Sunday, March 27, 2011

Geek of the Week: Dr. Michael Weissmann

Dr. Michael J. Weissmann
If you want to know about bugs, Dr. Mike Weissmann is the guy to ask.  He has an extensive resume that includes co-founding the Butterfly Pavillion and Insect Center in Westminster, CO, where he also worked as the curator.  He received his undergraduate and graduate degrees from the University of Colorado in Boulder and his doctorate in Entomology from Colorado State University.  I had the privilege of interviewing Dr. Weissmann about his work and his love of bugs.

Tab:  Were you interested in bugs as a kid, or was it something that came about later?

Dr. Weissmann:  I was afraid of bugs as a kid.  My mom isn't fond of them, and as is often the case, parental influence is strong.  I was especially freaked out by spiders.  It wasn't until I got to college that I realized that insects and spiders are pretty cool, and the more you know about them, the less scary they are.  I guess that is true with many phobias - the more you learn about the item that you are afraid of, the less scary it seems to be.  I'm still a bit freaked out by pre-schoolers, but now that I have granddaughters they aren't quite as scary either.

Dr. Mike, circa 8th grade

Tab:  How did you decide to pursue entomology as a career? 

Dr. Weisssmann:   I didn't decide on entomology as a career, it decided on me.  I'm still not exactly sure how it happened.  I went to the University of Colorado to study aquatic biology.  My original intent ( comes the uber-geeky part) was to study cryptozoology, specifically to approach the study of sea monsters and lake monsters (Loch Ness in Scotland, Lake Okanagan in Canada) from a more scientific point of view as an actual aquatics "expert."  In Colorado, we have no known lake monsters.  The aquatic ecology classes focused mainly on aquatic insects, and the more I learned about them, the more fascinated I became with them.  Most of the aquatic forms are immature stages of flying adults (for example, dragonflies start out as nymphs in the water).  While my course work showed me the wild world of aquatic immature insects, I was curious about the rest of the life stages.  A friend told me about the insect collection in the research portion of the University of Colorado Museum.  I love museums, but had never gone "behind-the-scenes" into the research collections areas.  In November of 1983 (wow, was it that long ago?), I went to visit the CU Museum and requested to see the insect collections.  The semi-retired Curator of Entomology showed me some of the drawers and drawers full of insect specimens, some of which had been collected nearly 100 years earlier.  I was hooked.  He reluctantly allowed me to do an internship there in 1984 (he said that he no longer offered that course, but since it was listed in the catalog, I was fairly insistent that he should honor that).  Dr. Url Lanham became my mentor that year, allowing me to learn Entomology in the old ways, one on one with the master, helping him in the field and in the lab.  After graduating with my Masters Degree in 1986, I was retained by the Museum to help in the collection as the Assistant Curator of Entomology, allowing me to continue mentoring with Url.  I found my niche.

Tab:  Was there an entomologist or another scientist that inspired you when you first started out?

Dr. Weissmann:  My father had a broad background in and love of natural sciences.  He pursued his interest in science by becoming a family physician.  When we took family vacations, it usually included visits to National Parks and National Monuments (he called it "visiting our property" as our taxes paid for them).  These trips taught us a love of nature.  In 5th grade, I was a goof-off in the library one day (most geeks get in such trouble at a young age when they are bored) so the librarian, Mr. Titus, put me in a corner and placed a book in my hand - "More Than A Legend" by Constance Whyte, my first introduction to cryptozoololgy and the Loch Ness Monster.  The following year, my 6th grade science teacher, Norma Kourey had a classroom full of living plants and animals, inspiring me to love living things and want to study them.  Several fantastic teachers throughout the years encouraged me to pursue my interest in biology, leading eventually to me walking through the doors of the CU Museum where I met my mentor entomology, the late Dr. Url Lanham.  When I left the CU Museum in 1991 to pursue my Ph.D. in Entomology at Colorado State University, I studied with two of the greatest entomologists of our time, Dr. Boris Kondratieff, and the late Dr. Howard Evans.  My education in science, and specifically entomology, was the best a bug geek could ever hope for.

More Than a Legend by Constance Whyte

Tab:  What about butterflies fascinates you?

