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Daniel Usry at the University of Georgia’s “Insectival” in a beetle costume

Actual Living Scientist: Daniel Usry, Entomologist

As the saying goes, if you do what you love, you never work a day in your life. That is generally the goal, but most people do not stumble from their hobby to their career as fortunately as Daniel Usry did. Daniel is an entomologist (or as he calls it, a “bug scientist”), with a master’s degree from the University of Georgia. He studies the spread of diseases by mosquitoes and the effects of repellents and insecticides, and loves every minute of it.

Daniel Usry grew up in the remote town of Thomson, Georgia, about 30 minutes outside of Augusta. From an early age, Daniel was fond of bugs and took advantage of living in the countryside where there was little human disturbance of the naturally occurring environment. During his childhood summers, Daniel could be found outside, collecting different bugs, plants, and foliage to recreate small ecosystems in his large aquarium tank. Some of his attempts at creating a stable ecosystem were more successful than others. He recalls accidentally killing all of the smaller insects in his tank in a matter of a day because he had introduced a dragonfly nymph, which as it turns out is an extremely predatory animal that ate the other insects.

A click beetle (left) and a stag beetle (right) from Daniel’s bug collection.

Fast forward to the present. Daniel is much better at keeping bugs, particularly mosquitoes, alive and even gets paid for it. However, Daniel had to learn a lot before he got here, and in fact, he almost did not end up as an entomologist. When Daniel started college, he decided to study biology based on his passion for bugs and nature. He never saw his hobby as a career opportunity, but thought biology was something related and intended to continue his education to become a doctor. The real turning point came out of one of Daniel’s favorite classes, Evolution and Ecology. This class was focused on the basis of evolution and the study of living organisms. The class required an independent study project in which students studied a species and its role in the environment. Daniel was studying roly polies (also known as pill bugs) for this project, which he pointed out are not insects but terrestrial crustaceans. While working on this project, Daniel was reminiscent of this childhood summers collecting bugs, and his homework did not feel like work.  He’ll calls this the “turning point”. This was the first time Daniel thought he could turn his hobby into a career.

Both of Daniel’s professors in the Evolution and Ecology class were entomologists, and he started learning more about the field. He, like many others, did not know that there was an entire field of science devoted to studying insects. His professors became his mentors and as Daniel learned more about the field, he quickly abandoned the idea of becoming a doctor. Instead, he applied to the University of Georgia for a master’s program in entomology.

Some of Daniel’s previous pets include hissing cockroaches (left) and a scorpion (right).

While Daniel’s serendipitous story is well on it’s way to a happy ending, it still has a few twists to go. When Daniel started his master’s program, he originally wanted to focus on insect taxonomy. Daniel explains that insect taxonomy is the study of the evolution of insects, or how different species of insects came to be throughout history. However, there were no openings in any of the insect taxonomy labs so he ended up working in a mosquito lab focusing on physiology and disease. Here, Daniel studied the anatomy of different species of mosquitoes and how they carry different diseases such as malaria or yellow fever. Although this was not his first choice, he was nonetheless intrigued and it certainly led to an interesting and fulfilling career.

While studying mosquitoes, Daniel learned about an opportunity to work at the Center for Disease Control (CDC). Upon graduation, Daniel started working on the Malaria Research and Reference Reagent Resource Program, or MR4 Program, at the CDC. The MR4 Program aims to provide resources for researchers studying specific species of mosquitoes that spread malaria. Daniel explains that malaria is a potentially deadly disease caused by a parasite. Humans can be infected by malaria if a mosquito carrying the parasite bites a human. Malaria was eliminated in the U.S. in the 1950s, but is still a serious threat in parts of the world. The CDC estimates that 3.2 billion people live in areas where malaria is a risk, and malaria caused 438,000 deaths in 2015.

Given that malaria still threatens billions of people, many research groups are interested in studying the transmission of malaria through mosquitoes. However, in order to do this, researchers require a consistent sample of mosquitoes of the same species and same genetic strain. The three main species of mosquitoes studied for transmission of diseases are the Adese, Anopheles, and Culex. The MR4 Program maintains a live colony of these, along with three other species of mosquitoes. The six species are further divided into 64 genetic strains, with each strain housed and grown independently. The strains can be thought of as a breeds of a dog. A German Shepherd and Rottweiler are different breeds but both are the same species, while a wolf is a different species.

Similarly, a given species has different genetic strains with different physiological features. Daniel explains that these variations lead to different responses to the same malaria parasite, pesticide, or insect repellent. Thus, researchers need to know which species and genetic strain they are working with in order to accurately and reproducibly study malaria and other diseases. By identifying the species and genetic strain of a mosquito, isolating it, and allowing it to reproduce independently of mosquitoes of different species and strains, the MR4 Program is able to maintain distinct colonies of mosquitoes. Researchers can request samples from the MR4 Program for free for their work. Daniel was part of the group that identified the particular species and strain of the mosquito to maintain their colonies. Part of Daniel’s job was to make sure a different genetic strain was not introduced into a colony, let alone a dragonfly nymph!

Daniel would sort through hundreds of mosquitoes such as these every day while working at the CDC.

In order to identify which species a mosquito is, there are very particular features Daniel would look for. For example, when looking at a group of mosquitoes under a microscope, Daniel could separate out the Anopheles or Aedes mosquitoes by hairs on the side of the abdomen. Then he would separate out the Anopheles based on their spotted wings.The process for identifying the genetic strain was more complex. Daniel would have to analyze the DNA of a mosquito and compare that to the known DNA of the genetic strains to see if they matched. This way, each mosquito was organized by its species and genetic strain to maintain the colonies, and ensured that researchers had free access to these samples whenever necessary.

The uniform samples enable robust and reproducible research that allows researchers to make sound conclusions. These discoveries can help improve the lives of billions of people, whether it is by better understanding disease transmission or the effects of pesticides and repellants on different mosquitoes.The MR4 Program is especially important during times of disease outbreak. For example, during the height of the ongoing Zika outbreak, Daniel speculates the MR4 had a spike in sample requests. Daniel sees the changing political climate and hopes that the CDC and MR4 Program will not suffer from decreases in funding. He believes the work being done is important, and hopes policymakers understand the science they are regulating.

Part of Daniel’s 300+ mounted insect collection (left) and Daniel’s previous pet, a black widow spider, enjoying a mealworm for dinner (right).

Daniel no longer works at the CDC, but still works with bugs and mosquitoes. He now lives in Greenfield and works as an entomologist. After all these years, Daniel still maintains the same passion for insects that he had in his childhood. He still collects bugs and has them as pets in his home. Daniel has had scorpions, black widow spiders, giant water bugs, and much more as pets in the past. Currently, Daniel has 300 mounted insects in his collection, and some hissing cockroaches and roly polies as pets. Even though roly polies are not insects, it seems like Daniel still has a sweet-spot for the impostors that led him to his career in entomology.

Written by Palak Pujara for the Milwaukee Area Science Advocates (MASA)

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