How One Entomologist Found Her Place in Public Health
By Erika Machtinger, Ph.D.
Editor’s Note: This post 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.
Natasha Agramonte, Ph.D., is currently an environmental health specialist at the DeKalb County Board of Health in Georgia. Her expertise is in the field of medical entomology, including West Nile virus surveillance. However, she also responds to urban entomology complaints. Prior to working for DeKalb County, Natasha was a research fellow at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in Atlanta.
Natasha received her bachelor’s degree in zoology and her master’s and doctorate degrees in entomology from the University of Florida. For more than 10 years she worked for the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s mosquito repellents laboratory and served as an institutional review board coordinator for three years in a joint position for the USDA and the Emerging Pathogens Institute, overseeing human-use studies for novel insect repellent development and insecticide efficacy.
Natasha has served as the American Mosquito Control Association Young Professionals Committee President and on the AMCA Science & Technology Committee. You can follow Natasha on Twitter at @mosquito_PhD.
Machtinger: Were you always interested in insects?
Agramonte: Yes, I grew up with a love for insects. I’ve always loved animals and considered being a vet or a zoonotic disease doctor when I was in high school. My high school self didn’t know that the CDC doctors I saw in Outbreak or in The Andromeda Strain were scientists and not medical doctors. My mother also collected butterflies when she was young and kept collections of them in boxes or displays in my house, so I was raised with a love and appreciation for insects, even if it was a career I did not consider until later in life.
What drove your interest in medical entomology?
I have been very interested in infectious disease, particularly zoonoses and blood-borne diseases for a long time. I studied zoology in undergrad but had not really considered studying insects until I took a class in fireflies in my junior year. The following year I took a job at the USDA working with mosquitoes in their repellents lab. When I discovered that mosquitoes and other insects were major players in blood-borne disease transmission, I was hooked.
What are your responsibilities in your current position?
In my current position, as an entomologist in the Environmental Health Division of the Board of Health, I get to do a little of a lot of different things. I am involved in the mosquito surveillance program for the county, trapping for West Nile vectors, identifying the mosquito species we trap, and sending them off to test for the presence of the virus. I also make house calls to residents in the county and help them with their mosquito issues on their property. In addition to my mosquito responsibilities, I investigate bed bug complaints at hotels, rodent complaints at homes and apartment complexes, restaurant complaints, and abandoned swimming pool complaints that are potentially breeding mosquitoes. I also assist with some of the other environmental health duties of my department that are not insect-related, such as inspecting public swimming pools, food establishments, hotels, and tattoo parlors for their safety and compliance with the local public health laws.
What do you find the most challenging about your current position?
Mosquito control and public health in general is difficult to fund. Some aspects of public health, those which involve the issuing of permits, have a funding mechanism built in based on the number of establishments in the area. Other issues such as mosquito control and addressing residential complaints are very reliant on funding from local and state budgets or individual grants. This makes providing consistent and effective public health interventions difficult year over year and subject to the vacillating interest of politicians and the public.
What is your favorite part about what you do?
I love the ability to interact with the public and educate them about insects and other disease vectors. While I love scientific research and spent much of the last 15 years in a lab, the ability to immediately see the result of your efforts by directly serving the public has been very rewarding.
What is your biggest goal to accomplish in your career?
I love learning and have long been a voracious reader, especially about the natural world. My career goals are two-fold: I hope to add to that collective knowledge about the workings of the natural world and I hope to inspire others to seek out that knowledge. Although I am an introvert and was quite shy growing up, I have been actively trying to share my love of that knowledge about the natural world via social media, writing, and talks on mosquitoes.
You are relatively recently married and a new mom: How has that affected your career—both the good and challenges?
The good is easy: I have a wonderful, supportive husband and a 2-year-old daughter that I love to pieces and who provides me with endless joy and emotional support. I always knew I wanted a family, and that was a something I deliberately considered with respect to my career. The challenges have been mostly logistical at this point in my career. While scientific work presents itself in a number of exciting locations, often in one- to two-year increments, I have had to pass up some of these exciting opportunities in favor of a stable living arrangement for my family. Additionally, when I have moved, as I recently did to Atlanta, Georgia, my husband and I had to consider locations that would benefit both of our careers in addition to considerations for our daughter and his mother, who also lives with us.
You recently finished your Ph.D. What were the specific challenges you faced while working during your graduate program?
The greatest challenges that I faced to finishing my Ph.D. while working was the time involved. I was employed full-time prior to starting my Ph.D. and continued to work full-time throughout my graduate program. As research can be unpredictable and inspiring oneself to write while having several other commitments has been a struggle for me, it took me seven years to finish my doctoral work and dissertation. Part of that included a “break” of a year and a half or so while I completed a research fellowship at the CDC and took a few months off afterward to spend with my newborn daughter. My committee was thankfully very supportive and patient with me.
If you could go back in time, what advice would you give to your undergraduate student self?
If I could go back in time, I would tell my undergraduate self to ignore individuals that underestimated me and my abilities and to work toward what I felt passionate about. I was surrounded by people at that time that discouraged my intellectual capability, and, being young, I listened to those voices instead of what I felt to be true.
Recently, you had a professional encounter with Bill Nye. What brought that about, and can you tell us more about it?
I’ve always heard that you should never meet your heroes, but I was very happy to defy that axiom when I met Bill Nye. The opportunity presented itself as part of a Twitter post that I did, when I participated in the #BillMeetScienceTwitter hashtag campaign. At that point, I had been involved in science communication via Twitter and Facebook for only a few years, but I was caught off guard when I received an innocuous email from a “television company.” I originally ignored the email, as it seemed very similar to the emails I regularly received from predatory journals, but by sheer luck I showed the email to my husband and he recognized the name of the production company. He then insisted that I call them, and I left a voicemail that I was interested in participating. I was interviewed via Skype a few days later where I previewed to the production assistant my segment and demonstration, and a week or so after that I was flying to Los Angeles with my husband. Bill Nye was so professional and charming; he really put me at ease for the filming of my segment. Even though I had given many conference talks before, I still get very nervous speaking in public because I am so determined to be as accurate as possible in what I convey.
What can we, as part of the entomological community, do to ensure the inclusion of minority voices in leadership?
In my opinion, the best way to ensure the inclusion of minority voices in leadership is to make sure that these minorities are retained through employment. One way to do this is to address systemic issues in hiring practices, which can exclude minorities from stable employment and prevent their continued involvement in the future of our field. There have been many diversity efforts to extend outreach to and stimulate interest in minority communities. While this is an admirable first step, the way to change the face of leadership in our field involves the continued support of these members in our community by making sure they get hired into our field after they invest their time and energy getting entomology degrees.
If you could be an insect, which would you choose and why?
If I could be an insect, I would be a hard tick. They are of medical importance as they vector several diseases. I would have a longer lifespan than most insects, about two years compared to a few weeks or months. I would get to sample a variety of hosts and see the world even without having wings by attaching myself to mammals. I would also have a large family to due to their high fecundity rate.
Erika Machtinger, Ph.D., is an assistant professor of entomology at Penn State University in University Park, Pennsylvania, and the Medical, Urban & Veterinary Entomology Section representative to the ESA Early Career Professionals Committee. Email: email@example.com.