How a Childhood Project Inspired a Life-Long Career
By Erika Machtinger, 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 more posts in the Standout ECPs series.
Michael Skvarla, Ph.D., is an extension educator and the director of the Insect Identification Laboratory at the Pennsylvania State University. While a Pennsylvania native, he graduated with his B.S. from Purdue University and his M.S. and Ph.D. from the University of Arkansas, all in entomology. His graduate studies and experience at the U.S. Department of Agriculture-Agricultural Research Service in Beltsville, Maryland, give him a broad background that comes in handy when a particularly unique specimen is submitted for identification.
Skvarla is an active outdoorsman who enjoys falconry and hunting, as well as restoring his 1900’s farmhouse in State College, Pennsylvania, where he lives with his wife, Sarah, and his three children. Below, Skvarla discusses how he landed in an entomology career and what the job presents to him today.
Machtinger: What got you interested in entomology?
Skvarla: When I was in Cub Scouts, maybe 7 or 8 years old, I had to make two collections. I already had a coin collection thanks to my mom’s interest in coin collecting but couldn’t come up with a second collection. My dad suggested an insect collection, but it was February and there were a few inches of snow, so I scoffed at the idea. Undeterred, my dad took me into the woods and found a fallen log. When we pulled back the bark, there were all kinds of hibernating insects, and the excitement I felt that day never went away.
What are some of the responsibilities of your current position?
The main responsibility of my position is to identify insects and other arthropods submitted to the department. Approximately half of the requests are via email, while the other half are physical specimens sent via the county extension offices or directly by clients. Most ID requests come from the general public, but I also receive requests from people in agricultural and pest control industries, among others. In addition to ID requests, I also field general inquiries to the department—for example, when and where will the periodical cicadas emerge in Pennsylvania?—write and revise fact sheets, give extension talks on a range of subjects—last year I spoke about ticks, invasive forest pests, spiders of Pennsylvania, and arthropod bioluminescence—curate the Frost Entomological Museum, and conduct limited, generally collaborative, research.
What is the most enjoyable part of your work?
The uncertainty of knowing what specimens I’ll be asked to identify day to day. While there are definitely seasonal trends, it keeps work fresh and exciting to see new specimens. And while 90 percent of submissions are the same 30 to 40 home and garden pests, occasionally I get something unique and unexpected, like these bethylid wasps that were stinging a homeowner because they were parasitizing the powderpost beetles that were infesting his rafters.
As a hunter and a falconer, you clearly have a love for the outdoors. Have these areas of your life influenced any research or entomological inquiry or vice versa?
Without a doubt. I prefer to be outdoors and, in the woods, specifically, so all of my previous research has focused on forest systems, particularly forest leaf litter. I haven’t worked much in other natural settings such as grasslands and do not think I would enjoy working in an urban setting or on strictly applied projects. Recently, I’ve been working on deer keds, which are external parasites of deer. It’s been interesting working with hunters and the hunting community, as they’re generally very interested in the research and helping in any way they can. I’d love to work with falconers too but haven’t come up with a suitable project to leverage them yet.
Any “#FieldworkFails” you’d like to share?
There are many, but the most vivid is when I was collecting leaf litter for Berlese extraction along a fallen log and accidentally grabbed an adult copperhead. At least, I assume I grabbed it, as I don’t actually remember the event. One moment I was at the log, the next I was 10 feet back on my butt, and everything in between is black. I guess I subconsciously recognized the snake and my fight-or-fight response kicked in. After I caught my breath, I took some photos of the snake, which seemed pretty unperturbed by the incident.
What is your favorite arthropod and why?
I prefer working with understudied or, in my perception, underappreciated groups. It’s hard to pick just one, but the group of arthropods I would most like to work with more is Mecoptera. There’s just something about scorpionflies.
Erika Machtinger, Ph.D., is an assistant professor of entomology at the Pennsylvania State University and the Medical, Urban & Veterinary Entomology Section representative to the ESA Early-Career Professionals Committee. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Photos courtesy of Michael Skvarla, Ph.D.
Thank you. I got started at 5-6 years old, and even had my maternal grandmother write to National Geographic to correct a published entomologist who claimed that Monarch caterpillars were parasitized by a wasp and not Tachinid flies. My work with Monarchs then got me on a lifelong crusade against Tachinids albeit interrupted as to anything productive for another 60-61 years. I now raise and monitor them regularly and contribute Tachinid specifimens (rather than merely torturing them) to the the Monarch Larva Monitoring Project. My point is that those early experiences can be magical and pivotal even if not ultimately attaining a dream career as an entomologist like Dr. Skvarla.