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Ottea named Sternberg Professor

By Rick Bogren, rbogren@agcenter.lsu.edu

BATON ROUGE — Jim Ottea has been named to the Sternberg Professorship for 2019-2020 in the LSU Ogden Honors College.
Named in honor of Lea Sternberg, former co-owner of Goudchaux’s/Maison Blanche department store, the Sternberg Professorship is the most prestigious award given to faculty by the Honors College.
An insecticide toxicologist in the LSU AgCenter Department of Entomology, Ottea has spent the past 30 years researching and teaching.
“I have always loved teaching,” he said.
Ottea teaches insecticide toxicology to graduate students and science literacy courses to undergraduates. More recently, he’s been teaching in the LSU Honors College, which admits the top 10% of incoming LSU freshmen. The Honors College offers seminar classes, mentoring relationships with faculty and opportunities for undergraduate research.
“These are the highest-achieving students,” Ottea said. “A colleague suggested I submit a course for consideration, and it was accepted.”
Ottea’s course, “Science for Citizens,” is a freshman-level course in the Honors College and includes 20 students each term.
“It’s about science in the news,” he said. “We look at things you might read in newspapers under the wide umbrella of science, for example, genetic modification, ecology and sustainability. Gene editing is a focus this semester, but it seems there is always something new and often controversial to talk about.
“Science for citizens teaches students the scientific underpinnings of these issues so that they are better able to decide for themselves whether they are comfortable with these innovations,” he said.
Beyond teaching, Ottea has maintained an active and team-oriented research program.
When he joined the LSU AgCenter, Ottea became a member of a group of scientists charged with finding a way to control the tobacco budworm in Louisiana cotton. And he did it for 15 years. The efforts of this team were recognized when they were presented the first LSU AgCenter Tipton Team Research Award in 1997.
As an insecticide toxicologist, Ottea fought the battle of finding an insecticide that would control the caterpillar but maintain effectiveness over time.
“We were fighting insecticide resistance,” he said. The insecticide of choice was pyrethroids. But they were overused, and the insects began to develop resistance.
The situation was similar in Australia, where a relative of the tobacco budworm, the cotton bollworm, became resistant to pyrethroids and virtually wiped out the cotton crop in one year. “The writing was on the wall for us,” Ottea said.
The ultimate answer, however, was not a new insecticide but a way to transform cotton to produce an insecticidal toxin as it grows.
“The transgenic plant is a delivery system of the toxin, and the toxin is always there,” Ottea said.
The development of cotton varieties with Bacillus thuringiensis, or Bt, in their genetic makeup saved the Louisiana cotton crop. And Ottea moved on to other pests in other crops.
Not being attached to any particular commodity, he worked on projects to control the sugarcane borer and rice water weevil.
The process of controlling insects is similar in all crops. “All have the same problems, and all use insecticides as a part of the solution,” Ottea said.
“We attempt to manage susceptibility and minimize spraying,” he said.
In recognition of his recent contributions, Ottea was a member of a research group that won the AgCenter Tipton Team Research Award in 2016. The team was studying the effects of insecticides on both mosquitoes and non-targeted organisms, such as honeybees and fireflies.
Ottea also has been recognized for his teaching with the LSU Tiger Athletic Foundation Teaching Award in 2011, the LSU College of Agriculture Alumni Teaching Award in 2012 and the distinguished achievement in teaching award from the Southeastern Branch of the Entomological Society of America in 2017.

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