Career of the Month
We use surveillance traps during the active mosquito season to determine both the number of mosquitoes in our area and their species. We also test specimens using molecular tools to determine the proportion of mosquitoes infected with pathogens. This helps us determine where to concentrate any control efforts that might be needed.
We also conduct scientific research. This past year, we published studies on a new trap design and mosquitoes as carriers of West Nile virus; evaluated a new, salt-based mosquito-killing product; evaluated the efficacy of tiki torches in repelling mosquitoes; sampled wild jackrabbit populations to collect ticks that can carry Rocky Mountain spotted fever; responded to an invasive species outbreak in Southern Utah; and conducted a large-scale entomological survey to determine whether our mosquito control applications were affecting other insect species.
I love every aspect of my job. I put in a lot of hours, but it does not feel like work, because I enjoy every minute. There are challenging days, but no bad days. I enjoy looking at insects’ intricate details, which are used to identify species. I love informing members of the public about how to protect themselves from mosquito diseases, and also explaining the valuable role that beneficial mosquito species play. I love exploring new habitats, working in the lab, traveling, writing, and explaining entomology to children. But above all, I love offering a service that helps people enjoy the outdoors, while protecting their health.
One highlight was developing the first area-wide measure for the surveillance and control of the Asian tiger mosquito, while working on my doctorate degree. That project led to more than 30 peer-reviewed publications, and gave me the opportunity to rub elbows with renowned entomologists who were my heroes, and who actually looked to me for advice and input. Most importantly, we changed the way scientists and public health stewards dealt with this species. I have also been fortunate to be invited to exotic locations, such as Egypt, Bhutan, and Micronesia to work on mosquito projects. But the most memorable moments are when I introduce young children to entomology and see them change from being scared of insects to looking at them in pure wonderment.
Spending a lot of time in nature fostered my passion for science. I wanted to be a wildlife biologist and study bighorn sheep, but when I realized there were only a few jobs in that field, I decided to go into entomology instead. I went to a small liberal arts university and majored in biology. Because it was a small school, I got to develop fantastic relationships with my professors, and we spent quality time in the field together. We did not have an entomology curriculum, but one professor was also interested in insects, so we designed entomology classes for just myself and a few other students. Another professor suggested that I apply for a summer position at the local mosquito and vector control district. I did and fell in love with the profession.
The next year, West Nile virus was detected for the first time in the northeastern United States. This opened up a lot of funding and graduate study opportunities. I applied to Rutgers University to earn my master’s degree. I had been planning to go straight to a PhD program after that, but near the end of my thesis, a professor talked me into applying for a job as Superintendent at a local mosquito control district, just to gain the experience. I got the job and was put in charge of a program with a million-dollar budget and 15 personnel. I had no idea what I was doing, but I learned quickly. I grew that program into a nationally renowned program while pursuing my PhD studies on a part-time basis.
I stayed at that job for six years, then in 2014 accepted my current job as the executive director for the Salt Lake City Mosquito Abatement District. Along the way, I have also held various academic and professional positions, including serving as an adjunct professor; mentoring university students; conducting a deployment for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in response to a Zika virus outbreak; and delivering speeches and training workshops across the country. I am also the current president of the American Mosquito Control Association.
Knowledge, Skills and Training Needed
Anything can be taught to anyone, but curiosity should be your biggest attribute. Most of our employees are biology, entomology, ecology, or other science graduates, but we also have many employees who just fall in love with what we do and advance their careers through sheer hard work. What I really look for in an employee is passion, because that is what drives the most positive outcomes.
Advice for Students
If you find something you really love doing, you won’t work a day in your life. Be curious. Make your own observations. Ask questions, and think about how you would approach some of the challenges we are facing. Start an insect collection, have adventures, and go see the world. You may not get rich pursuing your passion, but you will live a happy and rewarding life with no regrets at the end.