Oh, Deer! How One Entomologist Works to Improve Wildlife and Livestock Health
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.
Bethany McGregor, Ph.D., is a research entomologist with the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Agricultural Research Service in the Arthropod-Borne Animal Diseases Research Unit (ABADRU) in Manhattan, Kansas. She received her bachelor of science degree in wildlife and fisheries science from the University of Tennessee at Knoxville, a master of science degree in biology from the University of Louisiana at Monroe, and a Ph.D. in entomology and nematology from the University of Florida working with Nathan Burkett-Cadena, Ph.D., at the Florida Medical Entomology Laboratory in Vero Beach, Florida. She was also an Oak Ridge Institute for Science and Education postdoctoral fellow at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in Fort Collins, Colorado, in the Division of Vector-borne Diseases, Arboviral Diseases Branch, Entomology and Ecology Team, for 10 months, working with Roxanne Connelly, Ph.D.
In May 2020, McGregor started her current position at the USDA. In her current role, she mainly studies the ecology of Culicoides biting midges and Culicoides-borne viruses. Within the Entomological Society of America, she is the chair of the Medical, Urban, and Veterinary Entomology (MUVE) Section’s Communications Committee and leader of the MUVE Mentorship Network Initiative.
Poh: Your Ph.D. focused on Culicoides biting midges and establishing them as vectors of pathogens that cause diseases in white-tailed deer. What inspired you to pursue this topic? What were some of the major findings of your dissertation?
McGregor: I have always been passionate about the health and well-being of animals; in fact, my original major during undergrad was pre-veterinary science before switching to wildlife and fisheries science. The main Culicoides-borne pathogen of my Ph.D. research, epizootic hemorrhagic disease virus (EHDV), causes significant morbidity and mortality to both wild and farmed white-tailed deer populations in the United States. I was very inspired to pursue research in this system so I could positively impact the well-being of white-tailed deer in Florida as well as the livelihoods of the deer farmers who were experiencing significant herd losses.
One of the major questions I sought to answer with my dissertation research was a significant conundrum in many southeastern states of the U.S.: With outbreaks of EHDV common in this region in the absence of Culicoides sonorensis, the confirmed vector, which midge species was transmitting the virus? During an outbreak of EHDV at several Florida deer farms in 2017, we were able to detect EHDV-positive pools from two species, Culicoides stellifer and Culicoides venustus. We also had previously collected data on host use showing that both species regularly fed on white-tailed deer and phenological data indicating that both species are common on the landscape year-round, including during peak EHDV activity. Using all of these data, we were able to partially implicate these species in the transmission of EHDV in Florida.
During this time, I also conducted several studies to better understand where midges were found on the landscape. We conducted one such study to test the idea that midges stratify vertically in the forest based on host preference, with ornithophilic species in the canopy and mammalophilic species staying near the ground. In fact, I found that most midge species on big game preserves, including those that primarily feed on large ground-dwelling mammals, were found in significantly greater abundance in tree canopies than near the ground. This could have major implications for the control of biting midges on deer farms during EHDV outbreaks.
With your background in wildlife and fisheries, how did you become interested in entomology? Was there a specific moment where you knew you wanted to continue exploring the field of entomology?
My interest in studying entomology was actually preceded by my interest in studying wildlife disease. During undergrad at the University of Tennessee, I would occasionally work at hunter deer-check stations during which we collected various samples from checked deer to look at herd health. Interestingly enough, it was the collection of brain stems and lymph nodes for chronic wasting disease testing (a prion disease affecting deer) that got me very interested in the study of diseases specifically.
Following this, I found entomology somewhat serendipitously. As I was wrapping up my master’s degree and considering the next stage in my career, I found an advertisement for a Ph.D. position with the University of Florida working with the entomology group on the Cervidae Health Research Initiative. I realized that studying the vectors of vector-borne diseases was an interesting perspective on the study of animal diseases that I hadn’t considered previously. As I learned more about Culicoides and the pathogens they transmit, I realized that this field is one in which there were endless questions remaining to be answered and my research could have a significant impact on animal health.
Since graduating with your Ph.D., you transitioned to the federal government with experiences in both the CDC and now the USDA. Tell us about your current position. What do you currently research as an entomologist in the USDA? What does a day-in-the-life of a federal entomologist look like?
I started as a research entomologist with the USDA-ABADRU in May of 2020. Within ABADRU, we have projects focused on several Culicoides-borne pathogens such as EHDV, bluetongue virus (BTV), and vesicular stomatitis virus (VSV). We also have projects investigating the biology and ecology of insects that can spread pathogens and be a nuisance within animal agriculture, including Culicoides and house flies. I run a lab researching several aspects of the ecology of Culicoides biting midges in the Great Plains. Some of my current projects are focused on characterizing diverse Culicoides larval habitats, investigating Culicoides phenological patterns, and identifying host association patterns through blood meal analysis, insect trapping, and game camera studies.
