2012 ACS International Award for Research in Agrochemicals

Co-sponsored by DuPont Crop Protection

Tom SparksDr. Thomas C. Sparks is the recipient of the 2012 ACS International Award for Research in Agrochemicals.  The oldest of five children, Dr. Sparks was born in San Francisco and grew up in a small farming community in California’s Central Valley, where growing and packing peaches, plums, nectarines, oranges, grapes, almonds, and other fruit were the mainstay of the local economy.  He obtained a B.A. in biology and chemistry minor from Fresno State University (1973) and a Ph.D. in entomology from the University of California, Riverside (1978) under the guidance of Dr. Bruce Hammock.  As the first student of Dr. Hammock (now at U.C. Davis and a former winner of the International Award), Dr. Sparks’ research focused on insect biochemistry and toxicology.  He credits the broad training and inspiration he received in Dr. Hammock’s lab as outstanding preparation for his future roles in Academia and Industry.

In 1978, Dr. Sparks joined the faculty of the Department of Entomology at Louisiana State University as the insect toxicologist.  Over the next 11 years, his research would cover endocrine regulation of insect metamorphosis, insecticide resistance, and insecticide biochemistry and toxicology.  Dr. Sparks also taught introductory and advanced courses in insecticide toxicology.  A full Professor, Dr. Sparks left LSU in 1989 and joined the agrochemical research group at Elanco, right at the time of the joint venture between Eli Lilly and The Dow Chemical Company to form DowElanco (now Dow AgroSciences).  Shortly after joining DowElanco, Dr. Sparks became leader of a research group that coordinated aspects of spinosad’s development along with the exploration of the spinosyn chemistry for the next generation product.

Concerned that available approaches were not leading to spinosyn chemistry nearly as active as the naturally occurring spinosyn A, Dr. Sparks investigated and then applied the radical approach of using artificial neural networks for the analysis of the quantitative structure activity relationships for the spinosyn chemistry.  The resulting analysis pointed to new directions for the spinosyn chemistry that directly led to the discovery of new, more highly effective analogs, which in turn led to the next generation spinosyn product, spinetoram.

Spinetoram improves on spinosad by providing an expanded spectrum, improved efficacy and residual activity, while maintaining the excellent toxicological and environmental profile established by spinosad.  The novelty and attributes of spinetoram were recognized in 2007 with an EPA Presidential Green Chemistry Challenge Award, and Dr. Sparks’ efforts were recognized with R&D Magazine naming him the 2009 Scientist of the Year, the first in the 50 year history of the award for a scientist working in agriculture.

Currently a Dow Research Fellow, during his 23 years at Dow AgroSciences, Dr. Sparks has also led a variety of discovery efforts resulting in the discovery of numerous other insecticidal chemistries, many still active areas for Dow AgroSciences. Dr. Sparks recently led a successful effort to characterize the biochemical basis for lack of resistance to sulfoxaflor, a new sulfoximine insecticide for the control of sap-feeding insect pests.  An EPA approval decision is expected in 2012.  In addition to his research, Dr. Sparks has been the chair to the Insecticide Resistance Action Committee’s Mode of Action Working Group. He  currently holds a dozen patents / patent applications and has published extensively in scientific journal and books with 150 referred journal publications, book chapters and other articles. Tom and his wife Sandi have three children, Nicole, Kristina and Janine.  He enjoys writing, technology history, and photography.