> In his laboratory at Dow AgroSciences in Indianapolis, Ind., entomologist Tom Sparks pioneers molecular research that helps farmers better control pests. As a result of his groundbreaking work, Sparks was named R&D Magazine’s Scientist of the Year.
Maverick in a Chemical World
In his heart of hearts, entomologist Tom Sparks loves the pests he wants to abolish. Sparks began collecting insects as a child growing up in California’s verdant Central Valley, fascinated with the moths and aphids swirling around local fields. His curiosity about the natural world led Sparks to a doctorate in entomology at University of California, Riverside, where he completed key research on "green" control of insects before becoming a professor at Louisiana State University. Years of teaching fueled his desire to seek new means of insect control, and a career move to Dow AgroSciences facilitated his goal: to create molecules that offer broader spectrums of insect control than even Mother Nature herself. When the molecules (called spinosyns) became too complex to develop further using linear methods of analysis, Sparks and his team borrowed an idea from a robotic vacuum cleaner that uses artificial network programs to mimic biological neurons. Sparks took the vacuum’s artificial neurons as inspiration for a new way to analyze his molecules. "It was my Buck Rogers moment," he says with a laugh. The molecules give farmers new options for sustainable insecticides. As a result of Sparks’ groundbreaking work, R&D Magazine named him Scientist of the Year in 2009. —Jeanne Bernick
Top Producer, October 2010