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Yong-Lak Park

Yong-Lak park with students.


Although I study various aspects of entomology, the study of insects, I am specifically interested in understanding where, when and why insects are in certain locations. The idea is extremely useful because if we know where insect pests are, we can control them. We can conserve them if they are beneficial insects. We can predict where the insect will be in the future regarding climate change. For example, we have a lot invasive pests like brown marmorated stink bug. We didn’t have them in the past, but they came here from other countries. So, someone has to study where and when such invasive pests are going to spread in order to intercept them. That's me! 

During the past 10 years, I have been using cutting-edge technology such as satellites, drones, and sensors to detect invasive pests. I work with a lot of collaborators in engineering because they develop such technologies. With a recent USDA project, we try detecting insects on the ground using drones. Although insects are too small to see from the sky, now we have technology such as smart drones, sensors and artificial intellegence (AI) to detect insects bigger than 1/2 inch. We see a totally different world. We see way more than we ever imagined. Smart farming is the future of agriculture, and I am happy to be a part of it as an entomologist!  

Tell me about your drones.

This is a funny thing. At WVU, we have the Department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering (MAE). We think they have a lot of drones, right? Actually, my lab has more diverse drones than most of the labs in the MAE; I have seven drones. The biggest has eight arms (3-4 feet in width) and I have small ones that fit on my palm. One might be $10,000 and another $500. Depending on the type of mission (detecting pests or releasing natural-enemy insects), we use different drones and sensors. If we want to equip many sensors on one drone, then the drone has to be bigger.  

What jobs did you have before coming to WVU?

In terms of official jobs, I served in the South Korea Army and retired as a first lieutenant. I rode helicopters as a fire support officer for artillery missions; basically, someone has to observe the battle front and tell where the enemy is. I saw a lot of insects in the air. A helicopter has a windshield and so many insects hit it just like insects hitting on the car windshield. I never imagined - about 1500 to 2800 feet above the ground - there were so many insects flying up and hitting the helicopter windshield. The helicopter pilots and my colleagues used to ask me, “Hey, what is that bug on the windshield?” That was my first official job when I was in my early 20s. 

My second job was just before coming to WVU. I was a postdoctoral researcher at the University of California, Riverside. California had a problem with a small insect called a glassy-winged sharpshooter that transmits a disease to grapevines (called Pierce's disease). I was doing statewide surveillance using insect traps and aerial imagery. My main job was analyzing and mapping the distribution of sharpshooters and Pierce's disease in California. I had to use hundreds of CDs and Iomega Zip drives to hold ~500GB of data in the early 2000s.  

How did you get into entomology?

I was really interested in insects and their relatives (e.g. spiders and scorpions) when I was young. One day when I was in middle school, I caught a butterfly with my finger. Many insects have hair on the body, but a butterfly has scales because they need to be waterproof. When rain hits a butterfly, it doesn’t absorb; it just bounces off. I was wondering what those scales looked like under a microscope - oh man, I found a totally different world there! That was the moment when I decided to study insects, and it was an amazing moment in my life.  

Have you eaten insects?

Oh, yeah! It’s called entomophagy, meaning eating insects. Now we see many restaurants serving insects as a food. I used to teach general entomology, and one lecture was about insects as human food. I let the students taste mealworms. So far, I’ve eaten crickets, silkworms, grasshoppers, cicadas, scorpions - I can keep going. Actually, there are procedures to make insects safe to eat. Also, there are so many insect parts in our daily foods like coffee, chocolate, bread, wine, fruits, vegetables, grains. Sorry to say that you ate insect (parts) today. 

What has been the best or most enjoyable time/class/moment in your job?

I always bring my graduate students to national and international conferences. My students have to present and compete for presentation awards. It’s very important to me because we can put WVU’s name out in the entomology society. Whenever my students get presentation awards, my heart is pumping like crazy. That’s the moment I enjoy the most in my job. 

What's one thing you wish you had known in college?

I really wish that I recognized that insects were not everything. I thought insects were everything. I was addicted to insects and focused on insects in my college life. I didn’t have a good chance to learn about soils, plants, trees, water and wildlife. However, I met my wife in an insect collecting club. Insects gave me my family!

If you won a billion dollars, what would you do with the money?

I think first I’d have to check if it’s a scam or not. If not, I’d want to build an Insectopia at WVU. Insectopia - that word - is from a cartoon movie Zootopia. The WVU Insect Zoo was built after I joined WVU, and I'll upgrade the Insect Zoo so that people can come and enjoy it. So that’s the first step of Insectopia.


What were you most grateful for in 2020?

The first thing is that all of my families were safe from COVID-19. The second thing is that I still could do some field research during the pandemic. My field research was possible because insects don’t carry the coronavirus. 


Just for Fun

What are you currently reading? Old New York Times and Discovery Magazines

What’s your favorite meal? Enchiladas 

What’s a song that you can listen to on repeat? Moon River by Audrey Hepburn; Don’t Know Why by Nora Johnson 

What’s one thing you can’t live without? Family first, insects second