How One Early-Career Entomologist’s Path Led Him to the ESA Governing Board
By Emily Sandall, 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.) Read past posts in the Standout ECPs series.
Scott O’Neal, Ph.D., was raised in the U.S. on a farm in southern Indiana, where his family still produces corn and soybeans today. He received a B.S. in genetics and microbiology from Purdue University, where he began his research career working as an undergraduate in the Department of Entomology. O’Neal earned his M.S. in forensic science at Virginia Commonwealth University, then worked for nearly a decade in the field of mammalian pharmacology and toxicology before resuming graduate school at Virginia Tech. There, he earned his Ph.D. in entomology, first studying virology and insect innate immunity in vector mosquitoes, then shifting to a focus on honey bee viruses and interactions between bee health and pesticide exposure after receiving a Predoctoral Fellowship award from the U.S. Department of Agriculture-National Institute of Food and Agriculture (USDA NIFA).
O’Neal continued his study of insect physiology and toxicology as a USDA NIFA Postdoctoral Fellow at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln until he accepted a position as a research entomologist at Corteva Agriscience in January 2020. In this role, O’Neal has shifted to working with agricultural pests, has had the opportunity to take a significant project leadership role, and will assume responsibility for coordinating many of Corteva’s interactions with the Entomological Society of America (ESA). He has also been active within ESA, previously serving on the Early Career Professionals Committee as Physiology, Biochemistry, & Toxicology Section Representative and committee chair, and he currently serves on the ESA Governing Board as the first Early Career Representative in the recently created board position.
Sandall: Can you tell us about yourself and your experiences in entomology?
O’Neal: I have been involved with entomology in one way or another since my childhood. I credit 4-H with providing the spark of interest and then a really patient and understanding elementary school teacher with helping me to fan that spark into a flame that has burned ever since. When I joined 4-H and learned that insect collections were something that people submitted to the county and state fairs, I immediately said, “This is what I want to do!”
I am not sure that my parents knew what to think about that choice, but they supported me 100 percent. I did not have anyone to teach me, so I just started reading every book and guide that I could find and taught myself the basics. I took feedback from judges, read more books, and refined my collection each year.
At that time, I also had a teacher named Sue Walters, and she was the kind of person that changes your life forever. She gave me permission to be excited about my interest in entomology and embrace my nerdiness. I got to involve insects in not just science class but also in my writing, art, and projects for other classes. From that point on, I knew that my future career would involve science and insects.
My introduction to scientific research began as an undergraduate at Purdue University, where I worked on a project exploring wheat genetics and resistance to the Hessian fly (Mayetiola destructor) with Dr. Christie Williams, a USDA Agricultural Research Service scientist associated with the entomology department. I loved working at the annual Bug Bowl! I always got to work the entomophagy booth and convince people to eat mealworms and cricket brownies. Naturally, years later, I ended up being involved with the Hokie BugFest while at Virginia Tech and the University of Nebraska-Lincoln’s Bugfest as a postdoc.
Some of my favorite memories of graduate school are the outreach activities, be it working with 4-H groups and helping with summer bug camp or teaching and conducting demonstrations for school groups and science festivals. I guess I have always enjoyed sharing that passion with others.
The thing that I like most right now, however, is sharing my love of insects with my children. Both are currently in elementary school and they love to show me the arthropods that they find. We hunt for cool insects together when we go on family hikes or even when we play in the backyard, and we recently adopted a jumping spider that we found in our house.
Have you always wanted to be an entomologist? What career would you pursue if you weren’t an entomologist?
Well, when I was just a little kid, I was certain that I would grow up to be a paleontologist and discover new dinosaurs, but, once I discovered insects, dinosaurs were quickly forgotten and I never looked back. But, seriously, the great thing about my career path is that I have done other things, and yet I still came back to entomology.
While at Purdue, I met a forensic entomologist by the name of Dr. Neal Haskell and considered pursuing that as a career for a time, which is why I have an M.S. in forensic science. This led to looking at careers with the FBI, ATF, and DEA. In all honesty, the thing that stopped me from pursuing a career in law enforcement was my passion for the sport of fencing and my decision to train and compete in hopes of going to the Olympics. I was a fencing coach for many years and ran a very successful nonprofit organization, during which time I supported my fencing habit by working in pharmacology research at Virginia Commonwealth University with Dr. Aron Lichtman. He was fantastic mentor and always reminded me that graduate school was something I could resume whenever I was ready.
