Passion or Profession? Mid-Career Reflections of a Medical Entomologist
By Ary Faraji, Ph.D., BCE
Editor’s Note: This post is the next installment in the Professional Advancement Career Training (PACT) series on Entomology Today, featuring perspectives and advice on the leadership capacity and “soft skills” sought after in today’s highly collaborative work environments—both within and beyond academia. Learn more about the ESA’s PACT Initiative and read other posts in the PACT series.
“If it wasn’t for mosquitoes, I would have to actually work for a living!” Who said that? I did! And boy, oh boy, do I mean it.
I am lucky to be one of the small percentage of individuals that really enjoys going to work every day. But protecting public health through mosquito surveillance and control really isn’t work; it is a passion and not a profession. It is nice to actually get paid to do what you love, but if I had enough to just make ends meet, I would do this at no cost. I’m fortunate to be involved in a field that allows me to be challenged, to grow, to make a contribution, to leave a legacy, and, above all, to make a positive difference in the lives of everyday people, whether they realize it or not. What can be more rewarding than that? I stand by Kahlil Gibran’s ode that “to love life through labour is to be intimate with life’s inmost secret.”
But the Talking Heads and I often ask ourselves, “Well, how did I get here?” My story may not be unique, but it is my story, and I hope through sharing this I can help others consider new paths for their own narratives.
Finding My Way
I grew up in a secular family in Iran that spent a lot of time enjoying nature outdoors. I have fond memories of camping, running around the woods, making bows and arrows, and watching my younger brother eating ants. He’d lick his index finger, place it on individual ants marching in a straight line and eat each one. He really savored the formic acid flavor of the ants (the family name Formicidae makes more sense now, eh?!), and I thoroughly enjoyed watching him eat them. So much so that I never told my parents. Maybe that was my first scientific experiment: Observe the gastrointestinal effects of ants on a 5-year-old. He was the treatment, and I was the control.
This was after the Islamic Revolution and, because of the onerous pressures of the theocracy—not to mention a bloody war with Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, which even pulled in kids my age—when I was 10 my family was fortunate to escape and move to Germany for a year. Not speaking any German, being too young to drink any beer, and not quite feeling comfortable in the melancholy setting of Stuttgart, we eventually moved again and settled in Southern California. I quickly learned English, started to explore the San Gabriel Mountains, and really felt that this was now home.
I got decent grades and did what was needed to get by and keep my parents and teachers off my back. However, having been voted Class Clown (1992 baby!) but being the first-born offspring of Middle Eastern parents that expected me to become a medical doctor or open a bank, I knew I could not keep this gimmick going for much longer. (The only chance I had of being involved in the medical field was to donate bodily fluids or become a human guinea pig.) I went on to attend a small liberal arts school in the city where I grew up, the University of La Verne, where I double majored in biology and religion. But I really wasn’t a good student, and it took me years to experience an epiphany that changed my outlook and aspirations.
Enlightenment finally came my junior year, when one of my professors, Dr. Jay Jones, was so infectiously addicted to science that it was hard not to pick up that passion. Being at a small school allowed me to go on field trips with my professors, like spending a month camping around Baja California observing the flora, fauna, and geological formations and drinking a beer around the campfire at night while my professor lectured about the area’s natural history. We created courses that were not part of the regular science curriculum, such as mycology and entomology, and we were encouraged to learn about things we were passionate about and interested in. And that is the key to learning: You can’t be force-fed what you don’t want to learn; you need to pursue what piques your own curiosity. That changes learning from work to pleasure.
Following my junior year, another professor who was on the board of a local mosquito and vector control district in Southern California encouraged me to apply for a seasonal position. I was more nervous than a mosquito at a pesticide convention, but I showed up to the interview in my Birkenstocks, a pair of plaid 1990’s shorts better suited to the Wu-Tang Clan, my nose ring, and dreadlocks, asking “Dude, where’s my job?” Needless to say, they did not hire me. But I cleaned up the following year and was hired as the seasonal vector ecologist with that district, and that decision is really what started this journey in medical entomology.
