Cirque du Sound

Meet Diane Ullman

Diane Ullman is an award-winning Professor, the co-founder of the Art/Science Fusion program at UC Davis, and a guest on the brand-new podcast Cirque du Sound.

Getting to Know our Guest

Could you please introduce yourself in a few words.

I am Diane Ullman. I’ve been an entomologist for more than 40 years, 29 of those years in the Department of Entomology and Nematology at University of California Davis. Starting in 1996, I began a journey into the connections between art and science, co-founded the UC Davis Art/Science Fusion Program and began a robust effort of teaching courses in scientific topics using art. Since that time, I have thought of myself as an artscientist and have led many installations of ceramic tile and mosaic murals, painted murals and textile displays that explore art-science connections.

If you had to pick your favorite Cirque du Soleil show, which one would it be? (And why?)

I’ve only had the opportunity to see two Cirque du Soleil shows, but of the two Ovo was my favorite! This show explores the life cycle, behavior and birth of insects and is so wonderfully true to the science while being entirely engaging, how could any entomologist resist it!?


Getting Started in Entomology

Can you tell us a bit about what sparked your interest in entomology and what motivated you to pursue a career in this field?

I was fascinated by the natural world from a very young age and spent a great deal of time exploring outside, especially when visiting my grandparents who had a farm in Kentucky. Insects were so abundant; I was constantly observing them and started an insect collection when I was very young. As I grew older, I became more interested in literature and the arts and grew away from the sciences. Once in college, I found my path back to the sciences and got a B.S. in Horticulture from University of Arizona. At the very end of my degree, I met some very inspirational professors and took classes in entomology and plant pathology. By the time I graduated, I knew I would go on to study these topics more deeply. I was especially interested in how insects and the viruses they transmit challenge the human food supply and I wanted to find better more sustainable ways to control them. I eventually got a Ph.D. in Entomology with a focus on insects that transmit plant pathogens.

I’ve studied this topic since 1980 and am passionate about its intricacies, the intimate relationships between insects, viruses, and plants, and I love to think of strategies to limit the damage done to crops.

As you embarked on your entomological journey, were there any surprising discoveries or realizations that shaped the trajectory of your research?

The world of insects and viruses and how they interact is full of surprises and is rich with potential discoveries. Among the many research topics and questions I explored in my long career, my work with tiny insects called thrips and the viruses they transmit to 100s of species of plants (orthotospoviruses) has been the most exciting. Early in my career, with some great colleagues, I discovered that these viruses use the insect as a host and replicate in them. The scientific paper we wrote was seminal in the field and has been cited over 9,000 times due to its importance. That work sent me down a path of studying what happened to these viruses inside the insects—how did the virus move between organs, how did it arrive at the salivary gland where it could be inoculated into plants, and what exactly did it do to the insect?

These questions dominated my research for these many years and led to many exciting discoveries about the insects and the viruses and how they operate together. My most recent work was on the proteome of the thrips salivary glands and saliva, and how the virus packages its genetic material, the latter appearing in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science, a top tier journal.


Getting Philosophical

The study of insects involves exploring diverse ecosystems and behaviors. How do you encourage creative thinking in your students to approach insect-related research with fresh perspectives?

This is a wonderful question. I start by encouraging students to read the literature. We truly stand on the shoulders of giants and can learn so much by reading their work. The next important step is to start paying attention to the questions that arise—always, always question what has been done, why it was done, how it was done, and then seek the really good questions to guide your own work. I am a very visual person, and I encourage students to develop visuals that explore connections and to look for the places where there are gaps in our knowledge.

For me, connecting my art to my science has been a guiding light. Doing art opens up a creative space in my brain and allows me to think deeply. I encourage students to find what activity does this for them—art, exercise, long walks, whatever triggers that creative space for the individual.

Insects play crucial roles in ecosystems, and their lives are deeply interconnected with ours. How does the study of insects influence your thoughts on the symbiotic relationship between humans and the natural world?

Insects are foundational to our ability to live on the planet. If they were to disappear, the planet’s ecosystems would begin to collapse within a few weeks. Honeybees alone pollinate plants providing 1/3 of our diet as humans. Other insects are critical to decomposing materials and returning nutrients to the environment, some provide us with critical products (dyes, shellacs, silk, etc.), and many support the food chains within diverse ecosystems. Without insects, humans would have very little food to eat, the world would quickly be devoid of the beauty of flowers, and species from the lowliest worms to birds would simply collapse.

We are living in the 6th great extinction, and we are losing insect species every day, sometimes called the insect apocalypse. We need to care about these losses. All is not hopeless, there are things we can do to protect insects—one is to stop planting lawns! Not only are lawns water hungry, but their care generates a lot of pollution. Lawns are food deserts for insects, they reduce biodiversity to virtually nothing. Replace those lawns with perennial flowering plants—you will use less water and other resources, and you are providing food and place for insects to reproduce and thrive.

To close this comment, insects and humans are intricately linked to one another.


Parting Words

Which aspects of your work do you believe have had the most lasting impact on the field of entomology, and what do you hope your contributions will be remembered for?

When I look at my career as a whole, my work with thrips and orthotospoviruses will have a lasting impact on the field internationally, but so will the work I have done on developing host plant resistance to thrips and viruses. Perhaps my greatest legacy will be the work I have done to connect art and science. The installations of artwork showing connections between insects, humans, plants, and animals will outlive me and continuously educate the audiences of people who walk by them about the most abundant animals on the planet—the insects.

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