Studying insect pheromones, or the chemicals insects emit to communicate with one another, might seem like an odd field of research, but it’s an area that has unexpectedly broad real-world implications in agriculture and pest control.
Wendell L. Roelofs realized this fact not long after he accepted a position with the Cornell University entomology department in 1964. Roelofs had graduated with a Ph.D. in organic chemistry from Indiana University earlier that year, and had no experience with insects. But his ability to decode the chemical language of bugs not only increased general understanding of the animal kingdom, but led to important advancements in agriculture and disease control. By using pheromones to either attract or confuse insects, researchers can prevent them from breeding — as Roelofs did to moths tearing through a New York vineyard — or lure them in to destroy their eggs, as researchers are doing to control the spread of the Zika virus.