Kirk Hillier: following the scent of exciting science
How does an insect smell? More to the point, why should we care? Biology professor Kirk Hillier knows the answers to both questions.
“I study how insects smell – both the adjective and the verb,” he says. “My background is in insect pheromones, and I’m also what they call an insect neuroethologist, so I stick electrodes in insect brains and figure out what they actually can smell, more or less.”
By using these types of technologies and knowledge, scientists can develop environmentally friendly solutions for controlling insects, such as repellents, attractants, and traps, that allow farmers to use fewer synthetic chemical pesticides. “I think we’re at an age when agriculture and forestry and even human health need to transform in the way we view and manage insect and other arthropod pests,” Hillier says.
Skilled students, unique opportunities
In any given year, between 12 and 18 students work in Hillier’s lab. “We have an embarrassment of incredibly skilled students to draw from, and I’ve been fortunate over the years to have some wonderful students come through the lab,” he says. “My hope is that they walk away from the lab with experience that helps them grow as scientists and as people.”
Students can access an exceptional laboratory infrastructure as a result of Hillier’s success in attracting federal and provincial research funds and building relationships with local agricultural initiatives. The infrastructure includes specialized behavioural facilities for testing insects, and specialized chemical analysis equipment for interrogating insects and finding out what kinds of pheromones they use.
“All of this expanded capacity has provided us with novel directions to move in,” Hillier says. “We work quite heavily in agriculture, but now we’re expanding into pests of human health, such as ticks, and throughout the forestry realm. All of this would not have been possible without significant investment, and having these tools in place provides students with unique opportunities. There are few places in the world where you see this combination of infrastructure brought to bear on insect pheromones.”
The lab also manages the Acadia quarantine insect facility, which maintains insects from around the world. “We have partnerships internationally working with a number of labs, so we bring in insects from all over the world – Australia and Asia, South America – for that type of research,” he says. In addition, the lab has collaborated with universities or industry in every province of Canada.
“Interacting with the students makes me excited about research. It’s great to work with someone who starts off full of questions, and by the end of the encounter has me asking the questions.”
Freedom to explore
Hillier finds the work exciting, in part because every day can bring something new. “We have the opportunity to use discovery-based science to keep digging into novel fields. And the students take us down roads that I never would have expected, simply because of the opportunities that are presented and the freedom we have to explore this environment,” he says. “Interacting with the students makes me excited about research. It’s great to work with someone who starts off full of questions, and by the end of the encounter has me asking the questions.” Hillier is gratified to see students grow in their ability to do research and move on to fulfilling careers in research, medicine and industry.
The lab also works on the conservation of endangered species. “We’re collaborating with Dr. Rodger Evans (Acadia Biology), looking at an endangered plant species called Crocanthemum canadense, Canada frostweed. This plant is critically imperilled in Nova Scotia through much of its range, and it’s attacked by an insect pest,” he says. “We’re looking at ways to help manage the plant and the insect complex that’s there.”
Why it’s important to study weird odours that come off insects, or how a moth smells, can be hard for most people to grasp. But if an insect pest causes a billion dollars’ worth of damage a year, Hillier points out, and farmers put millions of dollars every year into insecticides to control it, then developing tools that can reduce insecticide use is a good way to protect the environment for our future. And Hillier’s lab is contributing to that.
“We have amazing undergraduate researchers, and we’re making a big impact here,” he adds. “Acadia may be small by some standards, but we make big footprints.”