In my first public health role, I was capturing mosquitoes, bleeding chickens, apprehending rats, identifying insects, conducting control, running laboratory bioassays and pathogen testing, dealing with the public, spending time outdoors, sloshing through swamps, and sampling larvae from sewage treatment facilities—and I could not get enough of it. I absolutely loved the job. It was a perfect combination of field and laboratory work.
That position exposed me to the field of mosquito and vector control, a profession that I did not even know existed a few years earlier. I was “fortunate” to ride the wave of West Nile virus during 1999, the year that exotic pathogen was first detected in the Northeastern U.S. I dragged my girlfriend (who became my wife three years later) from the West Coast to the East and started graduate school at Rutgers University in 2000 to pursue my master’s degree in entomology.
Working with Dr. Wayne Crans, a distinguished mosquito biologist who is also deeply passionate about his profession, I found myself mist-netting birds, collecting ticks, sampling blood from hibernating bears, and coordinating New Jersey’s vector surveillance program, in addition to all the other field activities I’d learned in California. And again, I could not get enough of it. Although my master’s thesis concentrated on overwintering mosquitoes, I was a sponge and wanted to be involved in every project that I could. I created side projects that allowed me to collaborate with others, see new habitats, gain experience, and, above all, have adventures.
Prior to finishing my master’s, a position became available at Mercer County (New Jersey) Mosquito Control to run their program. I had no interest in the job, but my professor asked me to apply so that they had a better idea of the type of person that they should hire. I interviewed and made some ridiculous demands that I felt would make the decision easy for me to decline, but when they acquiesced to my requests, my wife told me that I would be foolish to not accept the offer. With limited training as an entomologist and no experience in running a business—as well as no experience in human resources, purchasing, budgeting, etc.—I was suddenly in charge of a small business and 10 grown men twice my age.
Those first few months were challenging. First, I had to change the program and my personnel’s outlook. They were used to coming into the office, doing some crossword puzzles and reading the paper, going out for a bit, grabbing breakfast, taking at least an hour lunch, loafing back into the office, and shooting the breeze until it was time to clock out. I observed this for a couple of weeks before starting to make changes. I consulted with one of my professors and talked about all the personnel issues. He told me that mosquito control is never about mosquitoes; it is about people. And nine out of 10 times, it’s about your own people. He was right.
I learned quickly that I had to help my team see the difference they were making in the community to get them to buy in to the greater mission. They needed to be involved, accountable, and respected and have a sense of belonging. And, above all, they needed to understand that they were making a positive contribution toward public health and quality of life. Once that set in, the rest was easy.
Building a Career
After finishing my master’s, I continued with my Ph.D. while working full time. I was fortunate to find another advisor, Dr. Randy Gaugler, who was willing to work with my schedule and design questions and experiments that could be combined with my everyday job duties. I was also very fortunate to benefit from the first grant on area-wide mosquito control funded by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, focusing on biology, ecology, and control methods for the newly invasive Asian tiger mosquito (Aedes albopictus).
That project was an instant Ph.D. I got to rub elbows with giants in our profession—folks like Dan Strickman, Roger Nasci, Gary Clark, Dan Kline, Dina Fonseca, Dawn Wesson, Graham White, Geroge O’Meara, and many others. Suddenly, I was being asked for my input from my heroes and peers in the field, while learning directly from these distinguished authorities. Collectively, the project resulted in dozens of peer-reviewed publications and hundreds of presentations. But the most rewarding aspect of it was the applied and operational component that allowed for a paradigm shift in mosquito control. I am most proud of the standard operating procedures and the management best practices that were transferrable to many of the other mosquito and vector control districts, both nationally and internationally. We made a difference and are continuing to do so.
Accepting a new position in 2014, I moved to Salt Lake City, Utah. I once again found myself running a multimillion-dollar business with no formal training. While Mercer County Mosquito Control was part of a larger county operation with departments such as human resources, purchasing, and insurance, at the Salt Lake City (SLC) Mosquito Abatement District we manage all these responsibilities (and a multitude of others) ourselves. I had to figure out the budgeting process, tax increases, annexations, medical insurance, retirement benefits, and many other topics that I had no training for. I went to graduate school to study insects, yet I found myself crunching financial numbers instead of mosquito abundance data. Nonetheless, I have continued to grow our SLC mosquito surveillance and control operations, while also pursuing side projects and working with collaborators globally to continue the pursuit of science and contribute to our beloved profession.
