- Author: Kathy Keatley Garvey
ESA announced the award today.
Sparks, who holds a doctorate in entomology (1978) from UC Riverside, was the first graduate student of then UCR faculty member Bruce Hammock, who joined the UC Davis faculty in 1980.
“This is a huge honor and directly due to Bruce's influence,” said Sparks, a retired research fellow at Corteva Agriscience (a Dow AgroSciences) in Indianapolis, Ind. He will receive the award at ESA's annual November meeting, to take place in Denver, Colo.
The award recognizes creative entomologists who have demonstrated the ability to find alternative solutions to problems that significantly impact entomology.
Sparks is the first scientist from the crop protection industry to receive the Nan-Yao Su Award and the second Hammock lab alumnus to do so. ESA selected Bryony Bonning, a former postdoctoral researcher in the Hammock lab and now a professor at Iowa State University, for the award in 2013. Walter Leal, former chair of the entomology department and now a UC Davis distinguished professor with the UC Davis Department of Molecular and Cellular Biology, won the award in 2011.
“As a graduate student studying insect physiology and toxicology, Tom was amazingly innovative,” said Hammock, who holds a joint appointment with the Department of Entomology and Nematology and the UC Davis Comprehensive Cancer Center. “He was in the lab early, he stayed late and he 'sang while he worked.” (Sparks says he sang "because no radios were allowed in the lab.")
“Fifty years later this is mainline biological chemistry,” Hammock pointed out, adding that Sparks started in biological control and then moved to insect physiology and toxicology (Hammock's lab) while in graduate school at UC Riverside. After graduate school, Sparks served as a professor of insecticide biochemistry and toxicology with the Louisiana State University's Department of Entomology. He then headed to Indianapolis to join Eli Lilly and Co., which shortly thereafter became DowElanco, then Dow AgroSciences, and finally Corteva Agriscience.
Sparks' lifelong focus is on developing green pesticides, Hammock said. “His greatest success of many successes has been with a complex group of what are known as polyketides. Specifically, Tom pioneered the spinosids as a new class of selective pesticides for integrated pest management (IPM). Tom was a leader in this program from the concept of natural product compounds through structural optimization to integration into pest management and resistance management programs nationally and internationally.”
“Dr. Sparks is internationally recognized as a leader and innovator in the field of insect biochemistry and toxicology, especially as it relates to the discovery of new crop protection compounds,” wrote Ronda Hamm of Corteva Agriscience, Indianapolis, who headed the nomination team.
A member of ESA for more than 40 years, Sparks “has a history of bringing new ideas and innovative approaches to the discovery of new insect control agents, resulting in several commercial products,” Hamm pointed out. “Through his innovative application of state-of-the art technologies, Dr. Sparks has succeeded in catalyzing the discovery and development of natural product-based compounds for the control of pest insects. One particularly relevant measure of Dr. Sparks' innovation is patents--unusually for a non-chemist, he has 47 patents covering a wide range of chemistries and ideas as it applies to the control of agricultural pests.”
Hammock praised Sparks for his innovative accomplishments. “For the past several decades, Dr. Sparks' goal has been to provide new, greener, tools that will allow growers and farmers around the world to feed an expanding global population," Hammock said. "To this end, Dr. Sparks employed an array of innovative approaches to the discovery of new insect control agents. His innovations are well-illustrated by his ‘what if..' questions and his answers and results from those questions.”
(Editor's Note: See list of other 2021 ESA winners)