Navy Entomologists: Protecting Sailors and Marines Around the World
Editor’s Note: This post is the next installment of 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.
Within the U.S. Navy, a variety of public health needs are served by units stationed around the world. These Navy Environmental and Preventive Medicine Units act as “mini-CDCs” with responsibilities ranging from occupational medicine and environmental health to industrial hygiene and toxicology, and much more—including entomology.
Navy Environmental and Preventive Medicine Unit 5 (NEPMU FIVE) is based in San Diego, California, and serves these needs in the Pacific region. The unit is currently home to four entomologists (three military, one civilian), who spoke with Entomology Today to share their experience on becoming and working as an entomologist in the Navy.
Captain Peter Obenauer, Ph.D., retired at the beginning of July 2021 as a Medical Entomologist and Officer in Charge of NEPMU FIVE. (This interview took place just prior to Captain Obenauer’s retirement.) Lieutenant Commander Hanayo Arimoto, Ph.D., is a Medical Entomologist and Department Head of Vector Control within the unit. Lieutenant Riley Tedrow, Ph.D., is a Medical Entomologist and Assistant Department Head of Vector Control. And Tolulope Morawo, Ph.D., is a civilian Entomologist at NEPMU FIVE.
Obenauer and Arimoto joined the Navy as entomologists through the process of direct commissions. Direct commissioning enables civilians who have already completed their professional degrees to directly enter the military as a commissioned officer. A recruiter works with them through the application process. Those interested in joining as a direct commission are encouraged to start early, as the process can take months. Your local Navy recruiting office will have the latest information on quotas for entomologists.
Entomology Today: What was your career pathway into your current role?
Captain Obenauer: I applied to the Navy (direct commission) with my master’s degree. A program called Duty Under Instruction enables active-duty officers to complete their Ph.D.s from an accredited university while serving on active duty. This program selects candidates on an annual basis. Participants must complete their Ph.D. within three years. While at school, students usually report to the Reserve Officers’ Training Corp (ROTC) unit and are required to maintain physical standards.
Lt. Commander Arimoto: I attended my first ESA Annual Meeting during my first year in graduate school. I noticed there were many military personnel present and wondered why the Department of Defense (DoD) had an interest in entomology. Fortuitously, there was a talk about careers as a military entomologist during that meeting. The Navy sent a charismatic Captain to deliver the presentation. Perhaps he was supposed to cover entomological career opportunities across the services, but naturally he focused on how awesome the Navy is. I learned about the diverse career you could have as a military entomologist centered on safeguarding our forces against vector-borne diseases: applied vector management, research, teaching, global health engagement. I never thought my profession and interest could be employed to protect our servicemen and women. I’m sure everybody in that room was convinced to join the Navy after that talk.
Fast forward, as I was wrapping up my doctorate at the University of California, Davis, I ran into a colleague and found out he received the Health Services Collegiate Program scholarship and would be joining the Navy as an entomologist after he graduated. After talking with him, I was convinced that Navy entomology was a good fit for me. He put me in contact with his recruiter and I joined the Navy as an entomologist through direct commissioning.
Lieutenant Tedrow: I entered the Navy during the second year of my graduate program. I was a scholarship recipient of the Health Services Collegiate Program, which places you on active duty with the sole mission of completing your degree. This program pays you a substantial salary with health coverage while you complete your degree (master’s or Ph.D.), with military training following graduation. From there, you enter the fleet as a Medical Entomologist. This took away the financial and job-search pressure faced by students in the same position, allowing me to focus on my research and education.
