October 10, 2018

Dr. Faith Oi: Crown Leadership Awards Recipient, Sponsored By Syngenta
Faith Oi isn’t just the brains behind the science; she’s the bridge between ‘AHA!’ and ‘Hey, this stuff really works!’

An associate extension scientist at the University of Florida, Dr. Faith Oi has published numerous articles about termites and other structural pests in refereed journals.
Research is the bedrock of pest management. It fuels our progress and moves our industry forward. But if we can’t apply that research — take it out into the field and put it to work for customers every day — then we don’t benefit from its full potential. That’s where Faith Oi comes in.

Oi is a researcher held in high esteem by her scientific peers and predecessors, but she is also a roll-up-your-sleeves, boots-on-the-ground troubleshooting genius when it comes to applying new technologies and techniques. A teacher, role model, advisor and renowned speaker, Oi brings science, application, regulation and good business sense together into an equation that lifts the industry and individual businesses alike.

“Faith has earned the trust of the industry by having the ability to not only conduct sound research but also deliver data in such a way that everyone understands and embraces it,” says Nan-Yao Su, distinguished professor of entomology at the Fort Lauderdale Research and Education Center of the University of Florida (UF) Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences. Su is responsible for piquing Oi’s interest in entomology and has been a tremendous influence on her career. “She shines on the stage,” he says of the talks she delivers worldwide as one of the industry’s most in-demand speakers. “People listen, learn and get excited.”

Therein lies the “it” factor: Oi’s warm, energetic, outgoing approach and infectious laugh draw audiences deep into the world of research whether they intended to go there or not. Even better? They come out smiling.

“Faith puts people immediately at ease,” says Michael Bentley, director of training and education at the National Pest Management Association (NPMA), and a former student of Oi’s. “Her positive attitude and love for pest management inspire many, many people — myself included — to work harder and become better at what they do.”

The Student Becomes the Master
Oi wasn’t born a bug person. Far from it: When it was time for her to go college, she wasn’t sure which path to take — or whether she was even ready to take this first step into her career development.

“I grew up in Hawaii, a warm, wonderful, diverse place, where I was influenced strongly by my parents. My mom was an elementary school teacher and my dad was in business. They were both the first in their families to earn college degrees, so when I told them I didn’t think I was ready to go to college yet, they assured me I was,” Oi shares with a smile. “Then I had to decide what I wanted to do. I could go into business, like my dad, I thought, or I could get into science, which had always interested me. Thinking about all the piano lessons I had taken, I even considered music — until my parents said, ‘You’ll starve!’”

Oi opted for science, earning a bachelor of science in zoology from the University of Hawaii. It was at UH that she met Su.

“I knew that I needed more than classes to stay engaged, so I got my first job as a student worker cleaning up and collecting data on termiticide efficacy, which happened to be in Dr. Tamashiro’s and Dr. (Julian) Yates’ lab, where Nan-Yao was figuring out how termite colonies work,” she recalls. [Dr. Minoru Tamashiro, who initiated and led the termite research at the University of Hawaii, played an influential role in both Oi’s and Su’s careers.]

Oi’s curiosity led her to ask Su a lot of questions, such as why the Sudan Red dye he used to mark termites seemed impervious to her cleaning efforts. “She still teases me about that dye,” he says. But that experience opened the door to many conversations and a budding relationship, as well as to Oi’s decision to pursue a master’s degree in entomology.

Says Su, “Years later, after she had earned her master’s degree and I had moved my research to the University of Florida, I encouraged her to leave Hawaii, because as wonderful as it was, she needed a broader perspective. I offered to take her in as a doctoral student; I knew she would do something interesting.”

Oi became Su’s first student. “He called me ‘Prototype One,’” she says, laughing.

“She was hard-working and persistent. She never gave up,” says Su. “Most importantly, she recognized what good-quality research is and settled for nothing short of that. That’s the sign of a true scientist.”

Su wasn’t the only faculty member impressed by Oi’s work.

