Pine Beetles Might Answer Climate Change Questions: Dr Diana Six

Dr. Diana Six is a professor of forest entomology/pathology at the University of Montana who specializes in Pine Beetles and has connected their forest damaging activities with climate change. Her TEDx talk on the subject illustrates the troubling trajectory North American forests are headed in. Geek Puff founder, Toni Matlock, had a chance to sit down with Diana in her lab.

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Dr. Diana Six in her outdoor lab, photo Amy Donovan.

GEEK PUFF: Why don’t you introduce yourself and tell us about your work?

DIANA: My name is Diana Six and I’m a professor of forest entomology at The University of Montana—Missoula. I’m a forest entomologist, and I work on bark beetles and every aspect of bark beetle ecology.

GEEK PUFF: What is the distinction between a forest entomologist and a regular entomologist?

DIANA:  We’re fairly specialized. Instead of working on all insects, we work only on insects that affect trees. Traditionally a forest entomologist is focused on applied things, such as management efforts. I’ve taken that in a different direction. Instead of trying to figure out how to manage or kill bark beetles, I study their evolution and ecology—basically the things that make them tick out there in the forest.

GEEK PUFF: Nice pun. So what are the top five things on your daily task list.

DIANA:  The top five things on my daily task list?  I wish there was only five things, but I have a pretty set order of working through them.

I start off with email. Every morning I get up, I do my email. We all have to do that these days. The next thing I usually take care of is departmental business now that I’m department chair, such as meetings and faculty issues. Then I usually organize my teaching materials for that day or the next day, so that I can hit the ground running when I’m ready. If I have time left over, I get to do research. Maybe I’m writing, doing analysis, or actually working in the lab. Unfortunately, my lab time disappears too often. The fifth thing that’s always on my top five list is my workout. I’m a rabid gym rat. I get out, I hike, and I lift weights. If I don’t work out, I go absolutely nuts, so that is always on my top five list of things to do.  

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Dr. Diana Six working in her lab, photo Amy Donovan.

GEEK PUFF: What problems does your work address?

DIANA: My work addresses a lot of different problems. As I mentioned, I approach my work on bark beetles from all sorts of different angles. They’re one of the main pests affecting forests all around the world. The work that we do helps us understand why bark beetles do what they do and why they develop large outbreaks. Right now, one of the most important questions we are addressing is what can we expect with bark beetles in light of climate change? We have already seen some really big responses in the bark beetle to climate change. What we are trying to do is develop ways we can predict how bark beetles are going to respond as the climate continues changing, and how we may be able to respond to that.

GEEK PUFF: How do  you feel you bring ideas to life?

DIANA: That’s a good question. There are so many ideas you come up with when you’re in science. But to bring an idea to life takes a lot of work and forethought. So I spend a lot of time trying to figure out if that idea really makes sense and if it is really going to  pan out. Research takes a lot of time and money, and you want to only really pursue things that are going to  pay off in a good way. I spend a lot of time planning and exploring if an idea’s good. Once I decide that it is worth pursuing, I go after it with everything I’ve got.

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Dr. Diana Six working in her lab, photo Amy Donovan.

GEEK PUFF: What scares you the most about your field?

DIANA: What scares me the most right now is the political situation. There is a war on science. It’s a very uncomfortable place to be if you are a scientist. When I was a kid, scientists were my heroes, and you could see this on the news everyday, and the advertisements. At that time, science was bringing so much to people, and people really looked up to science and saw it as something that very much improved their life. Today the current political climate is very anti-science. There are literally attacks on scientists and their funding in the media and on social media. There are even death threats. It is very disturbing, and affects all aspects of our work right now. Scientists are attacked by trolls there’s death threats. It is a very difficult situation now being a scientist.

GEEK PUFF: How do you handle that?

DIANA:  Well, I handle that in a number of ways. I try to avoid the trolls. That’s hard because they’ll come after you. I try to communicate with the public and policymakers to policy makers to get them to understand how valuable science is in policy making and in our lives. You have to get a bit thick-skinned. It’s difficult when you get threatening emails because you’ve taken a stance on climate change or whatever.

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Dr. Diana Six working in her lab, photo Amy Donovan.

GEEK PUFF: What is the one thing that you do over and over and over in your work that you would recommend someone else to do?

DIANA:  The one thing I do over and over and over is question. I question everything I do, but I think that’s what keeps me a good scientist. You have to be very skeptical. I tell my students to never get too attached to their hypotheses, because they might be wrong. I get ideas, I follow them through. But I’m a huge skeptic. I’m always gonna test to see if, yes, that is really right.

