Coming Full Circle: How an Entomologist’s Experience With Vector-Borne Diseases Inspired Her to Study Them
By Karen Poh, 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.
Ashley Kennedy, Ph.D., BCE, currently serves as the Delaware Tick Biologist in the state Division of Fish and Wildlife, where she focuses on tick surveillance in the state to shed light on which tick species are present, when and where they are most abundant, and their infectivity rate with various pathogens. Once she establishes baseline data, she will shift her focus toward implementing a statewide integrated tick management plan. Prior to joining the Delaware Division of Fish and Wildlife, Ashley earned her B.A. in psychological and brain sciences and studied animal behavior at Johns Hopkins University and then earned her M.S. and Ph.D. at the University of Delaware in the Department of Entomology and Wildlife Ecology. After her Ph.D., Ashley was an Oak Ridge Institute for Science and Education (ORISE) Postdoctoral Fellow with the Tick-Borne Disease Laboratory at the U.S. Army Public Health Center.
Ashley has also been an active member of ESA, presenting her research for the first time at the 2010 Annual Meeting in San Diego. Since then, she has become more involved with the organization, serving as a student volunteer during the conference, participating as an Entomology Games competitor, advocating as an ESA Science Policy Fellow, and getting involved as a member of various committees. Most recently, Ashley was elected as the Eastern Branch President for the 2022-2023 term.
Poh: Your Ph.D. focused on the interactions between insects and birds and required some community involvement. What inspired you to pursue this topic and include a community science component in the project? What were some of the major findings of your dissertation?
Kennedy: Most people know that birds eat insects, but most records of these interactions in the literature were very generalized, identifying prey only to the ordinal level (beetles, caterpillars, etc.). I wanted to compile a much more detailed record of bird-insect interactions. Knowing which kinds of insects are most important to birds could help us make better decisions about land management (i.e., help us to turn our yards into better insect habitat for those groups).
My goal was to collect as many photos as possible of birds bringing arthropod prey to their nestlings. I realized that a team of community scientists would be able to capture far more data (and far more geographic and taxonomic diversity) than I could alone. By the end of my project, more than 1,200 people had contributed photos of more than 320 bird species. (Even species that are considered frugivorous or granivorous will provision their nestlings with insects).
The major finding was that caterpillars tend to dominate the nestling diet—more than one-third of all the arthropod prey documented were caterpillars. That’s hugely important because most caterpillars are host-plant specialists, depending on a particular plant lineage to survive, so they are more at risk of population declines when landscapes become invaded by non-native plants. Seeing just how vital caterpillars are to birds is a good reminder that we need to selectively plant native plants. Research by my advisor, Doug Tallamy, and colleagues Desiree Narango and Kimberley Shropshire indicates that a few plant genera (such as Quercus, the oaks) are especially good at producing caterpillars; they’ve termed them “keystone plants” to emphasize their disproportionately important role in the ecosystem.
How did you first get interested in entomology?
I know many ESA members are “born entomologists,” and I greatly admire their focus and passion that began so early in life, but I must admit I am not one of them! I started out being generally interested in all animals, but, candidly, I was much more interested in the bigger, fuzzier ones at first. (I studied vervet monkeys for my senior thesis.) When I was in college, I did a wildlife study abroad program in Kenya and got malaria. It was the sickest I’ve ever been, which gave me a healthy respect for mosquitoes and their associated pathogens. Combined with contracting Lyme disease when I was just a toddler, this experience sparked my interest in medical entomology and led me to apply to entomology M.S. programs.
Since graduating with your Ph.D., you’ve worked with the military and now the state of Delaware. Tell us about your experiences working in the military and government sectors. What did you do or currently do in these positions? Did you always plan to go into the military or government sector? What do you enjoy the most about working in these sectors? Any advice for those looking to go into the military or government?
For me, government has been a better fit than academia or industry would have been. Both at the federal and state level, I’ve enjoyed the stability and benefits that a government job offers, and I certainly don’t miss the “publish-or-perish” dynamic of academia.
Going into it, I didn’t realize how much scientific research the government and military sector does. I think there’s a lot more potential for a rewarding career in this sphere than most scientists realize as we are coming up through the academic pipeline. We have so little opportunity for exposure to this sector during grad school; most of our mentor figures are professors, so professorship seems like the natural “next step,” but I definitely encourage students to seek out and network with government entomologists at meetings to get a glimpse into their careers.
As a member of ESA, you have presented in all four ESA Sections, which is a huge accomplishment! Tell us about your experience with ESA and how you got the unique opportunity to present in the different Sections. Do you have or have you held any leadership positions in ESA?
I didn’t set out to get involved in all Sections, but my interests have been all over the place and wound up taking me in various directions! When I started out as a master’s student, my thesis project was about delphacid planthopper taxonomy, so I joined SysEB (Systematics, Evolution, and Biodiversity). When I became a Ph.D. student, I presented my research in P-IE (Plant-Insect Ecosystems) because my project was more ecological in nature (investigating bird-insect food webs) and in PBT (Physiology, Biochemistry, and Toxicology) because one chapter of my dissertation was about characterizing carotenoid levels across different arthropod groups. Lastly, my postdoc and current position are related to MUVE (Medical, Urban, and Veterinary Entomology) because I now work on ticks
When I first joined ESA, my involvement was limited to presenting my research and volunteering at meetings. Eventually, I got involved as a member of the Committee on Student Affairs (Branch and national). My involvement in ESA went up a notch in 2017 when I applied to be a Science Policy Fellow—one of the best experiences I’ve ever had, by the way! My next challenge, as Eastern Branch President-Elect, is planning for the 2023 Eastern Branch meeting. I’m excited to share that it will be in Providence, Rhode Island.
What is one tip you would give to new members (regular, ECPs, student, etc.) of ESA so that they can make the most of their experience in the organization?
Increased involvement in ESA has been hugely rewarding. I’ve always felt that I’ve gotten more out of ESA than I’ve put into it, and I don’t know if I’ll ever make up that debt. Serving on committees or helping to plan symposia or other events requires some time and effort, but it pays back tenfold in the form of meeting and learning from new colleagues and helping to shape the direction the Society’s moving in. Some forms of involvement may seem daunting; imposter syndrome can creep in when you consider applying for an award or running for an elected position within the Society, but you should go for it—there’s no harm in trying, and you might have a better chance than you think you do!
You’ve worked with plenty of insects and other arthropods throughout your career so far. What has been your favorite insect or arthropod to study thus far and why? Do you have any wish-list insects or arthropods you hope to study or encounter in the future?
For now, I’m thrilled to be working with ticks because I find them endlessly fascinating. I’d eventually like to branch out to work with other medically important arthropods, like kissing bugs.
How do you like to spend your time winding down from a busy work day or week?
A typical evening for me is just reading a good book to unwind. Pre-pandemic, I was a big fan of themed parties and comic cons (really any excuse to dress in a ridiculous costume), so I’m looking forward to getting back into that. My partner and I have a lot of pets (two dogs, three cats, and 15 chickens), which are great companions and de-stressors for me. My dogs and I volunteer regularly at a state prison. Inmates enjoy being able to hug and pet a friendly doggo to ease some of the stress and loneliness they experience.
Karen Poh, Ph.D., is a postdoctoral scholar in the Department of Entomology at Penn State University and is the Medical, Urban, and Veterinary Entomology Section Representative of the ESA Early Career Professionals Committee. Twitter: @areyoukeddingme. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.
All photos courtesy of Ashley Kennedy, Ph.D., BCE.