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Why Both Teaching and Learning Drew One Entomologist Back to Academia

Scott O'Neal - Talking about bees

Scott O’Neal, Ph.D., postdoctoral researcher and instructor at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, specializes in insect physiology and immune function. His current research is divided between projects related to bee health, acaricide resistance in the bee parasite Varroa destructor, and toxicology of disease vector mosquitoes.

By Monique Rivera, Ph.D.

Editor’s Note: This is the next post in the “Standout ECPs” series contributed 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.) Learn more about the work ECPs are doing within ESA, and read past posts in the Standout ECPs series.

Scott O'Neal, Ph.D.

Scott O’Neal, Ph.D.

Scott O’Neal, Ph.D., is currently a postdoctoral research associate and instructor in the Department of Entomology at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. As a doctoral candidate, Scott was the recipient of a prestigious predoctoral fellowship from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Institute for Food and Agriculture (USDA NIFA). More recently, he was awarded the ESA North Central Branch Excellence in Early Career Award, in addition to being named a finalist for the 2018 American Chemical Society AGRO Division New Investigator Award. Below, we ask Scott a few questions about his research and the inspiration for his career choice.

Rivera: What is the main goal of your research?

O’Neal: The main goal is to better understand how environmental stressors interact with insect physiological systems, especially immune function, to influence health and survival. I suppose that “stress biology” might be a suitable way to classify my work, though I find it difficult to narrow my interests down to just one specific area. Depending on how you look at it, my research explores insect physiology, toxicology, immune function, and understanding how processes are regulated at the cellular and molecular level.

I am also really interested in the pathogens that infect insects, especially viruses. You can see these interests converging in the work that I have been publishing in recent years. My doctoral research focused on investigating cardiac ion channel-mediated regulation of antiviral immunity in honey bees, and I also began exploring how exposure to certain pesticides can potentially influence antiviral immune function. I suppose that we could even describe some of my current projects as insect pharmacology or pharmacotherapy, since I am trying to learn whether or not we can use compounds that target this regulatory mechanism to enhance honey bee immunity and survival.

Have you always studied bees? How did this come to be your study organism?

I have not always studied bees. Even now, I would hesitate to label myself as strictly a “bee person,” or perhaps it would be more accurate to say that I am not interested just in bees. As an undergraduate researcher and for a few years after earning my B.S. in genetics and microbiology, I worked in a research lab focused on wheat genetics and Hessian fly resistance. I earned my M.S. in forensic science and then went on to work for almost a decade as a researcher in the field of mammalian pharmacology.

When I decided to go back to graduate school to earn my Ph.D., I knew that I wanted to conduct research in entomology, and I initially approached it from more of a human health focus. I started out working in a molecular virology lab that studied interactions between the immune response of vector mosquitoes and pathogens like chikungunya virus and yellow fever virus that cause human disease. When my advisor was recruited away to another institution, I chose to remain at Virginia Tech to finish my degree and ended up working in a toxicology lab instead. That is where I first started working with honey bees. I wrote a grant proposal for a USDA NIFA fellowship to fund a project investigating ion channel regulation of immunity in bees. It was awarded, and so naturally my research focused primarily on honey bees as a model organism for a while. I was excited about this opportunity, though. Beekeeping has always been something that I wanted to do, and bees are simply amazing insects, so I have really enjoyed having the opportunity to venture down this path.

In my current position as a postdoc, however, I have been trying to widen my scope a bit. My research is divided between projects related to bee health, acaricide resistance in the bee parasite Varroa destructor, and toxicology of disease vector mosquitoes. I feel like it has been a rather winding path to get to the point that I am at now, but with each turn I get to learn something new while still finding ways to apply my previous skills and experience.

What is the most interesting research challenge that you have encountered and what was your approach to solving it?

The thing about abruptly changing your research focus, as well as the model organism that you study, is that you must always contend with a learning curve. I had so much to learn about working with honey bees, and I could not have done it without the help that I received from all of the great people around me that guided and taught me. Still, there were things that I had to figure out on my own, and one of the biggest challenges was figuring out how I would carry out viral infection studies in bees. This was central to my research project.

Having previously worked with mosquitoes and Drosophila as model organisms, I discovered there was much I had taken for granted. The viruses I had used in the past could be readily propagated in the lab using standard cell lines and cell culture techniques. Not so with honey bee viruses. I initially thought that I would be able to develop both an infectious clone of a honey bee virus as well as a honey bee cell culture line to maintain and propagate it, but it soon became apparent that this was beyond the scope of my project. Instead, I drew on my experience and approached the problem from a different direction. I chose to develop a testing paradigm using a model insect virus as a surrogate and ultimately used it to complete my research objectives. It was an excellent lesson in recognizing limitations.

You also have a keen interest in teaching and outreach. How did you come to this interest and where do you see its role in the next stage of your career?

Teaching has been an important part of my life since I was a teenager, and my desire to teach at the college/university level is what led me to return to graduate school.

One of the reasons that I did not pursue a doctoral education sooner in my life is that I became very involved in the Olympic sport of fencing, both as a competitor and a coach. In addition to competing at an international level for many years, I was also the head coach of the Purdue University Fencing Club for a few years, and then later ran the Richmond Fencing Club as both head coach and director for about seven years. In addition to teaching people of all ages and from all backgrounds, I planned classes, trained other instructors, and got to know and work with some really amazing people. It was also exhausting, as I have always worked in research full time and did all of this on the side, filling my evenings and weekends. At some point, I had to acknowledge that my lifestyle was not sustainable.

I realized that coaching a sport and running a business was not the career that I wanted for the rest of my life, but I loved teaching and would not be doing that if I remained a research lab manager, so that is why I went back to graduate school. I am currently teaching a graduate level insecticide toxicology course, as well as a high-enrollment undergraduate level biology lab course. I love being in a university, teaching science, talking to people about science, and conducting research. I want to find a career in academia that combines some or all of these things, especially teaching.

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

A dragonfly! I have always thought that dragonflies and damselflies are amazing and beautiful. You start your life as this incredible aquatic insect with these unique adaptations for hunting and propulsion, then you get to become one of the most awesome aerial predators around. Maybe there is even a metaphor in there somewhere for being able to excel at different things over the course of your life. I really just think they are cool, though.

Monique Rivera, Ph.D., is an assistant cooperative extension specialist at the University of California, Riverside. She is also the Pacific Branch Representative to the ESA Early Career Professionals Committee. Email: moniquejoyrivera@gmail.com.

All photos courtesy of Scott O’Neal, Ph.D.

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