2023 Emerging Leaders

Rebecca Schmidt-Jeffris 

Engaged in pioneering work that deploys insects as natural predators against other bugs that damage crops such as apples and pears, limiting the use of harmful pesticides, saving farmers money and protecting the environment.

Rebecca Schmidt-Jeffris loves insects. That’s especially true for bugs that can eat other bugs and reduce farmers’ reliance on pesticides.  

Fueled by this fascination, the 34-year-old scientist is pioneering environmentally friendly ways for fruit growers to bolster crop production, save money, curb insecticide pollution of the soil and water supplies, and reduce workers’ exposure to toxins. 

A research entomologist with the Agricultural Research Service at the Department of Agriculture, Schmidt-Jeffris, 34, collaborates with organic growers in Washington state, who produce 70% of the country’s domestic apples and nearly half its pears. By demonstrating better ways to introduce natural predators of pests that prey on crops, Schmidt-Jeffris’ breakthroughs have saved the apple industry $16.5 million annually and reduced pesticide use. 

“For many people, insects are seen as pests, nuisances to be avoided or eliminated, but for Schmidt-Jeffris, they are a powerful resource that can be used to protect valuable fruit and vegetable crops,” said Simon Liu, the administrator of the ARS.  

Protecting apple orchards 

Washington state fruit growers have long tried controlling pests with other insects that devour them. But there has been little definitive information on how growers can best entice the tiny critters into their trees.  

That’s where Schmidt-Jeffris’ research on releasing predatory mites into apple orchards has helped.  

She found one species, Amblydromella caudiglans, that loves eating spider mites, damaging pests that can quickly develop resistance to pesticides. She has studied which insecticides farmers can use to control pests while inflicting minimal harm on their natural predators and has researched using ladybugs to eat mealybugs and lacewings to curb aphids. 

“It’s hard for insects to out-evolve their predators,” Schmidt-Jeffris said. While using natural enemies is slower, it has “fewer negative environmental consequences,” she said. 

Using drones to deploy predator insects 

She has even explored using drones as a cost-effective way to introduce predator bugs into sprawling orchards, reducing expenses for labor. 

“Rebecca helps growers get the most value for their dollars spent and decreases wasted money on tactics that do not work,” Liu said.  

Farmers are reluctant to take gambles on their livelihoods. Reducing insecticide use makes it less likely pests will develop immunity to them and keeps soil and water healthier, but the growers must be convinced it will not subtract from their bottom line.  

To address those concerns, Schmidt-Jeffris tries to fashion specific recommendations about the predator insects farmers should introduce, and the future threats growers may face. Her team gathers data and recommendations from farmers while teaching them the best ways to attract useful insects, such as by planting flowers the insects like.  

Schmidt-Jeffris, for example, has found that earwigs can be captured from cherry trees, where they are notably harmful, and transferred to apple and pear orchards, where they will feast on pests without damaging those crops. Persuading growers to use that technique “is nothing short of amazing,” said Elizabeth Beers, a Washington State University entomologist. 

“She has established herself in a short amount of time as the go-to person for biocontrol in tree fruits in the Pacific northwest,” she said.  

According to Liu, Schmidt-Jeffris has also taken on a leadership role within ARS, setting a “stellar example for other new scientists, especially for women pursuing careers in STEM,” and mentoring students from schools that have large Hispanic and Native American enrollments.  

Schmidt-Jeffris said she finds her work intellectually stimulating. Since earning her doctorate in 2015, she has authored or helped write nearly 60 articles and delivered about 120 presentations on her research, receiving five awards from the Entomological Society of America.  

Her work and public impact have made her choice of a career in government meaningful and worthwhile. 

“Working as a scientist within the ARS and the USDA allows me to do fulfilling and exciting work that directly benefits society,” she said.  

“This has been a great career path for me.”