A day-in-the-life of a federal entomologist is mostly dedicated to the research mission. Federal entomologists do not typically have teaching responsibilities, although some do choose to become adjunct faculty at local universities so they can mentor graduate students and postdocs. We also get federal appropriations to conduct our research, which removes the necessity to seek out grant funding. We do have other administrative tasks which can take up quite a bit of time, but the major focus for federal scientists is conducting research and publishing our results. We are also encouraged to be engaged with the scientific community through professional societies.
You’ve worked for both the CDC and now the USDA. How different have your experiences been in federal government thus far compared to academia? Why did you decide to go into federal government and how did you successfully make the transition from academia to the government? What makes you excited about your work with the USDA?
While it’s hard for me to compare them directly due to the different roles I’ve had in each institution, I can say that the commitment to conducting high-quality, high-impact research has been very similar between the federal government and academia. In fact, due to the proximity of many federal government centers to universities, it’s fairly common for federal scientists to work hand in hand with academic partners to conduct research and help mentor students. One major difference in federal government is that there is less pressure to seek grant funding since we do have federally appropriated funding. We do still have the option to seek grant funding with collaborators for specific projects if we want, so it really is the best of both worlds.
I decided to venture into federal government for my postdoc at CDC because I was very excited to get some experience with public health entomology and to work with my postdoc advisor, Dr. Roxanne Connelly. I was also interested in getting a more rounded perspective on what opportunities were available outside of academia. I think many young scientists (myself included) have just assumed academia is their expected path. I wasn’t aware of the vast breadth of scientific jobs that were available within the federal system. In my role as a federal scientist now, I try to do a better job of getting the word out that the federal government is a great place for early career scientists to begin their careers.
I think the biggest key to successfully transitioning to the federal government is to not be afraid of asking a lot of questions along the way. The federal government is a big system and there are a lot of procedures, forms, and acronyms to keep up with. (The federal government loves acronyms.) As scientists, we’re comfortable asking scientific questions, but sometimes asking too many procedural or administrative questions can be intimidating. (At least it was for me at first!) If you have a question about a federal procedure or form, just remember that thousands of other people before you had that same question, so there’s always someone who has an answer and is more than happy to help!
I’m excited about the work I do with USDA because I know I have a direct impact on the livelihoods of the farmers and ranchers I serve and the health and well-being of their animals. My work at USDA also affords me the opportunity to work with a group of vector insects that I enjoy working with that relatively few labs around the U.S. study. Because Culicoides transmit very few human pathogens, it can sometimes be hard to secure grant funding from some of the major granting institutions. This highlights the importance of USDA research on topics like this group of vector organisms that do cause significant losses within the livestock industry but are still greatly understudied.
Do you have any advice for students who might be interested in going into the government sector? What are some things students should think about as they are deciding on future careers in the government sector? What skills do you think someone needs to be successful in this sector?
My biggest piece of advice for students who are considering going into the government sector is to reach out to a federal scientist and have a conversation with them. Most federal scientists are happy to talk about their experience with government, the pros and cons of working in this sector, and possible next steps if a student decides to pursue this path. Also, since many USDA research centers are close to universities, it could be possible to visit a lab or perhaps even work in a federal lab to decide whether it would be a good fit.
Students interested in working as a federal scientist should consider what their primary career goals are. Federal scientist positions are heavily research oriented. While federal scientists that are co-located with a university can be adjunct faculty, including co-advising graduate students and providing guest lectures, we rarely lead university courses. For this reason, a federal scientist position may not be best suited for a student who is interested in having a teaching component to their future career.
The most important skills necessary to working as a federal scientist are ingenuity and creativity in developing novel research questions. USDA projects work on a 5-year cycle. This means that every 5 years we have the opportunity to develop novel, groundbreaking research projects that we will focus on for the coming 5 years. These projects often involve working with several members of your unit’s core research team and collaborators to answer high-stakes questions, so being creative in how you plan your projects to make use of the resources available is absolutely key.
You are also quite active within ESA, specifically MUVE. Tell us a little bit more about your role within MUVE as the chair of the Communications Committee. What is your vision for increasing communications across the MUVE section and how will you accomplish this vision?
I think the COVID-19 pandemic really opened everyone’s eyes to the need for better communications within the scientific community. So much of our communication is done at annual meetings, with relatively little communication done throughout the rest of the year. I began as the chair of the MUVE Communications Committee in the summer of 2020, a time when many of us were unable to work in person or attend in-person conferences. Improving our communications networks during this time was not just an improvement to the section; it was imperative to keep our members connected and engaged during a difficult time. As we have started to emerge from the pandemic and day-to-day life is returning to normal for most of us, my vision is to continue encouraging increased levels of member engagement through our newsletter and virtual networking events.
