Dr. Nan-Yao Su and termites in his lab. Photo: University of Florida

When he was growing up in Taiwan, Nan-Yao Su read all 10 volumes of the series of books his brother had about the world’s 10 most important inventors. Thomas Edison, Guglielmo Marconi, Alexander Graham Bell and their ilk inspired Su to dream of one day inventing something that would help people.

In 1995, Dr. Nan-Yao Su achieved his dream. After working for nearly a decade to prove his theory that the right insecticide in the right form could wipe out entire colonies of subterranean termites, Su’s research partner, Dow AgroSciences’ predecessor DowElanco, released his invention: Sentricon®, the world’s first commercial termite baiting system. Sentricon produced a seismic shift in the termite control market, providing a highly effective, environmentally friendly treatment option for pest management professionals around the globe.

Su’s success in pioneering this technology earned him the U.S. Secretary of Agriculture’s Honor Award for Individual Achievement in Research in 1996, and the 2000 Presidential Green Chemistry Challenge Award from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, which he shared with Dow AgroSciences. The Florida Inventors Hall of Fame has honored him as well, as a 2015 inductee.

University of Florida

Yet for all of Su’s notoriety for this landmark achievement, Michael Rust, professor of the Graduate Division at the University of California Riverside, points out that Su’s contributions to science and the pest management industry run much deeper. “If you get stuck on the Sentricon connection, you’re missing the heart of Nan-Yao’s work,” he says. “His research into termite behaviors, foraging patterns, colony structure, population sizes and territories has been seminal to research here in the United States and around the world.”

It’s true: Su, a distinguished professor of entomology at the Fort Lauderdale Research and Education Center of the University of Florida (UF) Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences (IFAS), is widely respected as the global authority on the behavioral ecology and control of subterranean termites. He has amassed a tremendous body of work, reflected in the 300-plus scientific articles and 16 book chapters he has authored, and the countless talks and presentations he has delivered.

There’s a waiting list of graduate and postdoctoral students who want to work with him, and he has given back to entomology by not only sharing his knowledge but also endowing the Universities of Hawaii and Florida (with his late wife, Jill H. Su), and establishing the Nan-Yao Su Award for Innovation and Creativity in Entomology (awarded annually by the Entomological Society of America) and the Nan-Yao Su Desmodium Fund (International Centre of Insect Physiology and Ecology) in Nairobi, Kenya.

Michael Potter, distinguished service professor at the University of Kentucky, likens Su to another famous scientist. “Nan-Yao Su is to termites what Albert Einstein was to physics: a brilliant scientist with a keen imagination and a calling to help humanity,” he says. “He is a giant among researchers, shaping the thinking of many of us in terms of what we extend to the industry.”

A SCIENTIST IS BORN

Su was born on the island of Taiwan six years after World War II ended. He recalls spending much of his childhood outdoors, often chasing insects. “I remember just running around, no shoes and practically naked, all day long,” he says. “We would catch insects because it was something fun to do. My favorite was the dragonfly, with its big eyes and fascinating wings — transparent membranes with veins running through. Just beautiful.”

Su’s family moved to Japan when he was 11. Even then, he knew that he wanted to study biology. “My father was a really good engineer, but I found that type of work kind of dry. It didn’t provide the mystique nature does. I was interested in animals, moving things,” Su says.

His wish came true at the Kyoto Institute of Technology in Japan, where he studied silkworms for six years, earning both a bachelor’s and master’s degree in sericultural science. His focus shifted from biology to chemistry and physiology during his master’s studies, but he was drawn back to his favorite area of study, biology, when he moved to Hawaii for his doctoral work. It was there Su was introduced to the subject of what would become his life’s work: termites.

“Having learned at the Kyoto Institute that good experiments required a large number of insects so that you can duplicate your results, I looked for an insect I could catch in large numbers in the wild,” he says. “I put a stake in the ground and attracted a couple thousand termites and said, ‘Wow, this is cool.’”

Shown here on Guozijian Street, Beijing, in front of the Tibetan Buddhist Lama Temple, in 2010, Nan-Yao Su spent a significant amount of time in China when he served for 10 years as the chief technical adviser for a termite IPM project funded by the World Bank. The project, part of the Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants, was drafted by the UN Environment Programme.

CHARLES DARWIN CAN WAIT

As Su dug into the biology of termites, he became fascinated with the social aspects of their behaviors. He explains:

You have this large colony, with a king and queen, and thousands of workers and soldiers living together as a family unit. Most members of the colony, the workers, work day and night, contributing labor and sacrificing their lives for the good of the colony, yet they do not reproduce. This goes against Darwin’s theory that every living organism competes against others. When an organism competes successfully, it leaves its offspring to the next generation; these termites do not do that. Darwin himself realized that social insects didn’t fit into his explanation, but neither he nor any scientist after him has been able to explain it. I decided I would be the one.

And so Su’s scientific quest began. It wasn’t long, though, before the pressing demand for a more effective termite control solution caused him to take a detour. That’s when he started working on the baiting idea that changed the face of termite control.

“The more I learned about the damage to people’s homes being caused by Formosan subterranean termites, the more I wanted to help,” says Su. “I knew within myself that I would always come back to the sociality question, but I figured that, since so many people needed help at the moment, maybe Charles Darwin could wait.”

He worked hard and identified the type of insecticide he was seeking to make his idea work. After testing a number of active ingredients, Su was able to build an effective baiting system using Dow AgroSciences’ hexaflumuron. And for the first time, a termite control product, Sentricon, was able to not only control termites but actually eliminate their entire colonies.

Nan-Yao Su enjoys nature hikes with 3-year-old Kaya, his best friend since the fall of 2014. “She is brave, strong, loyal and (a bit over-) protective,” he says.

