How a Life-Long Interest in Wildlife Brought One Entomologist to Vector-Borne Disease Ecology
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.) Read past posts in the Standout ECPs series.
Heather Kopsco, Ph.D., is an associate research scientist in the Diuk-Wasser Eco-Epidemiology Lab at Columbia University in New York City. She received a B.A. in English with a minor in gender studies from Rutgers University and took a position with the Wildlife Conservation Society development department, where she quickly realized that ecological research was her calling. She then received a B.S. and M.S. in biology from Montclair State University and a Ph.D. in biological and environmental sciences from the University of Rhode Island (URI).
Kopsco was a postdoctoral research associate in the Department of Pathobiology in the College of Veterinary Medicine at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign before starting her new position at Columbia University. Kopsco is an active member of the ESA Medical, Urban, and Veterinary Entomology Section as an ECP member, where she serves as a judge for presentations at ESA conferences and has been previously featured on Entomology Today for her research.
Poh: Tell us a little bit more about your research! You do some pretty exciting work on tick ecology and human behavior as it relates to tick and tick-borne disease prevention. What inspired you to pursue these different topics? What have been some of the major findings of your research thus far?
Kopsco: I’ve always been interested in wildlife ecology, and I was never able to mentally separate humans from that. Initially I thought I would go into some kind of conservation research or human/wildlife conflict studies. However, my own experience with Lyme disease after conducting field work, as well as working with the public at URI’s TickEncounter Resource Center led me to want to better understand the human component to tick-borne disease ecology, as well as to get a better handle on science communication.
Some of the major findings from my Ph.D. and postdoc research stem from my work with a passive surveillance system and the information we learned from the people who interacted with it. We found that crowdsourced photographs of commonly occurring ticks can be identified to species and stage with nearly 97 percent accuracy by trained tick identifiers. The reports sent to TickEncounter’s TickSpotters program helped fill in more of the U.S. county record map and further emphasized the importance of multiple surveillance methods to get an accurate depiction of tick occurrence nationwide.
In both my Ph.D. and postdoc research, I’ve employed knowledge, attitude, and practice surveys that have identified important information gaps among numerous groups. We’ve also learned that personal connections are key to information dissemination, and people readily say they trust conventional sources of tick-borne disease prevention information (the CDC, academic institutions, physicians/public health), but will first seek information and opinions from their friends and family.
Other important findings come from my research on tick habitat suitability using species distribution modeling methods. A scoping review showed that there are numerous methods to modeling current and future tick occurrence, but it is in no way standardized. I built habitat suitability models to predict the occurrence of four tick species in Illinois through 2070 and found that the riparian zones along the Illinois and Mississippi Rivers and Shawnee National Forest are key locations within the state that support populations of Ixodes scapularis, Amblyomma americanum, Dermacentor variabilis, and increasingly Amblyomma maculatum, whose ranges within the state are all expected to expand come 2070.
Now at Columbia, I’m continuing work on socio-ecological tick-borne disease projects in the Eco-Epidemiology Lab and hoping to branch out beyond just ticks and maybe get into spillover disease vectors of birds and bats in an urban setting (which obviously include ticks). We’ll see!
Tell us about your favorite or standout memory involving your research.
Tough to pick a single favorite memory! The moment I hit my goal and secured crowdsourced funding through an all-or-nothing campaign (Experiment.com) to fund my master’s research is a big one. That was one of the most satisfying things I’ve ever accomplished, aside from earning my Ph.D. But then there are wild memories that also stand out, like when I got our vehicle stuck in a conspicuous mud pit outside some remote, zero-cell-service paddocks in southern Illinois during field work. Thank goodness for local farm hands who were able to tow us out else we’d have been sleeping in the car that night.
How did you first become interested in entomology, and more specifically, ticks? Was there a specific moment or class in college where you knew you wanted to continue exploring the field of entomology?
My mom tells a story about when I was a toddler: She found me turning over rocks and eating woodlouse isopods in our backyard—so I guess it began then! Ticks became a focus after I was diagnosed with Lyme disease while doing field work for my master’s degree that turned into a 9-month bout with post-Lyme disease syndrome. It was an awful experience that left me with a lot of time to dive deeper into what was happening to me from an ecological perspective. I ended up investigating the prevalence of Borrelia burgdorferi among migratory and resident passerines for my master’s thesis and became fascinated with vector ecology in general.
After you completed your Ph.D., you moved into a postdoctoral position with the College of Veterinary Medicine at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign. What was the transition from graduate student to postdoc like, and how did you adjust to your new position?
Given the circumstances, it was challenging. I graduated in May 2020 from URI and moved my family (3-year-old daughter, two dogs, and emergency physician partner) across the country during that uncertain vaccine-less part of the pandemic. As with any new position, there was a period where I felt like I had no idea what was going on, there was so much to learn, and that nagging guilt that it was taking me far too long to catch up. Adding a pandemic on top of it, one that prevented the first field season from happening, made me feel even more like I was in completely over my head.