GEEK PUFF: Where do you get the strength to succeed in your work?

DIANA:  Coffee. Nothing happens without coffee. But other than coffee, I would say my passion for science gives me that strength. I’m absolutely passionate about what I do, that’s the only reason anybody could ever want to be a scientist. Because you work evenings, weekends, you work all the time. It’s non-stop. And unless you’re passionate you’re not going to be willing to do that. Like everything else, in order to be good at anything you have to be passionate about it. I know that’s where my income is from and why I’m willing to put in all that work. The work and the time is just what I love to do.

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Dr. Diana Six working in her lab, photo Amy Donovan.

GEEK PUFF: As a woman scientist, have there been unique experiences or insights that you’ve had?

DIANA:  I think my experience as a woman scientist versus just a scientist, has been an interesting one. Well no, let’s see. When I started going into entomology as a student. There were not that many women in entomology. In fact I had a fellowship that was trying to recruit more women into entomology. I’m proud now to look at the audience when I go to the Entomological Society of America meetings And greater than 50% of the audience is now women. Unfortunately, that hasn’t translated as well to as many women being hired into academia. And so, I really am trying to encourage very strongly women to stick with it and go after those positions as professors. And just increase our participation at the higher levels. It’s not easy. There are some barriers in place, but there’s also a lot of very helpful people out there and good mentors. So, it isn’t always easy being a woman in science, but it’s rewarding, nonetheless. The more there are of us, the better it’s gonna get.

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Six Labs, Photo Amy Donovan.

GEEK PUFF: Who has been your greatest influence personally or professionally?

DIANA:  I’m gonna blame it on five people. And they’ve all been in different places along my path. I did not start out to be a scientist as a kid. They were my heroes.  I got sort of sidetracked. I grew up in a fairly abusive home. I dropped out of high school halfway through. I ended up doing all sorts of things I shouldn’t have been doing. Drugs. I ended up on the streets. I was homeless for a period of time. I nearly died. When things were really bad, I realized I had to turn my life around. I went back to school to get my diploma at night.  I was working two jobs. But there were two teachers there, who saw something in me. They encouraged me to go on to the community college, so I enrolled, basically to make them happy. I had no idea what college was about. But once I got there, I took my first biology course.

That was it, I was hooked. Then I had two more influential teachers. An amazing naturalist biologist extraordinaire named Jim Delorea and Muriel Zimmerman, a microbiologist. They encouraged me so much that I went on, to get my bachelor’s degree. Then I went on to graduate school. I started my PhD. with a guy named Tim Pain as my advisor. He was the one who really convinced me to go into academia. I think I would’ve gotten the degree. I love science. But I think I would’ve just disappeared into the background. Instead, Tim encouraged me to go on, and I think that’s why I’m here. These people believed in me all along the way and helped me build up my confidence, when I had zero.  I totally blame all this on them.

GEEK PUFF: I love that story. What is one trend that really excites you right now? Either in science or in the world?

DIANA:  Genomics is to me the most exciting trend we have right now, the most exciting thing to happen in science. To know genomics is magic.We can sequence the entire genome of an organism and we can tell so much about what it is capable of doing and what it has been through in its evolutionary path. It’s absolutely magic what you can learn now. And it’s become cheap. We sent away for the genome of a bark beetle, and I think it cost us something like $6,000. And for $6,000 we have millions of bits of data that we can use to answer so many questions. To me, genomics just one of the most magical things to happen.We could do so much with it.

I started off just doing bark beetles and their symbioses with fungi about twenty-three years ago. And in those days, we couldn’t even tell what fungi we were working with. We were gradually able to sequence and now we can do all sorts of things. Genomics really takes everything an astronomical step forward.

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Bark beetles, Six Labs, photo Amy Donovan.

GEEK PUFF: What software, artwork, or media, would you recommend to our community?

DIANA:  Well, I’m an amazing addict to Twitter. I think Twitter is magic. I get all my news, do a lot of networking with Twitter. As far as a book, I think everybody should have to read Elizabeth Kolbert’s It’s The Sixth Extinction. It will open people’s eyes to kind of the challenge that we’re facing with climate change. It truly is the biggest challenge that humankind has probably ever had. This book can really bring that to just anybody. She’s an amazing writer and it’s absolutely remarkable book.

Thanks Diana!

You can find Diana at The Six Lab and follow her on Twitter: @DianaSix1

Watch Diana’s TEDxUMontana talk.

Editor’s note: Correction on 11/11/15, Elizabeth Kolbert (not Holberg) is the author of The Sixth Extinction.