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Hands-on insights into insect chemical ecology with Professor Joe Staples

Joe Staples with mosquitos

For the past decade, Dr. Joseph Staples, an Assistant Professor of environmental science at the University of Southern Maine (USM) has made training the next generation of environmental researchers his priority.

With a background in forest ecology and entomology, Staples has helped build partnerships to put his students on the path to success.

Since 2009, Staples and his undergraduate and graduate researchers have collaborated with the Maine Medical Center Research Institute’s (MMCRI) Vector-Borne Disease Laboratory (VBDL) on a host of projects involving monitoring and control of mosquitoes and ticks throughout Maine.

Currently, his undergraduate researchers and members of the VBDL are collaborating on a project to better understand how one Maine mosquito species, Culex pipiens (commonly known as the house mosquito) is able to adapt to and resist certain insecticides.

“The process is pretty straightforward,” Staples said. “We expose mosquitos to small doses of a common pesticide and then look at the number of mosquitos that survive. This gives us a first peek at the potential for resistance.”

Insecticide resistance, according to the Insecticide Resistance Action Committee, occurs when there is a hereditary change in a pest population’s sensitivity to a product.

Over time, Staples says that naturally occurring genetic variations in insect populations means that some individuals may exhibit resistance to any number of external environmental factors, including pesticides.

The project is one of many in which Staples and his researchers explore topics in the field of chemical ecology — the process of controlling pests through the use of natural compounds — and environmental entomology. Such projects include looking at pesticide resistance and development of natural and safe alternatives for managing mosquitoes and other pests. 

Students deploy CDC light traps to collect vector mosquitoes in the field.It’s an exciting opportunity for students, particularly undergraduates, in the Department of Environmental Science and Policy, who often find themselves on the front lines of cutting-edge research early on in their academic careers.

“Practically every aspect of research we conduct in Environmental Science and Policy involves undergraduate students,” Staples said. “I can’t think of a better place for motivated undergraduates to participate in cutting-edge research.”

In fact, Staples says, it’s the experience outside the classroom that helps cultivate real learning.

“Most of our students come in from high school and this may be the first place they hear people talking about this thing called entomology. Even if they have heard about the discipline, it is unlikely that anybody has talked to them about working with insects as a career. Working in the lab makes that very real,” he said.

It is an experience Chuck Lubelczyk, a field biologist at the VBDL, has seen firsthand.

“We get a lot of students who are enthusiastic about working with us on the research we do,” he said. “It’s a lot of the students coming in who are used to enduring terrible inclement weather, and mud and rain and biting insects — they’re primed for the work we do here.”

That work includes controlling tick and mosquito-borne (vector-borne) diseases; seeking to understand the environmental interactions between those vectors, their hosts, habitats and climate; monitoring the geography of risk; and increasing public understanding and awareness of vector-borne disease threats.

That wide array of work stems from many disciplines, including biology, chemistry, and math, Staples says, which greatly prepares students for multi-faceted careers.

“The thing I really want students to take home is that what we’re covering in my classes and in the lab are really transferable skills — knowledge and abilities that apply anywhere they go,” Staples said. 

Including undergraduate students in lab research is crucial, Staples said, as he sees a need for more skilled scientists in the state.

To begin training the next generation of researchers, Staples has begun assembling a state-of-the-art Environmental Entomology and Chemical Ecology Lab on the USM Gorham campus.

Additional projects include development of an insectarium on the Gorham campus adjacent to the lab, an effort also in collaboration with the VBDL.

Once fully up and running, the facilities will offer the necessary expertise and technology to support a range of applied and fundamental research interests with other scholars in academia, as well as commercial interests.A summer visitor, Aedes vexans, getting ready to feed.

“The new facility allows for year-round access to mosquitoes for research and teaching,” Staples said.

That is important for researchers like Lubelczyk, whose work is influential in careers like landscape planning, epidemiology, and wildlife science and policy.

“One thing that we try to tell folks is that we don’t know what the next vector-borne issue will be,” Lubelczyk said, stressing that there isn’t any current reason to worry. “But there are going to be new issues, new disease conditions … and the kind of skill set that (students) get with us can be very applicable to when they enter the workforce.

 

Story and lead photo by Alan Bennett // Office of Public Affairs

Additional photos courtesy Chuck Lubelczyk