Morawo: The first time I heard about military entomology was at an Army exhibit table during my first ESA meeting in 2012. I thought it was fascinating that there is a specific commissioned officer job for entomologists in the U.S. Army. I completed my Ph.D. in December 2017 at Auburn University and started working with an Army Medical recruiter in late 2018. I commissioned as an Entomologist and Captain (O-3) in the Army Reserve in July 2019. The Army Reserve had been my part-time job while I held full-time positions as a postdoctoral fellow at Auburn University and as an assistant professor at the University of Florida. I was already familiar with some aspects of DoD entomology but did not get as much exposure to field and operational entomology due to the part-time nature of the Reserve. I came across the advertisement for my current position on USAJobs.gov while searching for DoD entomologist positions and started working with the Navy as a civilian entomologist in March 2021. While DoD civilian entomologist positions are somewhat rare, the process of recruitment was fast and smooth for me.
What kind of activities are you responsible for executing or overseeing in your current role?
Captain Obenauer: NEPMU FIVE operates like a mini-CDC. We have a team of scientists that serve various commands in expeditionary environments to include occupational medicine, entomology, environmental health, industrial hygiene, audiology, toxicology, preventive medicine, health promotions, drug screening programs, and radiological health and health hazards. Moreover, our Preventive Medicine Technicians are Corpsmen with specialized skills to assist in disease outbreak investigations. As the Officer in Charge, I am responsible for ensuring my folks have the tools and logistical support necessary to successfully complete their tasks.
Lt. Commander Arimoto: As Department Head of Vector Control, I am responsible for overseeing our mission of reducing the risk of arthropods and arthropod-borne diseases from impacting the health, safety, and mission of Sailors and Marines aboard ships,installations, and during contingency operations. Our department is split into two divisions: Entomology and Education & Training. The Entomology Division is responsible for a wide range of activities from responding to pest issues on Navy vessels (ships get critters too!), conducting vector risk assessments at our regional military bases, readying deploying forces on prevention of vector-borne diseases, and preparing to respond to disease outbreaks and disasters. In our Education & Training Division, we administer required training that enables our specialized technicians to become certified in certain public health areas such as safety in food service, shipboard pest management, and pest control within the DoD.
Currently, we are involved in two DoD-funded research projects focused on building working relations with academic institutions, county assets, and other services. These partnerships are important for our mission because they bring in additional expertise and training opportunities. Our project, funded by the DoD’s Global Emerging Infections and Surveillance, is focused on surveying for ticks and their diseases and assessing risk to members in training at installations. We are working with bases in Southern California, the Naval Health Research Center, the Air Force, the University of Alaska, and Orange County Vector Control. Our other project, funded by the Global Health Engagement Research Initiative, is focused on surveying for kissing bugs and Chagas disease on bases bordering the U.S. and Mexico. We are happy to be working with the Army, the University of Texas at El Paso, Texas State University, and San Diego State University on this initiative.
And, for the first time this year, the Vector Control Department is participating in the Navy Research Enterprise Internship Program. NREIP is a paid internship program for high school and college students interested in pursuing STEM careers in the Navy. We are thrilled to host our first student and are working toward making this a regular opportunity within our department for young scientists interested in Navy entomology.
Lieutenant Tedrow:As the assistant department head, I get the freedom of reduced administrative burden, allowing me to teach, conduct fieldwork, pursue research objectives, and work hands-on with the rest of my department. Of course, I also cover Department Head duties whenever needed.
Morawo: As a civilian in a military establishment, my main responsibility is to support the work of service members, including the commissioned officers, and to contribute to the overall success of the mission. At NEPMU FIVE, I have my hands in several aspects of the Vector Control Department’s activities, including teaching, sponsored research, fleet support, and operational entomology. The commissioned officers and I work as a team to provide consultation and advice to personnel and installations on pest problems.
I also maintain a small entomology laboratory that houses a teaching collection of arthropod specimens and insect colonies of urban and stored-product pests. As a bridge between military and civilian entomology, I am expected to maintain a working relationship with other entomologists at non-military institutions and to present our programs and research projects in professional meetings. Most important, my position ensures continuity in the programs and projects of the department that would otherwise be affected by the deployment or transfer of our commissioned officers to new duty stations.