Dr. Weissmann:  As insects go, they are OK.  Many people believe I love butterflies, just because I consult on butterfly exhibits worldwide, have a butterfly garden in our front yard instead of a grass lawn, and am often seen wearing t-shirts covered with butterflies.  Actually, butterflies are not my main interest and really never have been.  When I started at the CU Museum, the Hall of Life was full of dead specimens, so they allowed me to put a small insect zoo in a portion of the space, featuring live insects and related arthropods.  It was a huge hit.  In 1988, while visiting a large insect zoo at the San Francisco Zoo, I learned about a new exhibit across the bay in Vallejo - a butterfly house where visitors could walk in a greenhouse surrounded by live tropical butterflies.  I was excited by the experience, and became determined to bring that kind of experience to my home state of Colorado.  However, it was always about the insects.  To me, the butterflies were a great marketing gimmick to get people to look at the other insects.  Even people who dislike (or even despise) insects make an exception in the case of butterflies.  Once in the door to see the butterflies, it would be possible to throw in some education about the less-appreciated insects.  I hoped that if a bug-hater like me could be turned around at a relatively later age in life (I was in my 20s when I first went to the CU Museum), then an insect zoo with a butterfly gimmick might help others learn to appreciate the tiny world of animals all around them. 
Tab:  What is your favorite bug? 

Dr. Weissmann:  In keeping with my initial focus on aquatic zoology, I studied the Water Scorpion for my Masters degree thesis (not a real scorpion, but a stick-like, extremely well-camouflaged, predatory bug that lives in pond water here in Eastern Colorado).  My mentor, Url Lanham, taught me a love of wild solitary bees (not the typical European honey bee that most people are familiar with, but the native bees that were here long before the European imports - nothing against European imports, as my father is one, but our native bees are very diverse and fascinating insects!). For my doctorate, I studied the Giant Sand Treader Camel Cricket at Great Sand Dunes National Monument.  Both of these are special to me.  These days, in addition to consulting on butterfly exhibits worldwide, I spend my summers working with mosquito surveillance in Colorado, and have found a fondness for these fascinating animals.  When in El Salvador consulting on a butterfly farm project, I was bit by a mosquito that was, on a microscopic scale, far more beautiful than any butterfly I have ever seen - metallic purple, green, gold, and silver in color - MESMERIZING!
Water Scorpion

Great Sand Treader Camel Cricket by Eric C. Maxwell

Mosquito by David Scharf

Tab:  Are there any bugs that you don't like or are afraid of?

Dr. Weissmann:  Not really.  There are some that I treat with the respect that they deserve, due to their ability to injure me.  I don't play with Black Widow Spiders, although I use them in my education programs.  I am careful around most arthropods that bite or sting.  I'm more afraid of pre-schoolers - those 4 year olds bite, carry many diseases, and are often dirty, the opposite of a cockroach, which tends to be clean, doesn't bite, and rarely if ever carry diseases in the wild.  It is more important to use caution when picking up a pre-schooler than when picking up most arthropods, lest you get bit and have to get shots.  Bugs are not nearly as scary. 

Tab:  What are some of the most common misconceptions about bugs?

Dr. Weissmann:  Most people believe that the majority of insects are out to do us harm.  In reality, only a tiny percent affect humans in any way.  Most go on about their lives unnoticed by us, and certainly taking little if any interest in humans or what we do.  Those that carry diseases, bite, sting, or compete with us for our food tend to give all the others a bad reputation.  If humans were to disappear from the earth, life would go on pretty much as it was before.  If insects were to disappear, life as we know it would not exist.
Tab:  What is your favorite part about being an entomologist?

Dr. Weissmann:  I get to play with bugs!  I get to be a kid forever, turning over rocks and running across fields with an insect net to see what is out there.  Also, when you are an entomologist, it is OK to be a geek, in fact it is expected that an entomologist is geeky.  Most importantly, I get to share my enthusiasm and interest in nature with others in hopes that they may also get to see insects in a more positive light the way I was "converted."

Tab:  What is most challenging about being an entomologist?

Dr. Weissmann:  There is a lot of myth-information and myth-conceptions about insects and other arthropods out there.  Hollywood doesn't help any with some of the giant scary bug movies, and now with the Internet, misinformation about arthropods travels around the world at the speed of light.  Much of my time is spent countering that misinformation and replacing it with the facts whenever possible.

Tab:  What are you working on now? 

Dr. Weissmann:  In the summer, I work as Surveillance Manager at Colorado Mosquito Control, monitoring the 48 or so species of mosquitoes in the state, as well as the diseases like West Nile Virus that they carry.  The rest of the year, I do bug programs ("Dr. Mike's Bag of Bugs") at schools around the region, as well as lectures for various groups on different topics in entomology.  I also consult around the world on new insect zoos, butterfly farms, and butterfly houses, taking the knowledge gained from our work founding the Butterfly Pavilion and Insect Center in Westminster, Colorado, and applying it to other peoples' dream of creating similar facilities.  I'm also working on making sure my granddaughters (4 of them so far!) grow up learning that insects are okay, and being geeky isn't anything to be ashamed of either.

If you would like to hire Dr. Weissmann for speaking engagements or consulting, or have some bug questions of your own, you can find his contact information on the Kallima Consultants website.
*If you'd like the chance to be interviewed and featured on Geek of the Week, leave me a short note in the comments with your email!

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