When I finally decided to return to graduate school and earn my Ph.D., there was no question in my mind that I would be getting a degree in entomology. That had always been my plan, in the back of my head, even as I pursued these other interests. If I could not work in the field of entomology now, it is difficult to imagine what I might do instead. Perhaps I would try my hand at writing fiction? I have always loved reading science fiction and fantasy, I like to make up stories for my kids, and I actually enjoy writing, so it might be a good fit.
What are some of the best parts of your job? What is something that may surprise us about your job?
The two things that I appreciate most about my career with Corteva are, one, that every day is different and, two, I find myself surrounded by great people.
When I decided to go back to school to earn my Ph.D., it was a major decision. My wife and I were settled, had a community, a house, a newborn—we turned it all upside down. We quit our jobs, left our friends, sold our house, and committed to a new adventure. I did it with absolute certainty that I would eventually become a professor and work at a university. I knew nothing about industry research and had never really considered an industry career as an option.
In some ways, accepting this position was way scarier than uprooting my life and going back to school. I had worked in a university from the time I started my first undergrad research job until I left my postdoc for this role. It felt like all I knew. In fact, I probably would not have even considered applying for this position had it not been for the advice and encouragement of my friend and mentor Dr. Troy Anderson, who served as my Ph.D. and postdoc advisor. He always gave me his full support for my interests and ideas, but, more importantly, he would also push me to step outside of my comfort zone and continue growing as a scientist and as a person. I think that this role at Corteva has helped me to do exactly that.
I am not sure what others might find surprising about this job, but, for me, I think that I imagined working in industry would be monotonous, that I would do the same thing each day, each week. That has absolutely not been the case. I am constantly encountering new challenges and answering unexpected questions. I get to work with and learn from incredible colleagues all around the world, and I love it!
I have also been surprised by the emphasis on external engagement and giving back to the community. For instance, since joining Corteva I have been volunteering in our annual “Harvest for Hunger” garden, in which Corteva employees maintain a large vegetable garden throughout the year and donate the produce to local food banks. I even get to put my tractor-driving skills to use tilling our garden plots!
What do you hope to focus on or accomplish as the ECP Representative to the ESA Governing Board?
This is a great question, and one that I have been thinking about a lot since I learned that I would have the privilege of serving in this role. A big part of my job is going to be defining this role, as we have not previously had an ECP Representative on the Governing Board. To this end, I am grateful that the term of office spans three years, because I think that I have a lot to learn about how the board operates and what kind of impact one can have as a member of the board. It is my hope that I can start building a foundation of knowledge and connections for those who follow me in this role.
As far as more explicit goals, one issue that is important to me, and would be even if I were not elected to represent ECPs, is ECP retention and engagement. Just based on my own experience, I know that it would be challenging to remain active in the Society if I did not work for a company that is willing to support and even encourage my involvement in the Society. So many of my peers, including friends and former colleagues, have not been able to remain active, or even members, once they finished graduate school or left academia. I know this is a topic of importance to the Society as well, so I expect to contribute to our collective efforts to address this issue moving forward.
Do you have any advice to share for early-career professionals in entomology?
If you can be anything, be adaptive! We humans often fear change, crave stability, and desire the comfort of routine. Maybe this is not true for everyone, but it seems to me that so many of us develop an idea of what our job or life should look like, and we get frustrated if things do not match that idea. We elect not to take opportunities that come our way because they differ too much from that idea or would force us to leave our comfort zone.
One of the most stressful things that we deal with after defending that thesis or dissertation is figuring out where we go next, and I know that there are plenty of other entomologists out there who have trouble imagining themselves anywhere other than a faculty position, just as I once did. The fact of the matter is that there are way more people earning Ph.D.s in almost every field than universities can employ, so most of us are not going to find employment as tenure-track faculty. If that sounds like you, then I would encourage you to figure out how to step out of your comfort zone and do something different.
Finally, what is your favorite insect fact?
Ha! My favorite fact to share with anyone, but especially kids, is that dragonfly nymphs can move rapidly through the water with a form of jet propulsion by drawing in and expelling water through their hind end. I doubt I will ever be mature enough to not find humor in the idea of dragonflies shooting water out of their butts, and I think I am OK with that.
Thanks Scott! If you want to learn more about Scott or his work, you can find him on LinkedIn.
Emily L. Sandall, Ph.D., is a 2022-2023 AAAS Science & Technology Policy Fellow and the Systematics, Evolution, & Biodiversity Section Representative to the ESA Early Career Professionals Committee. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.
All photos courtesy of Scott O’Neal, Ph.D.