Highland Profiles is a series highlighting West Virginia’s exemplary outdoor adventurers, business owners, and community innovators. If you’ve got someone in mind worthy of a profile, drop us a line: firstname.lastname@example.org.
West Virginia is home to one of the most biodiverse and resilient ecosystems on the planet. Our Appalachian habitat also cultivates an array of astonishingly talented natural historians. From an eight-year-old who can identify a catfish from its skeleton to an 80-year-old who can name every plant species on a hike, an understanding and appreciation of the wild thrives across cultures and age groups in the Mountain State.
Kristen Wickert works tirelessly to keep this love and knowledge of the natural world alive. She earned her masters and PhD degrees at West Virginia University (WVU) studying invasive species, including the hemlock woolly adelgid and the malodorous tree-of-heaven. Now, as an employee of the West Virginia Department of Agriculture, she’s tackling issues with the destructive spotted lanternfly. Alongside her full-time job, she creates educational social media posts and videos about science and nature under the moniker Kaydubs the Hiking Scientist. Her Instagram account has amassed over 28,000 followers, and she’s currently working on a guidebook for the Appalachian Trail.
Wickert stopped by during a fieldwork trip to Canaan Valley. We engaged in a classic Appalachian porch chat about her quest to help people care about nature and understand their role in protecting it. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
How did you get into natural history?
I have a lot of fond memories of being a little kid and being entertained by plants. My favorite book when I was little was The Secret Garden. I used to keep a tally of how many times I read it on the front cover. I was also super enamored with My Side of the Mountain. It gave me an understanding of plants and their uses and engrained that idea of being connected to the wilderness. My stepdad had Audubon books that I used to carry in a backpack. I would go out behind the house and try to identify things with his books. Once you learn something outside, it’s hard to not see it anymore on hikes. It still happens to me; when someone teaches me a new insect, mushroom or plant, I begin to see it everywhere.
What brought you to West Virginia?
I’m a native of eastern Pennsylvania. I got a bachelor’s degree in forest science at Penn State and then I went to Texas for a year and worked as a forester. A year later, I was offered a position at WVU as a master’s student to work on hemlock woolly adelgid (Adelges tsugae). I worked all over the place in West Virginia, Tennessee, Ohio, Maryland, and Pennsylvania but I really fell in love with the forests of West Virginia. So I stayed at WVU with the same advisor for my PhD, which focused on Verticillium wilt of tree-of-heaven (Ailanthus altissima) and today I am happy to be a forever resident of West Virginia.
What was the focus of your PhD research?
Verticillium, which is a native fungus that was found infecting the invasive tree-of-heaven in Pennsylvania in 2002. This fungus could potentially act as a biological control for the invasive tree species, but researchers wanted to see if it could kill co-occurring native tree species such as oak, cherry, and pine. They even wanted to see if the fungus would jump to non-native ornamental species like blue spruce, which is common in people’s yards, to be sure it didn’t negatively impact the horticultural landscape industry. I did a lot of tests to see how broad the host range was for the fungus as well as work on its pathogenicity and genetics. The work from my PhD ended up contributing, along with 20 years of other research, to it being funded for a registered bio control this year by the federal government. The funding will be used to conduct some final tests and formulate the fungus so scientists can use it in the field to help control the spread of the invasive tree-of-heaven.
Which invasive species do you work on now?
I’m the spotted lanternfly coordinator and the plant pathologist with the West Virginia Department of Agriculture. Spotted lanternfly is an invasive insect from Asia. It was introduced accidentally in landscaping supplies close to Philadelphia in 2014. Since then, it has spread throughout Pennsylvania, and to West Virginia, Ohio, New York, Connecticut, Maryland and Virginia with single hitchhiker occurrences in other states like Maine, New Hampshire and even California. The first spotted lanternfly in West Virginia was found in 2019. Our populations are in the eastern panhandle, where there’s a lot of traffic along Route 81. The spotted lanternfly jumps onto vehicles, where it can hang on at very high speeds, and then just get off and lay eggs in a new location.
How does the spotted lanternfly impact plants in West Virginia?
It causes a lot of problems that probably aren’t fully understood at this point. It doesn’t have any predators here, so its population booms which leads it to be a nuisance pest. It feeds on and establishes on the invasive tree-of-heaven, but it also moves to other plant species we care about like red maple, black walnut, basil, and cucumber. The number one plant that it infests and damages is grapevines. It really depletes a grape vine’s production because it feeds on sugars and other resources that would otherwise go to the fruit. It also secretes a honey dew liquid that promotes the growth of black sooty mold on the foliage which prevents photosynthesis. There are cases of grapevines dying after the bugs have been on them for only a few years.
How do you control the spotted lanternfly?
The transportation factor is really tough. You could take care of a population, and then a truck could park there the next day and reintroduce it. The West Virginia Department of Agriculture and the United States Department of Agriculture are working hard to control it because we are the leading front of the insect’s range. One way we do this is by using circle traps that go around trees. When the insects feed on trees that have a trap, they get stuck in the mesh and climb up into a bag that has a toxic strip that kills them. Additionally, we use targeted systemic pesticides on tree-of-heaven that host high populations of spotted lanternfly. We focus on education and outreach to alert the public to this pest and inform them on how they can help slow the spread in their own yards. There’s also a lot of hardcore, interesting science going on to figure out the best methods for controlling the spotted lanternfly with biological controls, such as other insects, fungi and birds so in the future we may have more eco-friendly options to control this invasive bug.
