Searching for the Answers

Dean Roush judging pumpkins
Dean Roush serving as a judge for the annual pumpkin festival at the Arboretum at Penn State where he's joined by Steve Bair from Centre Region Council of Governments (left), Barbara Corner, dean of the College of Arts and Architecture, and Damon Sims, vice president for student affairs. Photo by Steve Williams

In 1974, between his sophomore and junior year in college, Rick Roush stumbled upon a table labeled “controversial books” at his public library. One of those books was Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring—her seminal 1962 work about the environmental dangers of chemical pesticides. Roush read it in three days. Convinced that there had to be a better way to keep pests at bay, he immediately changed his major from genetics to entomology and traded his summer lifeguard gig for fieldwork with a cotton entomologist. “I was fired up,” says Roush. He wanted answers.

That passion never left. It sent him searching for the mutations that cause resistance to insecticides. It pushed him to figure out how to make plants that can produce their own defenses. And it still defines him. Ask the people who hired Roush to come to Penn State as the next dean of the College of Ag Sciences about what separated him from the pack, and they will mention his enthusiasm. Talk to his former colleagues, and they’ll tell you stories about leaving work late on a Friday night and seeing the only other light on in the building coming from Roush’s office.

Even now, as his career has become more about administration and strategy than research, Roush still drives out to field sites on weekends to continue to seek out the unknown. His motivation is pretty simple: he likes learning things that no else has learned before.

Farming was always a part of Roush’s family. His mom grew up on a corn farm in Iowa; his dad on farms in Missouri and California. His uncle farmed on a hill a 15-minute walk from where Roush grew up in Chula Vista, California. Early on, though, Roush was interested in biology, spending hours in the California desert and in the oceans off San Diego. By the time he was 14, he says, he could identify 90 percent of the 500 or so species of fish off the California coast.

An early interest in evolutionary biology led him to study genetics at UC Davis, before switching to entomology after his run-in with Silent Spring. Knowing by then that he wanted a life in academia—and increasingly disinterested in pure genetics research—Roush went on to finish a Ph.D. degree at UC Berkeley that focused on the genetics of biological control agents and pesticide resistance.

His first job out of school was at Mississippi State, where he taught biology and entomology courses. Working with Mississippi farmers in the field was a sobering experience. “I came there thinking—rather naively—that the reason there was so much insecticide use on cotton was because people were spraying unnecessarily. But I quickly learned that the nature of the pest problems they had was considerably more serious than what I saw in California.” That clarity on the scope of the challenges, Roush says, was an early lesson in pragmatism in pest management.

It was at his next job at Cornell that Roush had one of his biggest breakthroughs. Long interested in the fundamental mutations that allowed insects to evolve resistance to pesticides, Roush began investigating using fruit fly populations. Before the work started, he had submitted a grant proposal to USDA to support his work, arguing that fruit flies offered a better opportunity to track resistance than houseflies and cockroaches, which was the route other researchers were pursuing. The agency dismissed it out of hand. Incensed, Roush spent the next weekend screening fruit fly populations. By Sunday, he found the resistance. Within a few months, he had tracked it to a particular section of the chromosome. Within a few years, Roush and his research team both identified and replicated the receptors that were causing the mutations.

It was no small find. These receptors were responsible for producing a mutation found in more than 200 insect species, causing resistance to a whole host of popular insecticides. As evidence of the work’s effect on the industry, the original papers on the discovery have been cited some 5,000 times.

“Rick realized early on that agriculture needs modern scientific tools,” says Tony Shelton, professor of entomology at Cornell and Roush’s longtime colleague. “But he also knew that these must be managed in a responsible way. And Rick is able to do both of these things.”

After Cornell, Roush moved to Australia, first to teach at the University of Adelaide and then to run the Cooperative Research Centre for Weed Management—a kind of research cooperative between the government, the universities, and industry. It was Roush’s first managerial experience, and there were some quick lessons to learn about things like influence management. “You really had to engage people and win them over to an idea,” says Roush. “You couldn’t just tell them to go out and sort out a problem.”

Ever mission oriented, Roush had never sought out managerial positions. “I figured sooner or later, I’d have to spend five years being head of department.” But after a few years at UC Davis running a statewide pest management program and directing a sustainable agriculture program, Roush was back in Australia, working in a role even larger than department head: dean of the University of Melbourne’s School of Land and Environment.

To Roush, the Melbourne job offered a real platform for his concerns about agricultural education—namely, the declining student interest in the field. In years prior to Roush’s arrival in 2006, enrollment in agricultural science was bottoming out, and the number of Australian universities that taught agricultural science had dropped from a high of 23 to just nine. In an effort to combat this, Roush spearheaded an initiative with deans of agriculture from across the country that was dedicated to raising agriculture’s public profile in an effort to attract more students to the field.

“Now, we’ve seen an annual increase of 10 to 15 percent enrollment nationwide,” says Roush. “In Melbourne, we’ve seen 20 percent for the past three years.” Roush also helped turn around the economic fortunes of the school, which was running a $2 million annual deficit when he arrived; it recorded a $3.5 million surplus in 2013 and is projected to reach a $4.3 million surplus in 2014.

Roush credits internal mergers, organization, and fundraising for the economic turnaround. But his friend Tony Shelton says that Roush is known for running a tight ship. “He has very high standards. I wish there was another, warmer way of saying ‘he doesn’t suffer fools gladly’ because that’s not exactly right,” says Shelton with a laugh. “It’s more accurate to say that he inspires people to perform better.” 

Roush arrived at Penn State the same way he arrived at all of the other schools he’s joined during his 33-year career: without a car or a bank account. “I keep a credit card for emergencies,” says Roush. He also won’t be bringing any preconceived notions about what exactly the college needs. “It would be foolhardy to make plans until you’re embedded in a place,” says Roush.

By Dan Morrell