by Bryan Lindenberger

“The biggest asset I have is building bridges and maintaining ties,” said Dr. Gregory Payne.

Dr. Gregory Payne stands in a clearing near the woods, casually dressed in sunglasses and a cap.
Dr. Gregory Payne

Payne serves as professor and associate dean of the College of Science and Mathematics at University of West Georgia. Recent grant awards for nearly $60,000 from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the Georgia Cotton Commission and Cotton Incorporated allow him to deliver data important for regional agriculture, while providing crucial, hands-on learning opportunities for UWG undergraduate students.

But things were different in the early 1990s when Payne came to Carrollton to work in academia. UWG - then known as West Georgia College – served approximately 7,000 students without the robust opportunities offered today.

“I was trying to figure out how I am going to plug in here and maintain professional development,” said Payne. “I wondered what kind of research projects I could be involved in.”

But, he arrived with serious credentials and an impressive resume.

A Georgia native, he grew up in Bowman and received his bachelor's degree in biology in 1980 at Georgia College – now Georgia College and State University. He continued with his master's and doctorate degrees in entomology – the study of insects – at Clemson University. Further research placed him at University of New York and Cornell University in an agricultural experiment station. He later was employed as an insecticide discovery biologist by FMC Corporation’s Insecticide Discovery Group in Princeton, N.J.

Seeking a return to academia, Payne returned to Georgia in 1993. While wise mentors may advise students never to burn bridges, Payne, over the years, actively preserved his.

“I had a lot of contacts that I had maintained throughout the years who helped me ‘plug in’ and become productive, especially during those early years at West Georgia,” said Payne. “And because of those relationships, more opportunities across the southeast, mid-south and Atlantic states developed.”

Among the first things he did was contact people he knew in the industry. He asked them what kinds of holes in agricultural research and insecticide resistance needed filled. Old contacts got him in touch with new ones to generate a plan.

“I started getting relatively small grants to address very specific questions,” said Payne, noting he often wrote proposals for as little as $2,000 to $5,000 dollars.

Soon, he developed grants and contracts to work with companies invested in sustainable agriculture - such as Monsanto and Bayer Crop Science. Each experience built upon his regional claim as a reliable researcher.

“Over the years I just kept doing those things and building a reputation,” Payne said.

The result has been a research program that works closely with major corporations and research colleagues from all of the land grant universities across the southeast and mid-south, and more than 20 consecutive years of external funding totaling more than $1.4 million.

Payne’s example of maintaining ties, defining community need and getting the job done serve as a model for anyone starting a career. It applies as well to software development or business as to biology.

Today, his research continues to build upon his interest in entomology and experience in insecticide resistance technology.

A biology students smiles in a farm field of leafy plants that are as tall as he is.
A student in the field.

Current research for the USDA and Georgia Cotton Commission focuses on pests such as the bollworm and the tobacco budworm, which can decimate cotton. Payne and his students collect samples of these worms and test various insecticides on them to measure resistance to various insecticides in commercial use.

Such work assists the cotton industry by identifying early when crop-damaging pests have begun to build resistance to current insecticides. For students, the benefits are more personal but just as far-reaching.

“I teach my students the importance of patience and persistence,” said Payne.

In choosing his undergraduate student researchers, he does not make spur-of-the-moment decisions, but weighs academic performance, interest and work ethic.

“I like talking to academicians from other institutions, but I get just as much of a kick talking to growers out in the middle of the field,” Payne said. “I've had fun, and I've enjoyed the students, my colleagues and the opportunities that UWG has provided.”

Posted on March 12, 2018