Philip Koehler, endowed professor of urban entomology at the University of Florida, who served as co-chair of Faith’s graduate committee, adds, “I have been so pleased to see her progression as a scientist over the years. She excels in everything she takes on. She earned many grants for the university, particularly in the area of school IPM, and her success leading Pest Management University has been remarkable.”

Instilling Passion in Others
Indeed, Pest Management University (PMU) stands as one of Oi’s most notable achievements. Launched in 2007 as the culmination of years of strategic planning and collaboration by UF, the pest management industry, and the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services (DACS), PMU offers PMPs and other industry stakeholders classes designed to bolster their knowledge and understanding of the latest pest management tools and techniques, and to help them improve their skills and professionalism in the field.

“The breadth of the educational experience at Pest Management University makes it stand out among pest management training facilities. No matter where you are in your career, you can learn something there,” says Dan Suiter, extension entomologist at the University of Georgia. “Through PMU, Faith is raising expectations, raising the bar, for industry professionalism. She believes in the potential of technicians to apply the latest science in the field, lifting the customer experience to a new level.”

While visiting the Taj Mahal a number of years ago, Oi admits she couldn’t resist taking some time out from sightseeing to study the various species of ants indigenous to India.

Entomophagy (the practice of eating insects) at FAOPMA-Asian Pest Gala.

University of Florida entomologists Phil Kaufman and Faith Oi examine a blood-fed brown dog tick in a lab at the Gainesville, Fla. campus.

Checking out the local insects at Humayun’s Tomb in Dehli, India, with colleagues Viren Merchant, Dini Miller and David Oi.

Oi and her colleagues at the FAOPMA conference.
Located at UF’s Mid-Florida Research and Education Center in Apopka, Fla., the PMU training facility includes a fully functioning house that enables students to learn in a real-world setting. “Students inspect the stairs, kitchen, bathroom — every area in the house — to determine how termites might gain access to the structures. Then they have an opportunity to design a treatment plan,” says Florida DACS Environmental Consultant Paul Mitola, who contributes his pest control experience and regulatory expertise to PMU as he helps shape the curriculum there.

Mitola says he became actively involved in PMU after he inadvertently wiped out a colony of Oi’s research termites while treating the building that houses her lab. “I killed her termites. I feel indebted,” he says with a grimace. But it’s clear through the passion in his voice when he speaks of the program that Mitola is as committed to the mission of PMU as every other industry expert, academic and regulatory advisor who teaches there — which is to say, all-out.

No one feels that commitment more strongly than PMU Program Coordinator Joe Jonovich. “I’ve come to anticipate a dramatic transformation when a group of technicians are sent here by their boss for training. When they get here, they think that their job is just a job. But when they leave, it’s with pride and excitement to get out there and build a career in this industry. They recognize that they can change people’s lives by being great at what they do, and they are pumped up to do just that,” he says.

Jonovich adds that it’s Oi’s dedication — her focus on innovation and the opportunities for the industry today, tomorrow and 10 years from now — that inspires PMU students. “Faith’s vision leads to new ideas and novel ways to approach pest control and education,” he explains. “By example, she shows us all the value of being an engaged, committed, lifelong learner.”

Oi also instills that motivation in the UF doctoral students who study under her watch. In fact, Bentley says she inspired him to work in the pest management industry. “When I was working toward my master’s, I wasn’t sure I would commit to going on for a Ph.D. My adviser sent me to Faith. Once I talked with her and witnessed her passion and dedication to the industry, I got excited about it, too. She was a huge influence on my decision to make pest management my career,” he says.

As to what kind of Ph.D. adviser Oi was, he says the best kind. “She is a great role model. Seeing how hard she works makes it clear to everyone around her that there’s no place for B-quality work,” Bentley explains. “But she never pushes you. Instead she inspires, coaches and supports, always finding the right way to make sure you are giving 100 percent. Working with her is a special opportunity. She helps people find the best in themselves.”

Bridging Research & Application
Few would argue that Oi’s crowning achievement in the industry is elevating the understanding of principles and innovations with the potential to keep pest management on a dynamic evolutionary path. Her insights help shape IPM policy; her talks enlighten professionals in all stages of their careers and around the globe; and her problem-solving capabilities help individual business owners build stronger, more profitable companies.

