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Why One Entomologist Had to Become a “Coordination Gladiator”

Machtinger mouse sampling

White-footed mice are a reservoir host for Borrelia burgdorferi, the causative agent of Lyme disease. Here, entomologist Erika Machtinger, Ph.D., takes a tissue sample from a captured mouse to be tested for B. burgdorferi and other pathogens, part of a tick-control field study Machtinger managed in her postdoctoral research position. (Photo credit: Andrew Li)

By Rob Morrison, Ph.D.

Editor’s Note: This post marks the start of a new series by the Entomological Society of America’s Early Career Professionals (ECP) Committee, highlighting outstanding ECPs that are doing great work in the profession. (An ECP is defined as anyone within the first five years of obtaining their terminal degree in their field.) We’ve titled this series “Standout ECPs” and will be drawing on individuals that have won ECP awards from ESA. Learn more about the work ECPs are doing within ESA, and stay tuned for future posts in the Standout ECPs series.

Erika Machtinger, Ph.D.

Erika Machtinger, Ph.D.

Erika Machtinger, Ph.D., is a new assistant professor at Penn State University, working in disease biology and veterinary entomology. Erika was the 2017 recipient of ESA’s ECP Teaching Award, and she previously served with distinction on the ESA ECP Committee. Below, we ask her a few short questions about her research, and we hope that you’ll enjoy learning about her background and some of the great work she is doing.

Morrison: What is your favorite aspect (or coolest thing) about your research area?

Machtinger: The mission of my lab is to investigate the ecological relationships between vertebrates and their ectoparasites, to facilitate the development of control methods and integrated pest management strategies. This involves working directly with both the invertebrate pests and vertebrate hosts.

My background (before the love of arthropods took over) is in wildlife biology, so my favorite part of my research is that I can combine both of my strengths to investigate these relationships. Over the past few years, I have spent more time collecting arthropods on wildlife than off!

We have several ongoing projects that require white-tailed deer, white-footed mouse, and American black bear trapping that I’ve been able to coordinate and be directly involved in.

What is a challenge that you solved during your most recent project?

At my post-doc position at the U.S. Department of Agriculture before moving to Penn State, I was the field coordinator for a multi-institution tick control project. The biggest challenge was juggling all the pieces and people.

We were soliciting private homeowners to participate in the project, trapping white-tailed deer nearly every night in the winter, trapping hundreds of white-footed mice before dawn in the summer, tick sampling over hundreds of acres, tracking deer collars weekly, vegetation sampling, and deploying tick control methods and managing those tools. We had a consistent field staff of six, countless rotating volunteers, and laboratory support and were working closely with multiple institutions and landowners that had to provide permission for our daily activities. On top of that, much of our work couldn’t be done with any wind or precipitation! I definitely felt like a coordination gladiator.

Why did you become an entomologist, and what drew you to this field?

I was originally set on being an ornithologist. I did my undergraduate work at the University of Delaware in Wildlife Conservation and Ecology. Their program is heavily influenced by the entomology group, and it was literally my first day and first class in college that would set the tone for my career.

Our instructor came in, did a brief introduction, and then promptly released about a dozen Madagascar hissing cockroaches on the floor. You have never seen adults move so fast to climb on chairs and desks as that day. I was one of the few that remained in my seat, fascinated as he spoke about all the different sounds of communication the species used. I realized after I digested this a bit that insects were really, really weird! The strange, unique, and bizarre things that they did was amazing to me, and I was hooked.

I completed my degree in wildlife but, in subsequent environmental positions, was always the one that everyone went to for ID or information on a type of insect they found. I really enjoyed that, and it was an easy decision when I decided to get a graduate degree in entomology.

If you could be any arthropod, which would you pick and why?

Definitely nothing I study! People would be trying to kill me all the time.

I think I would pick the jumping ant, Harpegnathos saltator. I like the idea of living in a social environment where everyone works hard. Hard work is something I value over most traits. However, unlike many social insects where a worker is a worker, a soldier a soldier, or a queen a queen, there are only slight differences between workers and queens in these jumping ants. There are upward trajectories for those that work hard in life!

To find out more about Erika’s research program and lab, please check out her page on the Penn State Department of Entomology website.

Rob Morrison, Ph.D., is a research entomologist at the USDA-Agricultural Research Service, Center for Grain and Animal Health Research, in the Stored Product Insects and Engineering Research Unit, in Manhattan, Kansas, and the 2017-2018 chair of the ESA Early Career Professionals Committee. Twitter: @morrisonlabUSDA. Email:

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