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How One Entomologist Made His Way From Academic Probation to the Smithsonian

Yuanmeng Miles Zhang, Ph.D.

Meet Yuanmeng Miles Zhang, Ph.D., research associate at the USDA Systematic Entomology Lab at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History, parasitoid-wasp expert, meme aficionado, Beijing native, and subject of the next installment of our “Standout Early Career Professionals” series. Here, Zhang gets up close and personal with a giant walkingstick (Megaphasma denticrus) in Texas. (Photo courtesy of Yuanmeng Miles Zhang, Ph.D.)

By Carly Tribull, 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.

Yuanmeng Miles Zhang, Ph.D., is a research associate at the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Systematic Entomology Lab at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History in Washington, DC, where he studies the taxonomy, systematics, and phylogenomics of parasitoid wasps. He earned his bachelor’s degree in zoology at the University of Guelph in 2009, his master’s degree in biology at Laurentian University in 2012, and his Ph.D. in biology at the University of Manitoba and University of Central Florida in 2018. His Ph.D. research investigated the evolution and speciation of euphorine braconid wasps, using a combination of multilocus phylogenetics and population genomic techniques combined with traditional taxonomy. Before taking his position at the USDA, he was a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Florida.

Tribull: What led to you becoming an entomologist, and what were the biggest challenges you faced along the way?

Zhang: My grandparents made me an aerial net and would take me bug hunting in nearby parks as a child, so, despite growing up in a big city without an abundance of nature (Beijing), I fell in love with insects and the natural world.

Being a first-generation student from an immigrant family made my undergraduate degree somewhat challenging, and my grades were far from stellar. I was on academic probation after the 1st year! So, despite my passion and training in insect taxonomy, I had difficulty finding a graduate advisor until Dr. Joe Shorthouse at Laurentian University decided to take a chance with me to work on parasitoid wasps associated with rose galls.

I’ve moved to multiple cities and countries for school or jobs and switched study organisms many times along the way, but it is nice to finally go full circle and revisit the gall wasp system in my current position.

Can you describe your current research?

My current research mostly revolves around taxonomy, systematics, and phylogenomics of parasitoid wasps, in particular chalcid wasps in the family Eurytomidae. Eurytomids are found across many different hosts, feeding either on the plant tissue, on the herbivorous insects, or even a combination of the two. Unfortunately, we know very little about these diverse and abundant creatures, mostly due to their small size and lack of taxonomic attention, despite including agricultural pest species such as the Almond Seed Wasp and Citrus Gall Wasp.

Luckily, one of the major perks of working at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History is having access to one of the best entomological collections in the world, so, working together with my advisor Dr. Michael Gates and a team of international collaborators, we are in the process of generating a robust phylogeny from museum specimens using a target-capture method—ultraconserved elements, or UCEs—that targets thousands of loci. Our preliminary data already show interesting patterns that differ from previous morphological studies, so there will undoubtedly be upcoming taxonomic revisions and a deeper understanding of macroevolutionary processes such as host switches, biogeography, and diversification rates.

Zhang’s research focuses on chalcid wasps in the family Eurytomidae, such as Sycophila quercilanae. “Eurytomids are found across many different hosts, feeding either on the plant tissue, on the herbivorous insects, or even a combination of the two,” he says. “Unfortunately, we know very little about these diverse and abundant creatures, mostly due to their small size and lack of taxonomic attention.” (Photo courtesy of Yuanmeng Miles Zhang, Ph.D.)

What’s your favorite aspect of your research? 

The flexibility and the freedom of my position allows me to pursue different aspects of biology, from taxonomy, phylogenetics, and paleontology to bioinformatics. I started my entomological career wanting to be a traditional taxonomist, but now I find myself spending more and more time coding, and I really enjoy the contrast. Of course, the excitement of finding a potential new species is always exciting, and there is something oddly calming about sorting malaise trap samples or point-mounting wasps.

It seems like you have a real interest in outreach and using social media in outreach. Can you tell us about how that came to be?

Social media has a much more far-reaching potential than traditional outreach, especially during this strange time that we find ourselves in. It also works well for introverts such as myself that thrive on sharing our passion in a setting and pace that works for us. I jumped on the Twitter bandwagon relatively early in the game, and I still remember our ESA tweet ups were small events with maybe about a dozen or so individuals at first, and now it gets bigger every year.

As for the Entomology Memes Facebook group, that was something we started as a joke to share our nerdy bug jokes, and now we have 20,000-plus followers from around the world. I love to see people commenting about having learned something cool about insects from a meme.

What’s your favorite Entomology Meme so far?

Oh, it is so hard to choose one. The one that consistently brings a smile to my face is the one featuring a tarantula hawk (Pompilidae) with its paralyzed Spider-Man prey.

What advice would you give current early-career professional entomologists?

Don’t just read papers on your study group or insects. There are often parallel questions and novel techniques in other systems that can be applied to your own work. Especially if you can adopt some of these novel techniques into your own system.

If you could go back in time, what advice would you give to your undergraduate- or graduate-student self?

Learn more stats and math! I always have trouble understanding the mathematical formulas behind some of the key phylogenetics and population genetics studies, and I think it stems from my weak background in math.

What is one thing you would change about the field of entomology?

I want to see more basic research—ecology, evolutionary biology, conservation—as our field is traditionally associated with agricultural and applied research. Insects are phenomenal systems to ask cool questions, and I wish more people, the general public and other scientists included, can appreciate them beyond being pest species.

As a Hymenoptera taxonomist and systematist, what do you think are the biggest challenges facing these two fields in the near future?

It is a very exciting time to be a taxonomist and systematist, as the enormous leaps in molecular and computational techniques have expedited our work. The perpetual lack of funding in collections and collection-based research remains frustrating, and many museums are affected by COVID-19.

Recently the mega-taxonomy journal Zootaxa was stripped of its impact factor due to “excessive self-citation”; luckily, that was reversed due to massive outrage. This just shows how little we are appreciated as a field, even among other biologists. It is also an important reminder that the deposition of voucher specimens at collections to ensure reproducibility extends beyond just taxonomic research, just like how DNA sequences and R/Python scripts are often required to be deposited at public repositories at the time of publication.

So, I think we should provide better public engagement and outreach for the importance of collection-based research. Similarly, we need to advocate the importance of collections to other biologists such as ecologists and evolutionary biologists, especially when these emerging fancy “museuomics” studies rely heavily on well-preserved and curated records. I hope that non-taxonomists can collaborate with us and cite our work, and of course I hope for more funding opportunities for training and research.

Carly Tribull, Ph.D., is an assistant professor of biology at Farmingdale State College and 2020-2021 vice chair of the ESA Early-Career Professionals Committee. Email: cmtribull@gmail.com.

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