How One Entomologist is Digging Deep Into Data on Insect Declines
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.) It is also the third in a set of four featuring ECPs selected to present their work during the ECP Recognition Symposium at Entomology 2021, taking place in-person and online, October 31 – November 3, in Denver, Colorado. Learn more about the work ECPs are doing within ESA, and read past posts in the Standout ECPs series.
Mike Crossley, Ph.D., has been an assistant professor and agricultural entomologist in the Department of Entomology and Wildlife Ecology at the University of Delaware since August 2021. He earned his bachelor’s, master’s, and doctorate degrees at University of Wisconsin, focusing on how insects move in agricultural landscapes and adapt to management practices.
He spent the last two years of pandemic life in a postdoctoral position in the agroecology lab directed by Bill Snyder, Ph.D., at University of Georgia, developing lines of research that leverage ecoinformatics approaches to study how insects are broadly responding to recent environmental change. Crossley’s agricultural entomology lab at University of Delaware bridges basic and applied approaches to managing and utilizing insects in changing farmscapes.
Crossley was selected to present his research at the ECP Recognition Symposium at Entomology 2021, taking place in-person and online, October 31 – November 3, in Denver, Colorado. His presentation in the symposium, titled “Ecoinformatics of declines and rebounds amidst the ‘Insect Apocalypse,'” is slated for 2:10 p.m. Mountain Time, on Tuesday, November 2.
Tribull: Can you briefly describe the research you’ll be presenting at the Early Career Professional Recognition Symposium?
Crossley: I’ll be sharing from my postdoc work on the “insect apocalypse,” which involved curating and analyzing long-term datasets on a variety of arthropods to examine patterns and drivers of abundance and diversity change.
How is this research important to entomologists in ESA’s Plant-Insect Ecosystems Section, entomologists as a whole, and non-entomologists?
Insects are amazing and massively important to humans and ecosystems broadly. The idea that insects are disappearing may come as relief to some citizens—chagrined by mosquitoes crashing their lawn parties or tired of flea beetles poking holes in their arugula. But life on Earth would be unbearable without insects (and that arugula still tastes great). As I became more familiar with literature on insect declines, I was amazed to find out how much heterogeneity there is in insect trends, much more than titles of media and even some peer-reviewed articles convey. This has motivated me and others to find the best long-term data on insect numbers out there to begin to get at the factors contributing to rises and falls in insect numbers.
What’s your favorite part of your research? And what’s the most challenging or annoying part of your research?
The definition of “my research” is currently under construction. While what I do all fits within the theme of “advancing knowledge about insect ecology and evolution in changing farmscapes,” what that looks like from day to day and project to project is diverse. But to pick a favorite: I really value connection and find a lot of strength and inspiration in getting to know the farmers and scientists in my region and crafting research that addresses a critical knowledge gap. Perhaps more trivially, I also feel a rush of endorphins every time I crack open a new dataset to analyze and start getting anxious if I haven’t done that in a while.
Something that I have found annoying lately is the question of how best to manage my time. I think I’m pretty good at it, but I sometimes feel guilty devoting time to things I enjoy—like exploring a large dataset or spending a few extra moments examining the bugs at the margin of a field—when all sorts of immediate and long-term tasks are crouching behind my door.
Early Career Professionals in our Society hold a wide variety of positions. Can you explain more about your current role?
I am one of those fortunate Early Career Professionals to have recently become an assistant professor at a land grant university. That could sound tongue-in-cheek given how hard it has been for people to start their labs in the pandemic era, but I mean it sincerely. COVID really did a number on all sectors of society, some more than others, and many academic job opportunities have fizzled out. My appointment is as an agricultural entomologist with 60 percent research and 40 percent teaching responsibilities. I have the privilege of serving the diversity of row crop, specialty crop, and poultry producers in the Mid-Atlantic and of teaching and mentoring students interested in insect and wildlife management and conservation.
What’s your favorite part of your current job?
It would have to be the people. The faculty and staff in my department at the Newark campus, as well as the ones down in our Carvel Research & Education Center, are really a fantastic bunch. The other thing is the freedom. Not that I haven’t felt that during graduate school or my postdoc, but I am thrilled to be in this stage of dreaming about what my research program will look like in the next five to six years and thinking about how I can set up my students for success in the lab and classroom.
What is a memorable experience you’ve had or impactful challenge that you’ve overcome as an Early Career Professional?
Well, working during the pandemic when universities shut down certainly was memorable. It was soul crushing to be working at the kitchen table with my kids pleading with me to play with them or watching my son do preschool from a computer screen due to schools “going virtual.” I recognize my privilege in having internet and being able to work from home, let alone having a job, during that time, but it takes a toll none the less.
I was thankful to have an understanding but also ambitious postdoc mentor, who was able to maintain close communication and collaboration during that time. I remember days going to work during the reopening process where it felt like I was the only person out there—biking 20 minutes with little to no traffic, watching deer forage as I parked, meandering through dark, quiet halls as I came to the office.
What advice would you give to other ECP members?
Nothing has helped me quite as much as embracing a “growth mindset,” which to me means being a life-long learner and recognizing that feelings of inadequacy are normal but also have nothing to do with your decisions moving forward. Yes, you may not currently possess the experience and knowledge needed to follow a certain research path—welcome to the life of a scientist!
Another thing that has helped me when I felt stuck on something (like a particularly grueling paper revision or tedious analysis): Pinpoint the thing you are most inspired to do and make sure that you are carving out time to do it. For me, there was a point when all of my manuscripts were getting rejected and exhausting experiments weren’t panning out. Of course, I wasn’t about to give up on them, but I was also feeling inspired to dig into what U.S. potato production looked like in the 1860s (a story for another day). Following this thread of inspiration has really blossomed into some cool research that I am still building on today.
Entomology 2021, in-person and online, October 31 – November 3, Denver, Colorado
Carly Tribull, Ph.D., is an assistant professor of biology at Farmingdale State College and 2020-2021 chair of the ESA Early Career Professionals Committee. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Crossley portrait photo by Monica Moriak