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How One Entomologist Takes a ‘One Health’ Approach to Engage Across Disciplines

entomologists in face masks and blue protective body suits posing for a group selfie

Karen Poh, Ph.D. (left), is a research entomologist at the USDA-ARS Animal Disease Research Unit, in Pullman, Washington, whose work in public health, animal and medical entomology earned her a spot in the Early Career Professional Recognition Symposium at the 2022 Joint Annual Meeting of the Entomological Societies of America, Canada, and British Columbia. Here, Poh and students Max Pasquinelli (middle) and Madison Berger (right) suit up in two layers of personal protective equipment to check and replace bed bug traps in poultry facilities. This research was in collaboration with the Penn State University Vector-Borne Disease Team, Poultry Extension Team, and poultry producers to determine possible surveillance tools that can monitor for bed bug populations in poultry facilities.

By Lorena Lopez, 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 second in a set of four featuring ECPs selected to present their work during the ECP Recognition Symposium at the 2022 Joint Annual Meeting of the Entomological Societies of America, Canada, and British Columbia, November 13-16, in Vancouver. Read past posts in the Standout ECPs series.

Karen Poh, Ph.D.

Karen Poh, Ph.D.

Karen Poh, Ph.D., was recently hired as a research entomologist at the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Agricultural Research Service in the Animal Disease Research Unit, in Pullman, Washington, where she will combine her graduate and postdoctoral experiences to identify spatial and temporal patterns in tick, host, and pathogen distributions and evaluate tick-host choice and behavior. Prior to her USDA position, Karen earned her bachelor’s degree in public health with a concentration in infectious diseases and public health microbiology from the University of Texas at Austin in 2012, her master of public health (MPH) in environmental and occupational health sciences from the University of North Texas Health Science Center in 2014, and her Ph.D. in entomology from Texas A&M University in 2018, where she researched the determinants of spatial and temporal variation of West Nile virus transmission in Texas. Karen also worked as a postdoctoral associate at the Pennsylvania State University from 2019 to 2022 studying host-parasite interactions, vector and animal behavior, and vector control as well as conducting extension education.

Poh was selected to present her research at the ECP Recognition Symposium at the 2022 Joint Annual Meeting of the Entomological Societies of America, Canada, and British Columbia, November 13-16, in VancouverHer presentation in the symposium, titled “An ‘extension’ of One Health: Leveraging collaborations between research and extension to prevent and control vector-borne diseases,” is slated for 10:20 a.m. Pacific Time, on Tuesday, November 15.

Lopez: Can you describe your current research?

Poh: I take a One Health approach to investigate host-parasite interactions and the relationship that ticks (and other ectoparasites) have with their environments and their hosts. This can be used to develop better pest management strategies to protect people, their animals, and their livelihoods. As described by the CDC, “One Health” recognizes the interconnected relationships that people, animals, and the environment share, and it is at the intersection of these sectors where we can work together to understand and mitigate disease. My past and present research on vector-borne diseases fall within the One Health paradigm, where understanding the disease system requires knowledge of the vector, animals, people, and environmental settings where pathogen transmission can happen.

As a Research Entomologist in the USDA, I study ticks of livestock and I use a combination of modeling approaches to find spatial and temporal patterns in tick, host, and pathogen distributions, but I also evaluate tick-host relationships as it relates to tick invasion potential, and I assess human behaviors that may influence vector-borne disease prevention for people and animals. Interestingly, I’m able to combine my Ph.D. and postdoc experiences, where I combine my skills and interests in modeling and forecasting techniques, tick and animal behavior, and working with stakeholders to help them make more informed decisions when it comes to the health and safety of themselves and their animals.

What’s your favorite aspect of your research?

My favorite part of my research has to be working with different collaborators and solving diverse problems with diverse people. Especially when you’re thinking about vector-borne disease systems, these systems often require many types of expertise and skills to address questions through a One Health lens to ensure healthy people, animals, and environments. Obviously, you need expertise in the arthropod vector—that’s where the entomologist comes in!—but you also need people who are knowledgeable in other subjects that are part of this One Health paradigm such as animal behavior, health, ecology, molecular biology, and the social sciences, just to name a few. No one is a specialist in all of these fields, but we also don’t seem to talk to one another outside of our immediate network.

To help address this gap and to bring these different fields together, I’m hosting a symposium at this year’s Joint Annual Meeting (“Where the Wild Things Are: One Health at the Wildlife-Arthropod Interface,” at 1:30 p.m. PT on Tuesday, November 15) and co-organizing an initiative through ESA’s Medical, Urban, and Veterinary Entomology (MUVE) Section, “MUVE-ing Together: Connecting Entomology, Ecology, and Human Health,” that encourages scientists in entomology, wildlife biology, and ecology to engage with one another.

In this sense, I feel like we can all learn from one another and apply skills from different systems to our own study system. We don’t have to be a jack of all trades, but instead we can work with people who have the skills we want or need, and we can learn from our shared experiences to address issues related to vector-borne diseases.

Collaborations don’t have to stop at the scientific level, either. Much of my presentation for the ECP Recognition Symposium highlights working with diverse audiences, whether it be the general public, other extension educators, or specific stakeholder groups. I worked with Penn State Extension to develop and deliver information about vector-borne disease prevention, but it’s the small anecdotes and conversations that I had with stakeholders that give way to new potential ideas for research and beyond. I truly think we can make some magic when we work with and learn from people who have diverse backgrounds and experiences. Plus, solving challenging problems can be fun when you have people you enjoy working with!

