Alvin Simmons is in line to lead the world's largest entomological organization.

The first University of Kentucky alumnus to serve as president of the world’s largest entomological organization, Alvin Simmons’s path to his successful career started with a bus ride to the University of Kentucky.

It was 1980, and Simmons had graduated the week before with a bachelor’s of science degree in biology from East Carolina University. At UK, he was going to talk to Professor Bobby Pass about becoming a graduate student in the Department of Entomology. He had only ventured out of his home state a few times and, as a result, decided to take a bus so he could see the countryside.

In the early 1980s, Alvin Simmons was a graduate student in the UK Department of Entomology.

The fifth of nine children, Simmons was raised on a small farm in New Bern, North Carolina. On the farm, he developed his love for science, particularly plants and insects.

“I always encountered all types of insects on the farm,” he said. “I started recognizing that certain ones tended to hang out in certain environments. I was particularly fascinated with the insects that would come out at nighttime and be drawn to the lights.”

During his visit, Simmons saw the laboratory space Pass shared with Professor Ken Yeargan and toured two of the college’s research farms.

“During my visit, I decided that UK was where I wanted to go,” Simmons said. “I liked the environment of Dr.Pass and Dr. Yeargan’s lab and felt like I was getting two mentors for the price of one.”

Yeargan and the late Pass served as Simmons’s advisors for his master’s project. Yeargan, now professor emeritus, fondly remembers Pass asking him if he wanted to be Simmons co-advisor and then reading his letter of recommendation.

“In the letter, his undergraduate advisor recommended Alvin because of his work ethic. ‘He works harder than anyone,’ he wrote. He was right. Alvin had an incredible work ethic,” Yeargan said.
Pass and Yeargan studied alfalfa pests. For his graduate work, Simmons studied the biology and ecology of the potato leafhopper in alfalfa.

“I felt like it was a way of helping growers who were like my parents,” Simmons said. “Starting the project from scratch was priceless in terms of education and development for me. I gained the ability to identify and solve problems.”

In 1983, Simmons earned his master’s degree and began pursuing his doctorate. Yeargan again served as his advisor. This time, Simmons would study the green stink bug and the green cloverworm, two pests of soybeans. Simmons found that combined damage to the plant from the two insects was independent of each other and not synergistic. This important finding would earn him his doctorate in 1987.

“Alvin made more progress from start to finish during his time at UK than any other student I mentored,” Yeargan said. “He was enthusiastic about every opportunity to learn.”

While still a UK student, Simmons attended a seminar by UK entomology alum Charlie Rogers, who was working for the U.S. Department of Agriculture in Tifton, Georgia. During Rogers’s seminar, Simmons learned about a post-doctoral position at the lab evaluating potential natural enemies of the fall armyworm. Simmons inquired and received the fellowship in 1987.

In three years, Simmons accepted a permanent position at the Tifton lab and within another two years, he was offered a newly created position as a USDA research entomologist in Charleston, South Carolina. Since then, he has led the program, which focuses on whitefly management in vegetables. He has authored or co-authored 106 refereed journal articles, co-released five breeding lines, and provided more than 300 technical reports that resulted in more than 200 pesticide labels. Currently, he is also serving as the acting research director and location coordinator for the entire Charleston USDA facility.

“I was quite introverted when I came to UK, but my mentors, other faculty, and students were like a family to me while I was there. Public speaking and interacting within a group was encouraged at UK. That environment enhanced my interactions with people,” Simmons said. “It was priceless in terms of where I ended up in my career. It built up my confidence.”

Since November, Simmons has served as vice president of the Entomological Society of America, the world’s largest entomological organization. This November, he will begin his yearlong term as president of the prestigious body. In doing so, he will join the ranks of several UK professors who have presided over this society.

Simmons also serves as president of the Entomological Foundation and president of the South Carolina Entomological Society. He was nominated by the society to co-lead a team that brought the International Congress of Entomology to the United States in 2016, co-chairing the largest gathering of entomologists to date. He has been the recipient of numerous awards throughout his career including being named a Fellow of the Royal Entomological Society and receiving the ESA Southeastern Branch’s Award for Excellence in Integrated Pest Management, ESA Recognition Award in Entomology for his outstanding contributions to agriculture, and the American Society of Horticultural Science’s Team Award for Best Research Publication in Journal in 2017.

Simmons regularly allows students to earn positions in his lab. As an adjunct faculty member at Clemson University and the College of Charleston, Simmons hopes to impact his students in the same positive way that his UK professors encouraged him.

“My professors at UK encouraged us not to miss opportunities outside of the classroom and the research lab and to become well-rounded people as well as entomologists,” he said.

— Katie Pratt