In the end, however, the rough start helped me hone some of the most important skills I think a researcher can have—flexibility and creativity. Things don’t go according to plan, so having backups to the backups and being comfortable with change and out-of-the-box thinking can really help. We ended up cooking up another project that we were able to get our granting agency to agree to fund as a substitute. It all turned out rather great.
What is your long-term career goal, and how has that changed since you were a graduate student, if at all?
I wanted to do a postdoc to focus on building more modeling skills and to prepare me should I want to pursue an assistant professorship. At the time that I completed my Ph.D., I truly wasn’t sure if I wanted to go the tenure-track route or government/nonprofit research. What I knew was that I wanted to do research, mentor students, and have plenty of access to working with the public.
I just recently completed my time at Illinois and am moving on to a research scientist position in the Diuk-Wasser lab at Columbia. I haven’t completely closed myself off to the idea of tenure-track, but I really am enjoying getting to work on a lot of different projects with many different people without having to be solely (financially) responsible for keeping a lab running.
Do you have any advice for graduate students interested in pursuing a postdoctoral position after graduation? What should students think about as they decide on future positions in the academic sector? What skills do you think someone needs to be successful as a postdoc?
Postdoc positions can be very useful if you want to get some additional experience in new research methods (I sought out postdocs where I could explore more in-depth modeling) or more practice operating at an independent researcher level. I wasn’t entirely sure I wanted to go the tenure-track route, so a postdoc was helpful for me to get more of a supervisor and mentor role and to get a better understanding of what responsibilities a principal investigator handles. If you are also not sure of your next steps and want to get more in-depth experience and make more connections, a postdoc could be right for you.
However, you need to be comfortable working (often very) independently, asking for feedback, writing grant proposals and reports, and playing a more logistical role in addition to research. Many postdocs are also only funded for one year (I lucked out and got a little over three), so the feasibility of moving to a new location for a very short time must be taken into consideration. Check to see what the remote possibilities are as well (one good thing to come out of COVID). The pay is also relatively limited compared to an assistant professorship or an industry or government position.
You’ll be hosting a symposium at Entomology 2023, “What Works (and What Doesn’t)? Evaluating Vector-Borne Disease Education.” Tell us a little bit more about it! And do you have any tips for students or other ECPs interested in submitting an idea for a symposium in the future?
Yes! We gathered an incredible group of researchers who have a lot of different perspectives on tick-borne disease education across a variety of settings and demographics. We will be sharing our experiences on what we’ve found to be successful interventions as well as the less-than-successful strategies. We hope attendees will leave with an understanding of what’s been done, what can be done, and what needs to be done to empower people to prevent tick-borne disease.
I worked with Dr. Becky Smith to put the submission together, and, from this experience, the advice I would give to anyone looking to submit a symposium proposal for ESA is to take the chance that what you’re working on is worth sharing broadly and that there are plenty of others out there who are doing similar work. It’s good for all of us (and the public!) that these symposia happen.
When you’re not busy tick hunting, how do you like to spend your time winding down from a busy workday or week?
My family (partner, 6- and 1-year-old humans, and two senior but still active pitbulls) keeps me pretty occupied. I like to get outdoors hiking or exploring with them (or by myself) whenever I can. Gardening, struggling to maintain an ever-growing collection of house plants, exploring restaurants and breweries, and playing guitar are also among my favorite downtime activities.
Bonus round: Give us your top five tips for preventing tick bites year-round.
1) Expect them. Land-use and climate alterations are increasing the locations and length of time that tick and human/pet outdoor activity overlap. Ticks are active year-round.
2) Treat your clothes. Permethrin spray is a highly effective fabric treatment that durably lasts for many washes. If you have certain apparel that you often use for field or outdoor activity, that would be the stuff to treat. Shoes are a must to treat in the spring as a first line of defense against nymphs. Use as directed.
3) Treat yourself. Slow-release DEET lotion is my favorite way to get both tick and mosquito coverage on skin. It lasts all day, is safer for kiddos, doesn’t have the intense DEET odor or unpleasant skin feel, and reduces DEET absorption into the skin thanks to sweet liposome tech.
4) Treat your pets. Make sure your animals that spend time outside are properly covered as well. There are a lot of products on the market to meet anyone’s needs or preferences. Talk to your vet, and make sure it’s something with a legit, tested, active ingredient (not just essential oils).
5) Make tick checks a habit. EPA-registered repellents are solid strategies for preventing tick bites, but nothing is fool proof. It’s a good idea to make tick checks a normal part of your routine whenever you’ve been out in tick habitat. This goes for both people and pets. Check everywhere, but pay close attention to cozy warm places where ticks can easily hide.
Karen Poh, Ph.D., is a research entomologist at the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Medical, Urban, and Veterinary Entomology Section Representative on the ESA Early Career Professionals Committee. Twitter: @areyoukeddingme. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.
All photos courtesy of Heather Kopsco, Ph.D.