Joe Eger, a field biologist and 35-year veteran of Dow AgroSciences who has worked directly with Su on a variety of projects over the past six years, says that he recognized Su was doing extraordinary research decades before he had the opportunity to work directly with him and long before Dow launched Sentricon. Now that the bait system has become a global success, the whole world recognizes the value of Su’s work.

“Success hasn’t changed Nan-Yao a bit,” Eger says. “A lot of people with this type of achievement to their credit might sit back and take it easy, but Nan-Yao keeps researching, writing papers and getting new information into the field. His team continues to do groundbreaking research that we actively apply to our technologies.”

LEADERSHIP & COLLABORATION

Indeed, Su’s research lab at UF’s Fort Lauderdale Research Education Center is known far and wide as a hotbed of termite research. Right now, for instance, postdoc Thomas Chouvenc, who moved from France to South Florida to study termites, is leading research into Asian/Formosan hybrids.

“When Thomas mated Asian and Formosan termites in the lab, I didn’t believe that their eggs would hatch, but they did,” says Su. “The colonies grew fast. If these colonies produce another bunch of fertile swarming termites that find a unique niche, then we may be watching a new species appear right before our eyes. We don’t know if it will happen yet; if it does, these hybrid termites will unfortunately have the potential to cause a lot of damage.”

Philip Koehler, endowed professor at UF, who chaired the selection committee responsible for bringing Su to the University of Florida, says that students and postdocs stand in line to study under Su. “He has become the premier termite control researcher anywhere; he is a tremendous asset to our department.”

Potter agrees. “For more than three decades, Nan-Yao and his lab have been enlightening us on the cryptic ways of termites: how they live, multiply, forage for resources and respond to our treatments. No other researcher has been so impactful or prolific,” he says, pointing to the three-plus pages of literature citations attributed to Su and his longtime research colleague Dr. Rudolph Scheffrahn in past editions of the Mallis Handbook of Pest Control.

Why do Su’s students and research teams produce such impressive work? Because he makes sure they meet three basic criteria going in: First, they demonstrate intellectual curiosity. Second, they understand and embrace the scientific method. Third, they are honest.

“What students know or don’t know isn’t important; that they think like a scientist is very important,” Su explains. “I teach them that problem-solving requires thinking in different ways: If you always just walk through the front door, you won’t see the problem, or the answer. Try the side door, the back door, or enter the building from underneath. You need to enjoy the process of finding answers when everything seems foggy. Once you get comfortable in the ambiguity, your path forward becomes clearer.”

Su also challenges his students to critique scientific literature. He says, “They discover that everyone makes mistakes but that they can learn from the mistakes of others to create research that is scientifically sound. They need to understand how logic is constructed and, even more importantly, how vital it is for them to be honest with their data, looking at it with unbiased eyes.”

Su credits his mentor Dr. Minoru Tamashiro, who initiated and led the termite research at the University of Hawaii when Su studied there, for helping him understand and uphold the integrity of science. “Dr. Tamashiro, who had joined the famous 442nd Battalion in World War II at only 17 years old, became a mentor and inspiration to me,” he says.

Su’s students and peers extend him the same level of respect. Rust says that Su’s attention to detail is enviable: “He is one of my go-to peers for reviewing journal articles,” he says. “Sometimes I swamp him with papers, but he is always generous with his time and insights.”

Coby Schal, distinguished professor at North Carolina State University, says he and Su connected three decades ago when they shared a similar philosophy on what it would take to develop effective baits (attractive, palatable, potent but slow-acting, and transmittable within the colony and to the queen). The only difference was that Schal was working on cockroaches while Su worked on termites. “Termites are just social cockroaches, after all!” Schal quips.

He calls Su a “perfect gentleman scientist,” adding, “Nan-Yao is incredibly inquisitive and creative, which makes him an excellent researcher. Humble and understated, he is respectful of others and a model mentor to his students and staff. He is also the quintessential multinational, having grown up in Taiwan and Japan, and then going to school in Hawaii, and conducting research around the world. These experiences give him great empathy for people and a tremendous drive to make the world a better place.”

CHANGING THE WORLD

Su has spoken to audiences, and collaborated with researchers in North and South America, Asia, Europe and Australia, enlightening the world about termite behavior, ecology and control.

One of his most notable efforts placed him in the role of chief technical adviser for termite IPM in China. This 2001-2011 World Bank project, designed to eliminate DDT, chlordane and other persistent organic pollutants, gave him the opportunity to introduce IPM to China.

“This was a really tough undertaking,” admits Su. “The country is so big, and many people were still using chlordane. Two or three times a year, I would lecture audiences in the chemistry and pest control industries to help them understand why baiting was superior to spraying — why killing the colony was superior to just chasing the termites away. It was humbling to be exposed to such a large scale of people and to realize that no matter how you try, sometimes people will ignore the science and continue doing what they like to do. We did manage to reduce pesticide use by 370 metric tons, and we contributed to the end of chlordane usage in China. I am proud to have been part of that.”

And the China project is but one example of Su’s commitment to global efforts. “When you look at all of the places he’s gone — all of the areas of the world he has introduced to termite baiting, and all of the researchers he has worked with — it’s mind-boggling,” says Koehler. “The world is doing better termite control because of Nan-Yao’s research capabilities and desire to help others.”

Yet even as he has touched the world with such profound insights and advances, Su says what he enjoys most about his work is creating something tangible. “I realized as I was designing and creating the baiting system that deep inside I was a lot like my father, the engineer,” he says. “It was very exciting.”

Exciting for not only him but also his colleagues and friends, who look forward to whatever concept Su chooses to research next. Says Schal, “No matter what he attempts, Nan-Yao clearly has the foresight, intellect and ‘Midas touch’ that ensures success.”