How do you get Iowans interested in the weeds, insects and diseases that threaten crops? Turns out a suit bought at a secondhand store and a fake mustache does the trick.
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In plant pathology, entomology and microbiology (PPEM), the duo of industry extension specialist Adam Sisson and media production specialist Brandon Kleinke used their expertise to create an unlikely way to deliver news about pests and plant diseases -- Sebastian Eugene Bartholomew. Sisson transforms into the pompous, know-it-all professor for the YouTube series, "The Undergrowth," where he interviews pest management experts with a combination of humor and serious questions to share information Iowans can use.
"We hope that people will learn through the presentation," Sisson said. "We want to catch their attention, and then we hope they will learn something on subjects they may not otherwise be all that interested in."
In roughly 20-minute interviews, the topics range from the effects of singing to plants, to why beehives are disappearing at faster rates. Sisson interviews a different expert -- mostly from the Integrated Pest Management (IPM) program -- on location with viewers learning with each topic. Links to ISU Extension and Outreach and other informative websites are provided in the description of each video.
All the effort has helped the IPM YouTube page garner nearly 3,800 subscribers and more than 780,000 views since May 2018. More than 440,000 of those views have occured in 2023.
The evolution of Sebastian
Sisson began performing as Bartholomew to combine several of his interests. The project started in spring 2022 with Sisson teaching how to get rid of troublesome pests through phytopoetry, or plant poetry, he wrote.
"I used to write lots and lots of poetry, so I decided to bring my passion to my job," he said. "It allowed me to bring my passion of creative writing to work through plant poetry. "
To complete the concept, Sisson wears a suit he purchased 20-plus years ago and an exaggerated mustache to bring Bartholomew to life -- with a little trial and error.
"When you get into the suit and pretend to be someone else, it allows you to act like someone else. And it's fun," he said.
Sisson said getting the mustache to stick to his face during shoots included a discussion with the music and theatre department, double-sided tape and eyelash glue.
The series -- which is set to seasons and takes time off to accommodate other work for Sisson and Kleinke -- resumed a couple of months ago with the new format. To keep guests on their toes, they don't receive any of the questions in advance. Sisson said it takes a couple of hours to develop a script and the questions for each expert.
"Typically, the expert has already seen an episode or two so they kind of know what to expect, and we tell them we want this to be educational but to react to Sebastian however they want," he said.
The success of the series has led to faculty contacting Sisson to be in a video. A recent video features a graduate student who was recommended by his academic advisor.
Kleinke credits Sisson's relationships within the department with making the series a success because experts trust the information will be shared in a positive manner.
"When you have that trust, it is nice going in," Kleinke said. "Our boss [PPEM professor Daren Mueller] really lets us get wild and crazy with our creativity, and encourages it."
The work of many
When Sisson isn't filming the latest installment of the series for "The Royal Academy of Iowa State University" [Sebastian's words], he makes extension education materials, including the manual "Corn and Soybean Field Guide," to help farmers identify pests in their fields.
Sisson may be the face in front of the camera, but he is quick to deflect praise to Kleinke, who uses multiple cameras and spends hours editing the final product, as well as extra time on location setting up for the interviews. PPEM graphic designer Keaton Hewitt and program assistant Joey Cornelis also help with graphic design and social media to promote the series.