Right now, the major focus of the Communications Committee is producing our bimonthly MUVE newsletter. The newsletter serves as a way of getting important news, dates, and announcements out to the membership, but also as a way of connecting our membership to their scientific community. We have articles from our president and our student representative, which allow our members to connect with those who are leading and representing them. We have an article from an ESA MUVE policy scholar, which gives our readership a view into current policy topics within the section. We also have our “MUVErs” section, which allows us to put a spotlight on the accomplishments of our members. The newsletter has really provided a platform for the membership to connect with what’s happening within MUVE throughout the year.
In addition to the newsletter, we have started hosting quarterly virtual networking events for ESA MUVE members. If the COVID-19 pandemic did anything good, it was improving our comfort with the virtual landscape and opening our eyes to the possibilities afforded through virtual conferencing software. These events typically center around a central theme; for example, the most recent event in March was focused on “The Changing Landscape of Scientific Societies.” In addition to these events helping us to stay connected with our peers, they’ve allowed us to share new ideas, discuss current events, and provided an opportunity for all MUVE members to meet new people and grow their networks.
Within MUVE, you started an initiative, the MUVE Mentoring Network. Can you give us a brief summary of this initiative and what you’ve accomplished so far? What are your plans for the next year?
When I started as an entomologist at the beginning of my Ph.D., I wasn’t sure where I fit in within the entomological community. My background had been mostly wildlife biology, and venturing into the world of entomology was a bit intimidating. I was very fortunate to have a great Ph.D. advisor and peers along the way who helped me grow my network and become engaged with entomological societies like ESA. However, not every student may have that support network, or perhaps they are looking for additional viewpoints or perspectives. This was what drove me to begin the MUVE Mentorship Network.
The goal of this initiative is to provide a mutual mentorship opportunity for the MUVE membership. There is an understanding that all participants, whether mentors or mentees, should benefit and learn from the other members they’re paired with. Members are placed into small pods, typically with 2-3 mentors and 2-3 mentees that are matched based on a variety of factors, such as research area, career sector, or unique interests. In our first year, which began in May of 2021, we had 59 participants in the program, which were arranged into 14 pods. As we are wrapping up year one of the program, we are looking for ways to improve and increase engagement for our participants.
For the second year of the program, we are changing things up a little bit by arranging four quarterly workshops for participants. Our first workshop will really set the stage for the second year of the program by focusing on mutual mentorship and providing a solid foundation upon which our mentorship pods can flourish. The remaining three workshops will be developed based on input from participants on areas where they’d like to receive more guidance. I am very passionate about this mentorship program, and I’m excited to see how it continues to develop over the coming year!
With all of your involvement with MUVE and ESA, what tips do you have for students and early career professionals on how to get more involved within their Section, Branch, or Society? What can they do to get the most out of ESA as an organization?
My biggest tip for those wanting to get involved is to stay engaged in communications from your Section and be on the lookout for volunteer opportunities. Volunteering, whether by serving on a committee, contributing to an award judging panel, serving as a judge for a student symposium, or even leading an initiative, can be a great way to network, build your CV, and stand out for jobs and awards. It is also very rewarding to give back to the entomological community through service to ESA and other professional societies. Also, if you see a volunteer opportunity you’re interested in, but you’re not sure if you’re ready to commit or you need more information, reach out to the person currently in that role and ask some questions! Most folks are more than happy to provide more information about their position or even direct you to other opportunities that could be a great fit for your interests.
When you’re not busy chasing Culicoides midges or leading important initiatives for MUVE, what are some ways you like to spend your time winding down from a busy workday or week?
The most important way I wind down from a busy workday is by spending time with my dogs, Konami and Ember. Even though Konami is 14 years old, we all still go on daily walks around the neighborhood to enjoy the outdoors. I am also an avid video gamer and enjoy relaxing with a new game or even replaying an old favorite when I have the time. I love cooking and baking and have a huge sweet tooth, so I often spend weekends making desserts or trying new recipes. Of course, my sweet tooth is often bigger than my stomach, so sharing the extra sweets from my culinary adventures with friends and colleagues is also a hobby of mine!
Thank you for taking the time to talk with us about your experiences, Bethany! If you want to connect with Bethany and learn more about her work, you can find her on ResearchGate, Google Scholar, and the official USDA website.
Karen Poh, Ph.D., is a research entomologist in the USDA and is the Medical, Urban, and Veterinary Entomology Section Representative on the ESA Early Career Professionals Committee. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org. Twitter: @areyoukeddingme.
All photos courtesy of Bethany McGregor, Ph.D.