Edmund Norris was in kindergarten when he was asked which career he would like to pursue when he grew up. He recalls other students saying astronaut or fireman, or a few other stereotypical responses, but he said entomologist.
Norris, a graduate student in entomology, thought an entomologist was a bug doctor, but he later discovered entomologists work to understand the biology of insects in the wild.
Norris grew up digging for bugs in his backyard and around the neighboring woods, immersing himself in the environment where he could find insects. His fascination with insects never dwindled as he went on to study molecular and cellular biology at the University of Illinois before entering Iowa State's graduate program in entomology.
Norris came to Iowa State in January 2014 after applying to work in Joel Coats’ laboratory, which emphasizes studying insect toxicology, environmental toxicology and environmental chemistry of agrochemicals. Norris emphasized that having the ability to do applied research has been fundamental for his studying at Iowa State.
Donald Lewis, professor and extension entomologist, said many professors and graduate students within the entomology department are working on applied research.
Applied research is a form of systematic inquiry involving the practical application of science.
“We are doing basic and applied research on crop pests of interest to Iowans," Lewis said. "We are also doing research on novel control mechanisms, whether that’s the discovery of new insecticides, a development of pathogens that kills insects without harming the rest of the ecosystem, or whether it's understanding the molecular function of chemicals inside the insect body."
Lewis is a specialist in the Iowa State plant and insect diagnostic clinic, which seeks to help farmers, producers, gardeners and homeowners understand their pest problems and “how to most efficiently, effectively and sustainably manage their pest problems.”
The integrated clinic answers public questions about insects, plant diseases and weeds. Samples of those things can be sent to Iowa State, where a variety of experts will examine the samples, make a diagnosis and offer a recommendation to the public on what to do.
Lewis also teaches the Entomology 511 class, which offers students the opportunity to study tropical crops in Costa Rica during Spring Break.
“The opportunity to work with students studying abroad and the opportunity to be in Costa Rica over Spring Break makes that one hands down my favorite course,” Lewis said.
The trip includes visits to local farms, mostly ones that produce the majors crops of Costa Rica: pineapple, coffee, sugar cane, mangos and bananas.
Students observe how the crops are harvested and processed for export before returning to Iowa, where they will examine the crops when they arrive at local grocery stores.
Iowa State's entomology department allows undergraduate and graduate students to study on a large scale.
Norris will travel to Orlando, Florida, at the end of September for the International Congress of Entomology (ICE) meeting, where he will present his current research at the graduate student practice presentation seminar Sept. 19 as a part of the entomology seminar series.
Gregory Courtney, professor and co-coordinator of the entomology seminar series, has scheduled multiple people in the industry to attend the seminar series.
In regard to the graduate student practice presentation, he is most looking forward to hearing about the diverse research projects that faculty and students at Iowa State are participating in.
The graduate student practice presentation seminar will serve as a rehearsal for the graduate students who will present their research at the ICE.
“It’s really important for students to go through their talk in front of an audience, especially because I think they’re limited to 12 minutes, and often times, if you haven’t presented a lot, that’s a real challenge," Courtney said. "It’s much more challenging to present a 12-minute talk than a one-hour seminar."
Norris will present his research on spatial repellents, which he views as “an exciting new class of repellents that may be able to more effectively repel mosquitos that vector various types of diseases.”
Norris worked on the research alongside James Klimavicz, Ariel Blackman and Coats.
The ICE meeting, which takes place every four years, is one of the largest entomology conferences in the world.
Iowa State graduate students will present their research and meet with other researchers in the field to learn about some of the most important entomology topics.
Norris’ research in the entomology department is generally related toward mosquitoes.
As a research associate, Norris worked with Coats on a Department of Defense project that focused on using plant essential oils to control the African malaria mosquito and the yellow fever mosquito.
While working on the project, Norris tried to come up with better ways to control the yellow fever mosquito, which serves as a vector for the Zika virus.
“My research going forward, it’s a little bit broader than the project I worked on as a research associate," he said. "It’s really exploring the activity of natural compounds or plant derived compounds against insect species. So I guess trying to use them as future insecticides, as future repellents and learning how those compounds operate within the insect.”
Particularly, Norris’s research aims to solve how to prevent the spread of mosquito-borne diseases.
“The goal is to come up with some type of technology, here in the lab, that can be used to curb the amount of wild mosquito populations and prevent mosquito-borne disease,” Norris said.
Norris has come a long way since thinking he would become an entomologist to protect bugs from sickness. Instead, he's now focusing his career on how to prevent humans from getting sick from mosquitoes.
To those in the entomology department, “entomology” means more than just studying insects.
“I would say that the more we know about that group of organisms, the more we know about the life around us, particularly if you consider that most of the species out there across the globe are yet to be discovered or named," Courtney said. Even conservative estimates are that there are between 5 and 10 million species of insects, and we’ve only got a million of them described."