Colonel Stephen Bert
Colonel Stephen Berté, Military Entomologist
Military entomologists are primarily responsible for protecting the health of the U.S. military. Throughout history, infectious diseases (including those transmitted by insects) and other non-battle injuries have produced more casualties in armies than actual combat actions. Diseases carried by insects and other arthropods make up a large portion of infectious diseases, such as malaria, dengue, and Leishmaniasis, that are important to the military. Entomologists in the military are uniformed officers who are part of a team of preventative medicine professionals.
While military deployments make the news, much training and preparation of military forces occurs between such events. Military entomologists provide support to the day-to-day operations of all military installations, seafaring vessels, and aircraft of the U.S. Department of Defense (DOD). Because of this broad mission, they also work in other entomological fields such as the management of urban and vertebrate pests, and even weeds. They also conduct entomological research.
Military training and sustainment operations take place on bases and aboard ships that can have populations exceeding many small towns and even small cities in America. Military entomologists support these populations by providing technical advice, conducting surveillance of insect-vectors (that cause disease) and other pests, and implementing insect control methods to protect the health of military personnel and to protect military property.
The military also conducts entomological research to develop new insect repellents and new methods to rapidly diagnosis insect vectors. The diversity of military entomology assignments allows officers to serve as pest controllers, consultants, teachers, and researchers. These assignments can occur throughout the United States and in Africa, Asia, Europe, the Middle East, and South America.
Dr. Stephen Berté is a Colonel in the U.S. Army assigned in the Washington, D.C. area. He started his career in Maryland with an Army organization that provides entomological consultant services for installations in 17 Northeastern states. He went on to other military positions, including commander of a deployable entomology detachment, chief of a preventive medicine section at an Army hospital, instructor at the Army’s Academy of Health Sciences, product manager for repellent products, and an assistant director in the Army’s Medical Infectious Disease Research Program. He also served in Japan as an entomologist and deputy commander of a preventive medicine organization that supported the Army in the Pacific islands and in all Eastern countries that border the Pacific.
On returning to the United States, Berté was assigned as the contingency liaison officer for the Armed Forces Pest Management Board in the Washington, D.C., area. His permanent assignments have taken him to several U.S. states, and even Japan. His business trips and temporary assignments have taken him to 21 states, Cambodia, Eniwetok Atoll, Honduras, Mexico, Panama, South Korea, Thailand, and the United Kingdom.
Berté received a B.A. in biology from West Chester University in Pennsylvania, his M.S. in entomology from the University of Delaware, and his Ph.D. in biology, specializing in aquatic entomology from the University of Calgary in Canada.
When did you first become interested in entomology?
I was a late bloomer. Although I had a long-standing interest in the outdoors that led me to study field biology, I didn’t focus on entomology until nearly the end of my undergraduate training.
What made you want to become an entomologist?
When I was an undergraduate, I took an introductory course in entomology and loved it. The more I got into entomology, the more the diversity of the field appealed to me. The professor who taught the course helped me decide on a graduate school to attend and off I went to the University of Delaware for my Master's degree.
Can you describe a typical day? Is there such a thing?
I’ve never had the same type of job twice, but here are a few things military entomologists do.
As technical consultants to installations and military units, entomologists work from a central office from which they advise their customers on pest management issues, but they travel to their customers and provide advice by telephone, e-mail, and written reports. They may conduct surveillance of disease-causing pests such as ticks, mosquitoes, fleas, biting flies, and rodents; provide pest identification, and evaluate installation pest management programs.
Entomologists serving in deployable units are not only responsible for entomology-related issues, but also other concerns in preventive field medicine. They also must ensure that the soldiers maintain their military and technical skills and that the unit is always healthy and prepared to deploy if called to do so.
Some entomologists serve on military staffs where they provide advice on entomological and preventive medicine issues that could adversely affect the health of a command. They review the readiness and training of preventive medicine units, advise commanders on entomological threats associated with military operations, and review and recommend entomological and preventive medicine policies.
Entomology instructors teach general and medical entomology, and train military and civilian technicians to be certified DOD pesticide applicators. They also may teach at the Uniformed Services University of Health Sciences in Maryland.
Military entomologists also may conduct research to rapidly diagnose pathogens in vectors, to develop new compounds for and formulations of insect repellents, and to determine vector competency and epidemiology in such places as Egypt, Kenya, Peru, and Thailand.
What is the best part of your job?
What drew me to entomology is its diversity, and the military offers careers with a great diversity of assignments. I truly believe that every job or experience in life is an opportunity to learn, and my military career has offered me many great learning opportunities.
What is the most difficult part of your job?
What makes the military a great career is also what makes it most challenging. The great diversity of assignments brings leadership and technical challenges. Organizational skills and a strong sense of personal responsibility are indispensable to a successful military career.
What is the most challenging thing in becoming an entomologist?
Entomology is an incredible field. The sheer number of species there are to study can be daunting. Initially, it can be difficult to narrow the path in entomology you want to take, and once you take a path, you may feel you’ve become too narrowly focused in your interests. I think the important thing is to learn the fundamentals of entomology and to learn how to think critically and objectively. Those skills are needed no matter which path you take through the field of entomology.
Is being an entomologist as you imagined it would be?
At first, I imagined my life as an entomologist could turn out one of a few different ways. I might have found myself studying a group of insects and sharing what I learned to help develop new pest management products. I thought I might do entomological research and teach entomology. Over time, I hoped that no matter what I did, I’d gain enough knowledge in my field that I could advise others on how to best reach common goals. It turns out a career in military entomology has allowed me to do all of these things.
Are you glad you became an entomologist?
Absolutely. I’ve grown as an entomologist, a leader, and a person throughout the course of my career. If I were given a chance to do it over again, I would do it in a heartbeat.
What do you think students need to know about being an entomologist? In other words, how do you think their perception differs from reality?
I think when we are first starting in entomology we picture ourselves in some position that's all about insects. We see ourselves in the field or lab, immersed in our work, learning more and more, and having a great time doing it. The reality is that any career is more complex and changing than that. Wherever we work, we will be part of a team of people trying to reach a common goal. We have to learn how to assess our own strengths and weaknesses to see how we best fit into that team. As we progress in our field, we will have to take on administrative and managerial roles. Students need to realize that life’s all about developing as a person, not just an entomologist, and that being a team member who grows on several different personal levels is a very rewarding experience. You’ll find that if you work hard and strive for excellence in whatever you do, you’ll be ready and able to handle any new challenges life may throw at you.
What advice would you give to someone who wants to become an entomologist?
Set a goal for yourself and work hard to achieve it. I think that students, who worry about whether the choice they make now is the right one, fail to make any choice at all. Don’t get hung up on whether the goal you choose now is the right one. There are many "right" choices in life. You may find that as life goes on, your goals change. That’s fine. The point is to have some direction to your life at all times to help guide your choices. If you do, you will learn and develop as a person and will have an ever-stronger foundation on which you build the rest of your life. Without a goal, people often drift from course to unrelated course and eventually do the same with jobs, so they have a more difficult time developing a strong foundation that stabilizes their life. The bottom line is that you should make a decision and go for it! It’s far better and easier to change your course in life if you know where you are and where you’ve been than to try to find your way after wandering aimlessly.
For more information on military entomology, visit the Armed Forces Pest Management Board web site and click on the various services’ entomology links near the bottom of the page.