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Athlete to Professor: How One Entomologist Discovered His Interest in Bugs, Education, and Service

Jacob Bova in the field

Jacob Bova, a medical entomologist and professor at Emory and Henry College, focuses his research on ecophysiology of insect cold tolerance and diapause and on vectors and vector-borne diseases in southwestern Virginia.

By Nicholas R. Larson, 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.

Jacob Bova received his Ph.D. in entomology from Virginia Tech in the summer of 2018.  He then started at Emory and Henry College as a tenure-track assistant professor. In addition to this position, he serves as a medical entomologist in the United States Army Reserve (USAR) and is a commander of a preventive medicine detachment (PM DET).

His research interests focus on the ecophysiology of insect cold tolerance and diapause and on vectors and vector-borne diseases in southwestern Virginia. He is also interested in science communication—he created the Relax. I’m an Entomologist Facebook page and for the past seven years has co-run the page to help communicate the science of entomology. Below, we ask Jake how he got interested in entomology and the career paths he has chosen.

Larson: How did you become interested in entomology?

Bova: Ultimately, good professors.

“Every kid has a bug period … I never grew out of mine” – E.O. Wilson.

This wasn’t me. I appreciated the natural world as a kid, but my “bug period” hit in my undergraduate studies. I was a varsity swimmer at Virginia Tech and embarrassingly only started taking my coursework seriously once I found an area of study I considered interesting. That happened to be entomology. My foray into the world of entomology started like many others; I took the traditional “Insects and Human Society” class that multiple land-grant universities offer. Luckily, I had a great professor that allowed me to foster my new fascination with what I considered at the time to be a bizarre science. I recognized that I had more than a passing interesting in entomology, and as a huge plus, that I could actually get a job in this area of biology. As I enrolled in additional coursework within the entomology department, the more I fell in love with science. I distinctly remember learning about cicada killers in my undergraduate Insect Biology lecture and being so enthralled by the material that I said to myself, “I can’t believe I get to learn about this.” As my self-identity transitioned away from being a swimmer, I was fortunate enough to have outstanding professors guide me to become an entomologist.

Why did you establish the “Relax. I’m an Entomologist” Facebook page?

Jacob Bova wearing "Relax. I'm an Entomologist" t-shirt

Jacob Bova of Emory and Henry College wearing a t-shirt inspired by the “Relax. I’m an Entomologist” Facebook page, which he founded. Today he co-runs the page with Rea Manderino, a Ph.D. candidate at the State University of New York.

At first, I wanted to create a Facebook page for graduate students that put all pertinent insect news in one location, but as the page grew, I realized there was a demand for accurate insect information on social media communicated in a succinct and interesting manner to all those with an interest in entomology. The page is not about self-promotion. It’s about communicating the science of entomology. I believe social media is a wonderful tool that enables scientists to be more available and relatable to those not working within our specific areas of study.

The World Economic Forum declared digital misinformation a main threat to human society, and social media is rife with it. By refuting these aspersions at their source, hopefully we stave off their spread.  However, we are faced with something called the “Brandolini’s Asymmetry Principle” that states: “The amount of energy needed to refute [misinformation] is an order of magnitude bigger than to produce it.” While this statement has not been scientifically tested, I believe there is a lot of truth to it, and in order to combat this, more scientifically-literate people are needed to enter into the public arena on social media.

Running the Relax. I’m an Entomologist page is one of the most enjoyable projects I have pursued, and I do it simply because it’s fun and I consider it a worthwhile endeavor. Unfortunately, as I started my tenure-track appointment and after taking command of a PM DET in the USAR, I haven’t had as much time as I would prefer for the Facebook page. Fortuitously, I co-run the page with Rea Manderino, a Ph.D. candidate at the State University of New York. She has picked up much of my slack and is obviously doing an excellent job.

What is your favorite aspect about working at a liberal arts college?

The opportunity to teach is my favorite aspect about working at a liberal arts college. The one constant for me throughout the emotional roller coaster that was graduate school was teaching. I had the privilege to teach as a graduate student teaching assistant throughout the majority of my graduate student tenure and knew teaching was what I ultimately wanted to do.

The largest class size at Emory and Henry is around 25 students. This allows professors to have a more familiar relationship with their students and tailor the learning environment to the students’ needs. I know all my students. And my job is to help motivate my students to realize their passion, create goals, and eventually, to help them reach those goals.

We also conduct undergraduate research at Emory and Henry. Our biology bachelors of science students are all required to create and execute personal research projects spanning multiple years. These projects at the undergraduate level are as much about the learning process as the data generated. All students who graduate from our program are familiar with the scientific process and the rigors of research, which helps prepare them for post-graduate studies and a competitive career field.

In addition to being an assistant professor, you are also a Captain within the U.S. Army Reserve, serving as a medical entomologist. What made you decide to join and what is the most interesting aspect of what you do?

I’ve always been drawn to the military and wanted to serve. I missed the comradery I found as an athlete and actually had this goal in mind when I set out to pursue my graduate education in entomology.

The Army presents its own unique challenges, and as the commander of a PM DET, I rarely have the chance to work as an entomologist. I focus more on the administrative aspect of running a company-level unit, but as a PM DET we conduct operations involving vector-borne disease surveillance, industrial hygiene, food-preparation inspections, water quality analyses, epidemiology, and many other public health-related areas in which to protect service members from disease and non-battlefield injuries.

For me, the most interesting aspect of serving in the USAR is the opportunity to lead. Leadership is a major focus for the military, and as a commander I’ve really honed this skill set. The benefits and leadership lessons learned from my military service regularly transition into my civilian career.

Finally, if you could give any advice to budding entomologists, what would you tell them?

If you’re looking at graduate school, vet any lab you wish to join. Talk to current and previous graduate students from the lab to ensure the skill set you obtain will prepare you for the career you desire.

Everyone’s path is different and fraught with obstacles unique to the individual. The worst thing you can possibly do after you obtain a degree and overcome those obstacles is not to have found something you’re passionate about. So, find your passion and do what makes you happy, but always have a goal in mind. Continuously achieving small goals leads to achieving big dreams.

Nicholas R. Larson, Ph.D., has a joint appointment as a post-doctoral researcher with Towson University and the USDA-ARS. He serves as the Plant-Insect Ecosystems representative to the ESA Early Career Professionals Committee.

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