The truth of the matter is, necessity is the mother of invention and when the need to accomplish or understand something becomes imperative, you are forced to find ways to accomplish that task. For me, it took countless hours learning and comprehensively understanding a task to ensure that I was providing the appropriate service or information for my board of directors, employees, or constituents. It doesn’t matter if you are researching how much capital reserves the state code allows you to carry over, what the best medical insurance plan is for your employees, or if your purchasing policy allows you to obtain a sole source when no competing bids may be available; if there is a need to ensure accuracy and compliance, resources are available for you to tap into. It will take time and effort and may make your job feel mundane, but it will be well worth it.
Reflections and Lessons Learned
Mosquitoes have taken me from the Great Pyramids to the Great Wall of China, from Bhutan to Iran, from the Cayman Islands to David Copperfield’s private island in the Bahamas, from the Blue Mountains in Australia to the Italian Alps. It has been a delightful journey and the adventure continues. I have published nearly 80 peer-reviewed manuscripts, given more than 300 presentations, written countless non-refereed and technical publications, acquired millions of dollars in external grants, served as president of various local and national associations, deployed on behalf of U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to combat Zika virus, served as subject editor and reviewer for dozens of journals, advocated on Capitol Hill, served as adjunct professor in various universities, and engaged in a myriad of other activities that I frankly can’t even remember. But what have I really learned during this career, and what can I pass on to others that would be beneficial?
- Have adventures and learn what you can. These will season you and provide you valuable experiences that will resurface when you least expect it. While it has been said that experience is what you get when you don’t get what you want, even negative experiences will prove beneficial to you down the line. Concentrate on your main project, but don’t be afraid to be involved with others. Be a sponge. Take it all in. Remember that all of your experiences are like a basket, and you will take back out what you put in.
- Take classes outside of your major area of study. I was trained as an entomologist, but I had to learn finance and psychology very quickly. Learn about these other aspects of leadership. A graduate degree can be a quick ticket upward in the hierarchy of some organizations, but that could mean you will acquire duties that have nothing to do with your professional degree.
- Work hard and play harder. It is important to have a balance between your professional and personal lives. You need your down time as much as you need your academic pursuits.
- Publish your work. It is easy to conduct experiments and have fun in the field. It is much harder to analyze the data and write it up for a peer-reviewed publication. You will never write another thesis or dissertation, but you will hopefully write multiple smaller manuscripts. Make sure your professors train you on how to do that. Writing a manuscript is just telling a story; learn how to tell it concisely and clearly. Publications make you marketable and are your legacy. Meanwhile, authorship is cheap; you can create a lot more friends, colleagues, and collaborators by being inclusive. It is amazing what you can accomplish when you don’t care as much about who gets the credit. And, above all, publications are how scientific progress is made and how the profession moves forward. Make a contribution.
- Don’t listen to the naysayers. You cannot please everyone all of the time, and people are going to complain regardless of your effort, so you may as well pursue your goals. Remember that those that try may lose, but those that don’t even try have already lost.
- You don’t have to do it alone. Don’t be afraid to ask for help. You will need to make tough decisions at times, and others may have different perspectives that could be invaluable. I have always relied on input from those on my teams. But remember to give credit when and where it is due.
- Help others. This is what I am most proud of. Whether it’s students, seasonal staff, colleagues, peers, or employees, your ultimate concern should be passing on what you have learned and helping to train the next generation. We have an obligation to do this not only for our children but those around us. We, entomologists as well as humanity broadly, all win in the end if this is the approach we take.
Ary Faraji, Ph.D., BCE, is executive director of the Salt Lake City Mosquito Abatement District in Salt Lake City, Utah, and a Board Certified Entomologist. Email: email@example.com.