What non-technical skills do you feel are most critical to success in your role?
Lt. Commander Arimoto: Heart. Heart gives room for empathy and enthusiasm and rounds out toughness. I find these are essential when leading any group of people of any size in any environment. People are your greatest and most precious resource, and missions will not succeed without them, so their safety and wellbeing are paramount. You and your team will naturally face good days and bad days, so it helps to know how to motivate your team. Heart helps.
Lieutenant Tedrow: Humility. You have something to learn from everyone up and down the chain of command. Academic science education doesn’t grant much insight into the culture and complex function of the military. This you must learn by asking questions, inviting constructive feedback, and being OK with not having all the answers.
Morawo: Adaptability. Unlike most entomologist positions, being an entomologist in the DoD often means that, in addition to managing pest insects, you are the go-to person for a wide range of other pest problems, including rodents, birds, venomous animals, and non-insect arthropods. However, this responsibility comes with the opportunity to acquire new skill sets. Being adaptable, having an open mind, and thinking outside the box are critical to success in this role.
For instance, my research background is in insect behavior and chemical ecology, with applications in agricultural entomology. Within the short period I have been in this role, I have learned a lot about managing pests of medical and urban importance, especially in environments unique to the Navy. Further, preventive medicine involves educating people, working with communities, and building trust. None of these activities will be successful without effective communication and empathy.
Last, almost everything is designed to be accomplished by teams. Being a good team player is not only critical to the success of our activities but also critical to the success of individuals in this work environment.
Why should people consider a career in the Armed Forces?
Captain Obenauer: As a Navy entomologist, those who hold a doctorate degree may serve at one of our three overseas labs (Sigonella, Italy; Singapore; Lima, Peru). These three duty stations are not necessarily fixed to that country, but rather folks often serve within the region. For example, those stationed in Italy may be asked to conduct research throughout Africa. Alternatively, those serving in operational units on deployment will still have the opportunity to travel, but their mission will be less focused on research and more focused on surveillance and control in an expeditionary environment to protect the warfighters from vector-borne diseases.
Lt. Commander Arimoto: The Armed Forces is a great career because there is no shortage of opportunities for personal and professional growth. This career path gave me latitude to grow in multiple unique leadership roles, which I am so thankful for because it pushed me beyond any comfort zone I had for myself. And that Captain at ESA was right about Navy entomology sending you on a diverse career path. In 8 years, I’ve gone from testing and evaluating pest management products to leading multi-national vector research initiatives in Africa and the Middle East, to training Sailors and Marines on prevention of arthropod borne diseases. The adage “Join the Navy, see the world,” has held true for me. This career has been supremely rewarding with respect to training and helping others while bettering myself.
Lieutenant Tedrow: The DoD is an incredible platform to put your experience and education to use. I came into the Navy with a molecular background for disease testing in mosquitoes. When the Nation’s priorities shifted to COVID-19 mitigation, I was able to leverage that technical training and deploy on an aircraft carrier to lead COVID-19 testing on a 4,500+ person ship. Furthermore, the endless training opportunities in the Navy have expanded my skill set in entomology, teaching, leadership, and weapons handling, allowing me to continue being a student every day.
Morawo: From a civilian’s perspective, the key benefit of being an entomologist in the Armed Forces is the opportunity to broaden your knowledge base, skillset, and impact as you contribute to national security. A graduate degree in entomology often leads to a specialization in certain areas of research. Due to the broad scope of the duties of a DoD entomologist, I find myself going back to the basics and getting involved in other areas of research that I did not previously specialize in, such as medical and urban entomology. Personally, this career path aligns well with my current commitments in the Army, especially during periods that I may have to be away for trainings or deployment. Finally, I still get to do the things I enjoyed the most about my previous work in academia: teaching, research, community engagement, and attending professional meetings.
All photos courtesy of Navy Environmental and Preventive Medicine Unit 5.