What’s a recent research challenge you had to overcome, and how did you do it?

During my Ph.D. and now as a Research Entomologist with the USDA, I develop models by digging into data and finding patterns. To create robust models, data collection over extended periods of time is required. However, instead of that, I can rely on datasets other people have collected. This has created wonderful collaborations I’ve built over the last few years, but it wasn’t always a smooth road. Building those connections and collaborations with people can often require a lot of time and effort. Especially as a new graduate student, it was intimidating to essentially ask to work with someone and the data that they possibly took a decade or more time to build.

This hesitation carried over into my current position, where I was worried that a potential stakeholder didn’t want to collaborate with me after all or that I would have to pivot my entire research project if they didn’t have the data. The big win here is that I formed those collaborations successfully and recently received data after extensive conversations and building connections. Being prepared with research questions and methods helped stakeholders understand why I needed their help in data procurement and how I will use those datasets. In addition, I found that meetings with stakeholders that provide updates on my projects help maintain those collaborations and continue positive relationships.

If you could go back in time, what advice would you give to your graduate student self?

Explore and be open to all of your options. While I mean this mostly in the sense of career choice, this is also applicable to research and even personal experiences. While most of us will have academic experiences coming fresh out of graduate school, I highly recommend looking into career options in the government/public and industry sectors. When I graduated from my Ph.D., I had no idea where I wanted to take my career. As someone who loves to plan things ahead of time, not being 100 percent sure about my career choice made me feel discouraged and anxious.

While it’s important to identify your trajectory early in your career, it is totally normal to not know what you want to do either! In my case, I started looking into various career options, talking to people with those careers, and started to plan for ways to go in those career trajectories. My advice to my graduate student self and to any graduate students reading this: Go explore your options and see what careers work for you and which careers utilize your strengths in the best way possible. Reach out to hiring committees and ask for an informational interview, attend a webinar on different career types in entomology (the ECP Committee recently completed a webinar series focused on careers in entomology), or sit in on a symposium focused on how to get a job in a particular sector (check out the schedule for the Joint Annual Meeting for some of the job-seeking events the ECP Committee is hosting).

ESA has many job-seeker resources on helping you explore your options and getting you the job you want, so I highly recommend you use those resources as a member of ESA. Even if you find out you don’t want to pursue a certain career after learning more about it, at least you know to avoid that direction! Don’t feel like you have to pursue a certain type of job because it’s expected of you. You have a choice and there is a wealth of knowledge and career opportunities that await you!

What is one thing you would change about the field of entomology?

The field of entomology can be fairly siloed, where we specialize in our one area or system, but I feel like it doesn’t have to be that way. I often attend other types of symposia at the Annual or Branch Meetings because I think it can apply to my work; while the system may be different, the skills are transferable. This was true when I switched from a mosquito system to a tick system and then to another different tick system. I think it’s time to start tearing down those siloes and learn skills from other systems and take those skills back to our own study systems.

Not only can we be siloed within our field, but the siloes are even more pronounced for those who consider themselves to be “entomology-adjacent,” where people work with an insect or arthropod as their model system but they don’t consider themselves to be entomologists. I think that’s something we can and should change within our field. Highlighting cross-sectional work and encouraging these entomology-adjacent people to be more involved in the entomology field is one of the major goals I have for the MUVE symposium and initiative I’m leading this year.

Hopefully, other members or sections feel the same and will pursue similar initiatives to look at other society memberships and invite them to entomology conferences even if those scientists may not necessarily consider themselves entomologists. I think everyone can be an entomologist, whether they realize it or not! Let’s embrace our inner entomologists!

What’s the coolest thing about your job that you wish more people knew?

There are always more questions to answer. You will literally never run out of things to study when it comes to vector-borne diseases, whether it is basic research or applied work! Research is always ongoing for all parts of the vector-borne disease system, including the vector itself, the pathogen, or the animals involved. For example, one of my research projects focuses on the ecology of cattle fever ticks and the pathogens that affect cattle, namely Babesia bovis or B. bigemina—this is a tick-borne disease system that has been eradicated from the U.S., but we occasionally see spillover into the U.S. Joining my unit, I was worried that there wouldn’t be enough new questions to answer since so much research has been conducted on this system already, but of course there are always more things to study even in a system that has been studied since the 1800s.

Even when you think you have an answer, sometimes those answers can surprise you and give very unexpected results. During my postdoc, I worked with ticks and their behavior, and this was certainly true! The ticks were not behaving in the way we expected, so we had to pivot and find alternative hypotheses and tests to explain their behavior. Regardless of the results you get, it’s always an exciting time to be in this field because it’s always rapidly changing with new innovations created every day, but there is always an opportunity for you to ask and answer new questions in this field.

Learn More

Early Career Professionals Recognition Symposium

2022 Joint Annual Meeting of the Entomological Societies of America, Canada, and British Columbia, November 13-16, Vancouver

Lorena Lopez, Ph.D., is a postdoctoral researcher at Virginia Tech Department of Entomology’s Eastern Shore Agricultural Research and Extension Center and chair of the ESA Early Career Professionals Committee. Twitter: @lorelopez257. Email:

All photos courtesy of Karen Poh, Ph.D.

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