“I don’t remember when it was exactly, but the first time I heard Faith speak, I almost fell out of my chair,” says Kemp Anderson, pest control industry M&A strategist and consultant. “Her knowledge is incredibly deep and her energy limitless. I wasted no time introducing myself, and then connecting some of my clients to her. Without exception, they would come back and tell me she had been an amazing resource and problem-solver for them.”

Oi says, “Learning more about the business side has been critical to my work and teaching. I knew a bit about business from my dad, but Kemp and many others in the industry — from technicians to business owners — have helped me understand the relationships between the science and the business, specifically for pest management. I appreciate the openness and expertise people share.”

“Faith has earned the trust of the industry by having the ability to not only conduct sound research but also deliver data in such a way that everyone understands and embraces it.” Nan-Yao Su, distinguished professor of entomology at the Fort Lauderdale Research and Education Center of the University of Florida

Nan-Yao Su
Anderson says it’s a mutual learning experience between Oi and himself. “We have great, productive conversations, with Faith bringing the science/entomology piece while I bring it back to the P&L,” he explains. “This industry is complex, with its mix of chemistry, biology, regulations and business concepts. At the end of the day, you have to tie that all together. Together, Faith and I have helped clients increase their sales, change their strategic direction, retain clients and achieve many other goals. She may not have been a business student, but she certainly facilitates business results.”

Colleague and friend Brian Forschler, professor of entomology at the University of Georgia College of Agricultural & Environmental Sciences, sums it up this way: “Faith is one of those rare individuals who understands the research realm as well as the pragmatic role research should play. Too often, we discover great advances only to see them struggle at the field level. Faith gets it. She’s involved and committed, communicating with practitioners to help them improve their service and their businesses by making the most of the tools available to them. She transcends the realm of science to bring concrete solutions to the people who need them.”

A Family of (Real) Scientists
Given her commitment to entomology and constant learning, it’s not surprising that Oi met her husband in the lab. Also unsurprising: Their first date may have been a date, or it may have been homework. Either way, it involved searching for maggots.

“I first saw Faith when I was an entomology student and she was a student worker in Dr. Tamashiro’s lab at the University of Hawaii,” says David Oi, research entomologist at the USDA-ARS Center for Medical, Agricultural & Veterinary Entomology, whose parents are from Hawaii. “The first time we went out was when I told her I knew where she could find some rotting jackfruit that would definitely be a good source for the larvae she needed for one of her classes.” That was just the hook, he admits; he had stashed a couple of boogie boards in the back of his car to make the experience more of a fun date than a necessary field trip.

The couple went on to collaborate on a variety of entomology projects and activities, including often going out to study the pests of their own special interests: termites for her, fire ants for him. “We’ve published a couple of papers together, too,” he says.

David says he admires Faith for her ability to present research data in such a fascinating way. “She’s naturally shy, so I don’t know how she does it, standing up in front of everyone and connecting with them so completely,” he says. “She often runs her talks past me, and I’m amazed at the way she meshes entomology with consumer thought patterns, public health issues, history and so much more. She can take very complex subject matter and bring it to the level where PMPs become comfortable talking with their customers about it.”

Her work ethic and thirst for knowledge have made Faith a great role model for the couple’s 18-year-old son, Collin, David adds.

When he was very young, friends asked Collin if he wanted to become an entomologist like his parents, and he said no — that he wanted to be “a real scientist, like a chemist,” Faith says. She wonders if he might have had just a little too much entomology, since he spent so much of his childhood in her lab and at pest control events, sharing, “He could say ‘Cimex lectularius’ before he could pronounce his Rs and Ss consistently.” Carrying through on his promise (or maybe to lash out at bed bugs), Collin this year enrolled in the honors program at the University of Florida to study chemistry. Faith and David could not be prouder.

Frequent travels to Hawaii and throughout the world have created some wonderful, lasting memories for the Oi family, Faith says, adding, “I am so grateful to the industry for the opportunities we have had to see the world and for this career that I love so much.”