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One of the 'Brilliant 10'

Arianne Cease was a Peace Corps volunteer in Senegal, West Africa, in 2005, when locusts swarmed the small rural village where she worked, destroying the year’s harvest and the villagers’ food supply.

The outbreak changed the budding scientist’s life and set her on a career path that has taken her to the far corners of the world, from West Africa to Inner Mongolia in northeast China and New South Wales in Australia.

Now an assistant professor and senior sustainability scientist at the Julie A. Wrigley Global Institute of Sustainability at Arizona State University in Tempe, the 2000 graduate of Rogue River High School leads an innovative study of locusts and the environmental and behavioral factors that trigger the insects to swarm.

Cease was recently named a member of the 2015 “Brilliant 10” by Popular Science magazine.

The Brilliant 10 is annually conducted by Popular Science to identify the brightest young minds in science and engineering. Cease was cited for her investigations into what transforms individual locusts — which are harmless — into ravenous swarms that devastate crops and threaten livelihoods, and her systems approach for locust management.

“At Popular Science, we believe many of the world’s most challenging problems can be solved through brilliant science and engineering,” said Executive Editor Jennifer Bogo. “Our 10 honorees are at the bleeding edge of their fields, and are already well on their way to making the world a better, safer, smarter place.”

“I think what Arianne is doing is really novel and is illustrated by her ability to connect the basic science and really understand how the insects work and how they interact with the environment,” said Jon Harrison, one of her Ph.D. mentors.

The solution, Cease believes, is not simply creating a better pesticide or using a pure-science approach. The issue is a complex one combining human choices, animal biology and economics.

“Better understanding of locusts in the context of the social-ecological system in which they exist opens new opportunities for simultaneously improving farmer livelihoods, grassland health, and minimizing the risk and severity of locust plagues,” she said.

“With global food security being one of our most pressing challenges, supporting our food producers and agricultural communities is increasingly important,” she said.

Cease said that her parents, Susan and Bill Cease, who still live in Wimer, as well as her teachers in the Rogue River School District have had a significant impact on her life and career.

One teacher, Steve Plotnick, “made biology, chemistry and physics accessible and exciting topics.”

“I still depend on much of the basic knowledge I learned from his classes in my job today,” she added. She said his enthusiasm for science cultivated her own passion.

Her fascination with insects may have been sparked on summer afternoon adventures in the Evans Valley when she and her brother captured praying mantises and fed them grasshoppers.

Her work also has an ironic twist. After spending much of her childhood raising livestock, harvesting hay, growing gardens, working on 4-H projects and attending county and state fairs, she wanted nothing to do with ranching or farming life.

“As it turns out, I have found myself working in rural agricultural communities around the globe and alongside extension agents similar to the Jackson County extension agents who had an impact on the local 4-H clubs of my generation,” Cease said.

Cease signed up for the Peace Corps after receiving her bachelor of science degree in zoology and chemistry from Oregon State University in 2004. She said she wanted to apply her education to solving “real world problems.”

She taught farmers in Senegal to implement tree technology such as windbreaks and living trees as fences.

“I was dutifully building a number of tree nurseries and getting ready to plant trees in the field when a huge plague of grasshoppers arrived at the village where I was living,” she recalled in an email from New South Wales, where her team from ASU is doing field research.

“They ate everything, anything that was green, and they even started to eat the bark off the trees.”

Cease said they tried everything to stop them but to no avail.

“It’s really challenging to control an outbreak once grasshoppers become really abundant,” she said.

Her experience in Senegal prompted her to dedicate her Ph.D. research at Arizona State University to study locusts.

During an outbreak year, locusts can populate over 20 percent of the Earth’s land surface, negatively affecting more than 60 countries and the livelihood of one out of every 10 people.

Cease did part of her graduate work at an Inner Mongolian field station. There, she and a team of other scientists made the ground-breaking discovery that locusts thrive on overgrazed grasslands.

“Human choices, it appears, have a direct effect on locust risk,” Cease said.

With her Ph.D. in hand, Cease took a postdoctoral research position in Australia at the University of Sydney. She also received grants to do a comparative study of locusts in rural communities in West Africa, China and Australia.

Cease and her team from ASU look at the interactions between locust plagues and human livelihood through natural and social science perspectives. They work with farmers, pest management agencies, social scientists and other biologists at their field sites around the world.

“This project is a massive, international collaborative effort,” she said.

She added that the field sites share common environmental characteristics in that they are arid grassland regions where the local people depend on the land for growing livestock.

“We’re in Australia right now building field cages to house Australian plague locusts collected from nearby outbreaks,” she said. “This field season, we’re testing to see if the same biological mechanisms we found in China apply to Australian locusts.”

Cease said that despite their differences in cultural practices, government policies and economics, rural agricultural communities around the world share similarities.

“In most cases, farmers are quite connected to their landscape. They’re hard-working and focused on making a living off the land to support their families.”

And, of her research, she added, “We’re not trying to figure out how to eradicate locusts, because they’re an important part of the ecosystem. But we are trying to show we can keep them at bay.”

Reach Grants Pass freelance writer Tammy Asnicar at tammyasnicar@q.com.

Last summer, Rogue River native Arianne Cease made a return visit to her adopted family in Senegal, West Africa. Photo courtesy Arianne Cease