Robert D. Hall, Medical Entomologist

Introduction to Medical Entomology

Medical entomologists are concerned with the role of insects in the causation of disease in animals and humans. This field includes the study of insects and arachnids that adversely  affect the health of humans, domestic vertebrate animals, and wildlife through transmission of disease-causing agents. It encompasses the medical, public health, veterinary, and forensic aspects of entomology. The medical entomologist must understand the biological features of both pathogens (disease-causing agents) and hosts. Even in the simplest circumstances, there are three different organisms the medical entomologist must be familiar with: the pathogen, the vertebrate host, and the insect vector.

Employers of medical entomologists include federal government agencies such as the U.S. Department of Defense and Centers for Disease Control, mosquito control agencies, and universities. As many insect-borne diseases are abundant in third-world countries, medical entomologists can be found in the United Nations, the World Bank, and the World Health Organization.

An Interview with Robert D. Hall

Dr. Robert D. Hall is currently a professor of entomology at the University of Missouri. His job entails 50-percent research and 50-percent teaching of medical and forensic entomology. Combining an education of entomology and law, Hall has been involved in the advancement of forensic entomology and in interfacing entomology with the judicial system. He is routinely consulted by law enforcement and judicial agencies regarding analysis and interpretation of entomological evidence. Other accomplishments over the years include participation in the development of ear devices for control of face and horn flies and development of a mathematical life tables, which are used to predict stage-specific mortality for face flies, stable flies, and house flies.

Hall received a B.A. in English and American Literature from the University of Maryland, College Park, and his M.S. and Ph.D. in entomology from Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University. Upon graduation, he joined the faculty at the University of Missouri as an assistant professor of entomology. In addition to his responsibilities at the University, he serves as a reserve medical entomologist for the U.S. Army Medical Service Corps. Currently, he is commander of the 480th Medical Detachment.

When did you first become interested in entomology?

My involvement with entomology dates to my earliest memories inasmuch as my father was a dipterist with the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). I was privileged to accompany him and his colleagues on collecting trips and spent my formative years with entomologists either at the National Museum or at other USDA laboratories.

What made you want to become an entomologist?

My actual professional involvement with entomology was accidental. I had finished my bachelor's degree at the University of Maryland. I wanted to go into agricultural journalism, but figured that a well-credentialed journalist should know something about his or her subject, or at least have specialized knowledge pertaining to agriculture. I had taken an introductory entomology course and, having found it interesting, decided to pursue a master's program in entomology at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University. After my M.S., I had the opportunity to stay on at Virginia Tech for a Ph.D. After graduation, I joined the entomology faculty here at the University of Missouri. I never did get to be an agriculture journalist.

Can you describe a typical day? Is there such a thing?

As a professor in a typical land-grant entomology department, I can say that an entomology career is what you make it. Each day is unique and unpredictable. A "typical" day may include any combination of teaching, research, outreach, and administrative work.

Most entomology classes consist of both classroom and laboratory aspects. Since entomology enrollment is generally small, many land-grant professors do not use teaching assistants. Although classes change over the years, the subject matter remains generally the same. The material you present is reorganized to fit a particular class objective. Students, both undergraduate and graduate, are always stimulating and the diversity of the faculty on most campuses is enough to prevent boredom.

Entomology faculty have broad responsibilities pertaining to research. The professor determines the research subject that warrants investigation. The research aspect is something the professor controls—how it will be funded, reported, and done. Graduate students are essential for research as they are the ones involved in the hands-on aspect. When designing my research projects, I must take into consideration the skill level of students involved in the research. For example, if my students are Ph.D. candidates, the research must be substantial to satisfy graduation requirements.

Because the principal mission of the land-grant university is to help the citizens, there is a strong public-service flavor to such positions. This type of outreach is unpredictable. I never know what the next minute will bring. When the telephone rings, it may be a farmer seeking a solution to a crop problem, a physician requiring additional information on Lyme disease, or a law enforcement officer with a forensic entomology question.

What is the best part of your job?

