A Coast-to-Coast Tour Lands One Entomologist on the Home Team
By James M. Wilson, 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.
Hamilton Allen, Ph.D., BCE, is the Florida regional technical director for HomeTeam Pest Defense in Tampa-St. Petersburg, Florida. Before working with HomeTeam, Allen served as technical director for Senske Services located in Kennewick, Washington. Allen is originally from Johnston, South Carolina, and graduated from Clemson University with his doctoral degree in entomology in 2017. As a graduate student member of ESA, Allen participated on Virginia Tech’s and Clemson’s Linnaean Games teams and served as the 2014 Southeastern Branch Linnaean Games Student Chair.
Wilson: Why did you become an entomologist, and what drew you to this field?
Allen: Similar to many entomologists, my affinity for insects surfaced during childhood. I was fascinated with any critter within eyesight; however, ants, particularly fire ants, were my first research interest. My uncle’s yard was littered with fire ant mounds, which prevented my cousins and me from having a safe play area. So, my uncle made it his goal to get rid of the ants. He tried all of the Southern “folk remedies” including grits, boiling water, dumping ants from nearby mounds onto one another, and setting the mounds on fire.
The last technique was my favorite because he enlisted me to be his little fire chief, and my job was to ventilate the mounds by stirring them with a shovel. After doing this the mounds would decrease in size yet multiply in number. Throughout high school and college, I continued to think about the resilient fire ants. One day, I took a trip to the library to read about fire ants, and I stumbled onto a few research papers by Dr. Walter Tschinkel and Dr. Sanford Porter detailing the structural characteristics of fire ant nests and the ants’ responses to disturbance. Finally, I had the answers that I had been looking for, and during those library moments I decided to become an entomologist.
Out of the various research projects you have completed in the pursuit of your degrees, what has been the most interesting part of it to you so far?
The most prominent aspect of research for me is having the opportunity to observe organisms in the environment and attempting to provide reasoning for behavior. Out of all the research projects, my master’s thesis was my favorite because I had the opportunity to pursue my dream: I worked on fire ant management in Virginia. In 2006, fire ants were public enemy number one for Virginia’s Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services due to a recent death related due to fire ant stings and I had the privilege of being the first person to study fire ants within the state.
Your career seems to be focused on managing the interactions between pest insects and people. What kind of skills have helped you to be so successful in this area?
Before entering the pest management industry, I believed that pest knowledge would be the skill most useful to my position as technical director. However, in recent years my skills have changed to include communication and empathy.
Empathy might be the most important aspect. Each day, I have the opportunity to assist a family or business with an issue that is unfamiliar to them. Bed bugs and cockroaches are two pests that can cause mental anguish and depression. I’ve learned how to share information in a way that is useful to consumers that explains proper management processes using emotional intelligence techniques to address their concerns.
I tend to think of urban pest management as a social science, because, in addition to having pest knowledge, we must employ a degree of emotional intelligence. Emotional intelligence allows us to relate to customer issues and to quell our customer’s fears so that they can sleep better at night.
Your academic career has taken you to two different land grant institutions. How has working under the missions of those institutions helped prepare you for your career?
Go Hokies and Tigers! I was fortunate enough to attend land grant institutions that are known for excellence and innovation in science and engineering. I also learned that service was important from Virginia Tech’s motto, “Ut Prosim,” which translates into “That I May Serve,” and one of Clemson University’s missions, which is to mold those within her reach to establish a legacy of service.
Both of my graduate advisors served as examples for how scholars can engage in service through extension work and servant leadership. My participation in service ranged from teaching entomology to master gardeners to supplying information to pest management professionals.
I carry these missions forward today by previously training members of Washington State’s King County Housing Authority on bed bug management and currently working with undergraduate students in the Minorities in Agriculture, Natural Resources, and Related Sciences (MANNRS) organization to promote pursuing a career in the pest management industry.
Finally, what are your hobbies outside of work?
I am a novice bird watcher and plan on adding a few key species to my life list this year, a total college football fan, and footwear enthusiast. If you happen to see me outside of work, I’ll probably be wearing a pair of vibrant, Technicolor sneakers.
James M. Wilson, Ph.D., is the Extension apiculturist in the Department of Entomology at Virginia Tech, chair of the Eastern Branch Early Career Professionals Committee 2019-2020, and serves as the Eastern Branch Representative to the ESA Early Career Professionals Committee 2019-2020. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.
All photos courtesy of Hamilton Allen, Ph.D., BCE.