego), he is Distinguished Professor of Environmental Quality.

"But basically, I'm still a chemist working in entomology," he says.

"Entomology is not just bugs, though," he adds. "It involves a lot of things. To the general public it's, Can you identify this insect? And I get that. And I can, now. But entomology is more broad than that. It involves all kinds of pest control. In my case, I work with herbicides, fungicides, insecticides, odors—

"It's a collaborative learning process," he adds, brushing off my surprise at the range of his research interests. "None of us can be experts in everything. We need to combine our talents."

In the manure study, for instance, he and swine expert Ken Kephardt are collaborating with animal scientist Dick Sutton at Purdue University. "We're analyzing the odors of pig and chicken manure, with the hopes of varying the diets of the animal to reduce the irritating volatiles," Mumma says. "Keep in mind, a lot of the work we've done has a practical aim. In this case, we have urbanization happening, people moving next to these farms, and they don't like the odors. Could we adjust the animals' diets to reduce the smell?"

Run-off is another modern problem. Suburbanites in search of the perfect lawn, greenskeepers charged with preening the golf courses, farmers who need to maximize their crop: All these are concerned with runoff, with the leaching of herbicides and pesticides into streams and groundwater. "You'd like the pesticide to stay where you applied it and degrade right there," Mumma says.

On farms, Mumma and John Hall, a soil chemist at Penn State, are "looking at encapsulating the pesticide in a particle for slow release, so that you could keep it at the surface longer and it wouldn't wash out." For lawnowners and greenskeepers, he's working with a Penn State professor of turfgrass science, Tom Watschke, whose grass plots (located over a different hill from the Pesticide Lab), are "one of the finest turfgrass test facilities in the country."There, Mumma says, "We watered four inches in an hour, and there was no movement.That's a lot of water—so that's very encouraging. We looked at a number of situations, and the pesticides just decomposed right there on the spot.

"Now, the problem with that," he admits, "is that it was an ideal grass situation. The test plots are designed after golf courses—the type of grass, the slope, the type of soil. Not all homeowners have an ideal grass situation."

To test for the pesticide residues, Mumma and his colleagues used commercial kits that, nearly 20 years ago, he had helped to develop. "John Hall bought 11 kits last week," he notes. "We were about to analyze 1100 samples—that's a lot of samples—at 100 per kit, and each kit is $450 apiece. It's a million-dollar business."

The kits, which were the idea of Penn State entomologist Charles Ercegovich, are an adaptation of the antibody-based tests used pharmaceutically, for instance in pregnancy tests. Mumma took over the project when Ercegovich died in 1978, "and carried it to a few graduate students. We developed antibodies for many of the pesticides," Mumma says, "and helped the companies commercialize it. Now they've taken over. My last student who was working on this technique graduated in 1988. I must've bought about $6,000-worth of these kits this year."

The geranium project ultimately may be a money-maker too, but it's further from commercialization. "About 15 years ago, we decided to study plants that were superior in terms of insect resistance," Mumma says. If their secret could be transfered—by selective breeding or genetic engineering—to other plants, it could reduce the need for pesticides.

Mumma collaborated with Penn State horticulture professor and well-known geranium specialist Richard Craig. "He had geranium plants that were genetically related, yet one plant was resistant and the other was susceptible, in this case, to spider mites." The question was, why? And was the trait transferable?

"The study has taken us through a couple of graduate students," Mumma adds. "It started with just an undergraduate student working in the lab, and he had success that he carried over to a few PhD's, and the last one, David Schultz, isolated the gene for resistance. He just completed it two weeks ago and defended his thesis. The gene encodes an enzyme that catalyzes an important reaction needed to get resistance. Theoretically, we can transfer that gene.The ultimate goal is that if we can understand this superior resistance, maybe we can utilize this information to breed superior plants.

"A geranium is not a food crop, of course, but I enjoyed working with Craig. All my life I've worked collaboratively with other people. In this case particularly, I needed to work with a plant geneticist and he needed to work with a chemist. Later we joined hands with Diana Cox-Foster and June Medford, who are molecular biologists, one in entomology, the other in the biology department. We needed more talent and we got it.

In April, Mumma received the Howard B. Palmer Mentoring Award for his assistance to junior faculty. According to the colleagues who nominated him, "He selflessly contributes time, equipment, and even monetary resources to aiding new faculty overcome barriers in establishing new research areas at Penn State. He jumps at the chance to collaborate on new projects or involve new faculty in his own research projects, if they are willing."

"His quiet advice," wrote another colleague, "carefully thought through and delivered in comfortable settings, has helped me prioritize conflicting issues." Those settings, the writer noted, ranged from hallways to woodland trails, after a chance meeting on a hike. And the advice was not always academic. "Many times, when I thought what I needed was advice on publishing, grantsmanship, or some other complication of the job," commented another, "Dr. Mumma helped me put the stress in perspective. He actively encouraged me to spend time with my family and to become involved in community projects. Because of his example and urging, I developed an international perspective to my research work that has greatly increased my job satisfaction and vastly stretched my personal growth."

Mumma merely shrugs when confronted with such praise. "I don't think there's a story there at all," he says. "I do it just because it's my job to help these young people." Now, having been on the faculty 35 years, he is considering "stepping aside to let these younger people take over.

"It seems to me," he adds wryly, "that there isn't much else to do after you receive a mentoring award." Then he turns serious. "It's the highest I'd aspire to."

Ralph Mumma, Ph.D., is Distinguished Professor of Environmental Quality in the College of Agricultural Sciences, 105 Pesticide Research Lab, University Park, PA 16802; 814-863-4435. His research is funded by the National Pork Producers and supported in part by the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania and the USDA. Nancy Marie Brown contributed to this story.

Last Updated September 01, 1996