What are some challenges of using other species to control invasives?
There is constantly something new to learn about in the realm of invasive species management. Even people who have spent full 40-year careers in this field can’t keep up with all the new invasives. Some people ask why researchers don’t release biological controls now to fix the problem now, but you need to make sure it won’t kill something else. It’s really a double-edged sword; you could solve the problem today, but you could also cause another problem down the road. A really good example of a potential biocontrol for the spotted lanternfly is being researched today. There is a parasitoid wasp, Anastatus orientalis, that lays its eggs in the eggs of spotted lanternfly so the wasp could potentially act as a biocontrol and kill it. However, where the wasp is from in Asia, it also lays its eggs in the eggs of Saturniid moths, those really big, beautiful moths like Cecropia and Polyphemus. We have a very closely related species to those Asian moths here. Because the spotted lanternfly is so numerous, it could bolster a really large population of the parasitioid wasp, but that could, in turn, knock out our native moths, potentially impacting pollination and the food chain. There are all these connections that we don’t know about yet, so we really need to understand the potential impacts before releasing another species.
You’re working on a guidebook for the entire Appalachian Trail, too. What’s that project involve?
The guidebook will have around 600 species of trees, shrubs, herbaceous plants, and mushrooms that occur along the trail. I plan on including about 150 trees, 50 shrubs and vines, 100 mushrooms, and the rest are herbaceous plants. I took photos of common species while I was section hiking the AT and then I had to identify all of them and write a blurb for them. The format I settled on for each species is to have a picture, for example of a pink flower. I describe the flower color, which is how the species is categorized, and when it blooms and produces fruit. I include the height, geographic range, and the plant family. Then there’s a blurb of 100 words saying the plant has “alternately arranged leaves that are very distinct and produces bright red berries”. I’ll have fun facts too, like “this plant helps bears poop.” It’s a beginner’s guide to organisms hikers will likely encounter on the trail.
How do you use social media for science education?
When I was in Texas, my friend showed me this new app called Instagram. I drove across the entire state doing field work for my job and started posting pictures of plants I saw and explaining why they were cool. It got more intense when I went to grad school because I was reading papers about all the things I was studying and could make more detailed descriptions about biochemistry or ecology. I realized a lot of people did not have access to this information and that I knew how to explain it in a way everyone could understand. I don’t know how my Instagram got attention, but it just started blowing up with followers and opportunities. It’s a full-time job. There’s even a science to what I post about and when. Sometimes I condense four scientific papers into a 100-word post about a flower, which can take me two solid hours to do. Other times I post quick, fun fact posts about bugs or mushrooms. I make some posts about my personal life. And, of course, there are pictures of my cat Tabitha in the rotation.
What drives you to invest in science education?
I always try to make my science education content accessible because deep down I want people to care about nature. Instead of looking out at the world as a bunch of green, I want to help people realize there are individual species, and that some species are “good” and some are “bad” for our local ecosystem. The individual species all play an important role and sometimes you can’t get a certain species back once it’s been replaced by another. By sharing my knowledge of the natural world around us, I hope that I can empower people to care about our world.
What can we do to help care for the natural world?
It’s so important to not introduce species that aren’t from where you live because everything you put in your yard has an ecological impact. Some aspects of the horticulture industry push people to buy these big, beautiful, exotic flowers, but beauty is in the eye of the beholder. For instance, tree-of-heaven was brought to Philadelphia from Asia as a horticultural specimen because it is beautiful. It has these gorgeous tropical leaves and colorful pompoms of seeds. But it escaped and became really prolific, and in America, there are only a handful of insects that interact with it and it destroys native habitats. Whereas native black cherry trees have these really pretty white flowers. If you planted a black cherry tree, it would bring a lot of native co-evolved insect diversity to your yard because it interacts with hundreds of species. Those insects then attract a lot of birds because it’s all connected through the food web promoting a healthier ecosystem.
Why is West Virginia a great home base for you?
A lot of places are still pristine here. We have large chunks of land that still have a fighting chance against invasive species and other environmental impacts. It’s very emotional sometimes when I go to certain areas of the Monongahela National Forest and see the beauty of a place with only native species. I know a lot of the land has been logged in the past and it’s not the same as the original old-growth forest. The Monongahela National Forest still supports a lot of our native fauna and some species that can only be found in native West Virginian ecosystems like the candy darter (Etheostoma osburni) and the West Virginia northern flying squirrel (Glaucomys sabrinus fuscus). West Virginia is so special because people are really connected with nature; we almost have to be because it’s part of our daily lives. We have the pawpaw festival in Morgantown, the chestnut festival in Rowelsburg, and the Mountain State Forest Festival in Elkins, along with plenty more examples across the state. We have amazing access to the outdoors and we directly rely on our environment for our way of life. People are rooted here, and nature is part of our culture. I really feel like proper land management education can help preserve our wild and wonderful Appalachian culture.
Learn about all kinds of wild things on Kristen’s Instagram profile: @kaydubsthehikingscientist