There is no question that the best part of a professorial position in entomology is that you get to set your own agenda. Within the broad framework of entomology and your specialty, you have the freedom to decide what's to be done, how to do it, and what to make of it.

What is the most difficult part of your job?

Time management is the single most important skill for senior faculty. There is more to get done than there are hours in the day. Consequently, one must develop a set of priorities, an art that can be difficult to master.

What was the most challenging thing in becoming an entomologist?

When I started graduate school, I thought that memorizing all the Latinized binomens was going to be the biggest challenge. However, then and now, the most formidable task for me has involved recommendation of control strategies for pest insects—to see that they're warranted, effective, cost-rational and environmentally compatible. The accuracy of these hinges on identification, and I consider accurate insect identification to be the principal monopoly of the professional entomologist.

Is being an entomologist as you imagined it would be?

My experience has been as a faculty entomologist and as a youthful onlooker with respect to the USDA. Perhaps because of this perspective, there have been few surprises.

Are you glad you became an entomologist?

The profession of entomology has afforded me opportunities I likely would not have had otherwise. I have traveled widely, have been associated with many outstanding people, and have been able to combine a career in entomology with a legal career that in many ways is unique. While I might have reached much the same result if my original field had been medicine or veterinary medicine, I think it unlikely that I would be in the same position if I had realized my early goal of becoming an agricultural journalist. In that sense, I certainly am glad that I became an entomologist.

What do you think students need to know about being an entomologist? In other words, how do you think their perception differs from reality?

Typical students have tunnel vision, at least at the outset of their academic careers. By this, I mean that students are driven principally by developing interests—entomologically, by fascination with insects—and give little thought to actual employment or career potential until they're relatively far along in the pipeline. In my classes, I try to impress on the students that there inevitably is a "bottleneck" in every career track. Sometimes, it's easy to see: in law or medicine, the bottleneck is at the point of admission to the program. Our medical and law schools on the MU campus admit about 10% of those who apply. Once admitted, students who perform satisfactorily generally graduate, and as members of a licensed profession subsequently enjoy the status accruing to physicians and lawyers. On the other hand, disciplines such as entomology have bottlenecks that are harder for the average student to see-at least early in their careers. In contrast to medicine, etc., most students seeking admission to graduate programs will find a spot, and if they apply themselves, generally complete their degree program. Our system of research depends in large part on the labors of such students. It is only when they find that they are one of many applicants for the few professional jobs available do they finally discern the bottleneck.

I am not sure even now which is the most effective, or most merciful, system, but I tend toward the former. With professions such as law and medicine, students have an earlier run at the bottleneck and hence more time to develop fall-back plans with the greatest economy of time and energy.

What advice would you give to someone who wants to become an entomologist?

If a young person is convinced that he or she will be happy studying insects, my advice has always been, "Great; go for it!" However, he'll need to know that today's job market is extremely competitive. He'll need top grades and a first-class resume. When that one job-of-a-lifetime comes along, all the applicants will have Ph.D. degrees, all the applicants will have good grades and publications. The winners are distinguished because they have done more. They'll have completed side-projects in addition to their assigned research. They'll have written additional papers, papers their professors didn't initially request. The hallmark is initiative, and it doesn't stop with one's graduate career. To succeed, I believe that a good entomologist must be willing to go the extra mile throughout his or her career.

I'm often asked, "How can I get a job in forensic entomology?" Because forensics is one of my specialties, and because there are essentially no professional positions for such individuals, I've spent lots of time thinking about how to best answer that question. If I were seeking a professional career in forensic entomology today, I'd first go to college and earn an undergraduate degree majoring in biology or chemistry. Then, I'd go to medical school for an M.D. Good performance in medical school would allow me to pursue a residency in forensic pathology and in so doing, I'd choose a university location where there was a co-located program in forensic entomology. As part of my residency, I'd work toward graduate degrees (M.S. and Ph.D.) in forensic entomology. When I finished, I'd be fully employable as a forensic pathologist, for whom there are plenty of jobs.