No Generation Gap in this 'Family of Scientists'

Let's see...John Casida, Bruce Hammock and now Thomas Sparks. You probably recognize their names as exemplary scientists affiliated with the University of California system. They all meshed entomology, chemistry and toxicology and biochemistry.

But did you know that they are all interlinked and that each won the prestigious Kenneth A. Spencer Award of the American Chemical Society (ACS)? They represent three generations of scientists--knowledge passed from Casida to Hammock to Sparks.

Thomas Sparks, the first graduate student of UC Davis distinguished professor Bruce Hammock, is the 2019 recipient, following in the generational footsteps of Hammock, his major professor at UC Riverside and UC Davis; and Hammock's major professor, the late John Casida of UC Berkeley.

Sparks accepted the award at the recent ACS meeting in San Diego. Hammock received the Spencer award in 1993, and Casida in 1978.

In his talk, Sparks acknowledged that he was a “third generation winner” following Casida and Hammock. "I was surprised to get a very large response/applause for this--very gratifying and likely testimony to the high regard for John Casida and Bruce Hammock."

"I was there cheering for Tom," Hammock said. "He gave a wonderful talk.  Actually, I was there with Tom and our wives and my second student Keith Wing."

Casida, Hammock, Sparks and Wing also won the ACS International Award for their research: Casida, the inaugural winner, won it in 1969; Hammock in 1992; Sparks in 2012, and Wing in 2015.

Said Sparks: "As an aside, Vince Salgado, who worked in the lab next to Keith and I in Riverside got the International Award this year (2019)--perhaps something in the water or atmosphere."

Sparks, a native of San Francisco who grew up in a farming community in the central valley, is an internationally recognized leader in the discovery of new insect control agents, the biochemistry and toxicology of insecticides, and insecticide resistance. Formerly a professor at Louisiana State University (LSU) and then a researcher in private industry for three decades, he recently retired as a research fellow from Corteva Agriscience (formerly Dow AgroSciences).

“Tom was instrumental in the discovery and development of a new class of insecticides called spinosids,” said Hammock, who holds a joint appointment with the UC Davis Department of Entomology and Nematology and the UC Davis Comprehensive Cancer Center. Spinosad, launched in 1997, is a naturally occurring mixture of spinosyns. Sparks co-invented the next-generation semi-synthetic spinosyn-based insecticide, spinetoram, that improved the efficacy, spectrum, and residual of spinosad. Both compounds received the EPA Presidential Green Chemistry Challenge Award, spinosad;in 1999 and spinetoram in 2008.

Always keenly interested in insects and later, chemistry, Sparks obtained his bachelor's degree in biology, with a minor in chemistry, in 1973 from California State University, Fresno. He then headed to UC Riverside for his doctorate to study insect endocrinology, biochemistry, and toxicology with Hammock. Sparks received his doctorate in 1978 from UC Riverside. When Hammock joined the UC Davis faculty in 1980, Sparks continued his work with him, and while on the faculty of LSU, completed a sabbatical at UC Davis.

Sparks praised the broad training and inspiration he received in Hammock's lab as “outstanding preparation for my future roles in science.” 

Sparks served on LSU's Department of Entomology faculty from 1978 to 1989 as an insect toxicologist, achieving full professor. His research covered endocrine regulation of insect metamorphosis, insecticide resistance, and insecticide biochemistry and toxicology.

In 1989, Sparks joined the agrochemical research group, the joint venture between Eli Lilly and The Dow Chemical Company, DowElanco (later known as Dow AgroSciences). He worked in discovery research for nearly three decades.

Sparks holds 46 patents or patent applications and continues to publish widely. He has published more than 175 refereed journal publications, book chapters, and other articles. Many involve a variety of discovery efforts in innovative insecticidal chemistries.

In recognition of this work, Thomas was named R&D Magazine's 2009 Scientist of the Year, the first in the 50-year history of the award for a scientist working in the field of agriculture. He also received the ACS International Award for Research in Agrochemicals (2012) and the AGRO Award for Innovation in Chemistry of Agriculture (2015). He is a Fellow of the Entomological Society of America and, in 2018, received the Entomological Society of America Recognition Award in Insect Physiology, Biochemistry and Toxicology.  

Other UC Davis-affiliated recipients of the Spencer Award include the late Emil Mrak, for whom Mrak Hall is named.

The award memorializes Kenneth A. Spencer (1902-1960), a Kansas City geologist, engineer, coal miner, philanthropist and owner of the Spencer Chemical Company.