Alumnus finds study of entomology built a useful perspective for his medical career

Dr. Mike Kates says learning to view insect pest management within a system prepared him to see his patients holistically.

Entomology alumnus Mike Kates

I grew up loving nature and the outdoors. My grandfather, a member of the Michigan Mycological Society, knew all the scientific names of the mushrooms and expected me to know them, too. In high school, I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do—­maybe go to medical school—­but definitely something in science with a doctorate.

When I was in high school, my dad, an attorney, had a medical malpractice case involving a suspected infected brown recluse spider bite. He took me along to MSU where he deposed Professor Richard Snyder. Along with hearing Snyder share his expertise, we walked around the Natural Sciences building, which impressed me and helped me choose MSU. Later at new student orientation, I considered majoring in engineering, but realized it didn’t excite me.

I remembered I enjoyed talking with Professor Snyder and looked for general entomology courses I could take. I found ENT 205, “Pests, Society and Environment” taught by George Bird and as soon as I sat down in that class, I was transfixed. Bird is a great lecturer and I remember him talking about systems, showing connections and discussing integrated pest management. I was someone who marched to the beat of his own drum and entomology suited me. It was different, but a very applicable field of study. So, I met with the department’s undergraduate advisors, Walt Pett and Chris DiFonzo, and became an entomology major.

Pett and DiFonzo were so much fun and great mentors. I became comfortable with entomology realizing I could do something in academia within this cool niche of science and still have the option of medical school someday if I wanted. Entomology is unique: a niche, and yet global as insects or arthropods have interactions in just about anything you do.

My senior year, I applied to graduate school programs and medical school. Then Chris DiFonzo invited me to be a graduate student working on a grant for the Michigan soybean growers, which I accepted. Unfortunately, as happens with biology, the soybean aphid populations we were studying crashed and I didn’t have enough data. I was able to finish my master’s degree, but I chose to go to medical school and DiFonzo was very supportive, telling me faculty care about students and the goal is for students to feel fulfilled.

I’m now a family doctor in a hospital-owned practice that includes obstetrics in Marquette, Michigan. I think entomology is a good jumping off point if you’re interested in medicine. Another Entomology alumna, Chelsea Rawe, graduated after me and she followed up her entomology studies with medical school and the Peace Corp.

I learned in my entomology classes the importance of holistic thinking. I remember Dr. Bird lecturing about systems like integrated pest management of onion maggots. He explained the benefits of field margins where predatory wasps could reproduce and how the wasps’ pupae developed in manure at a nearby dairy farm. Learning the process and how to step back and view a problem holistically is an important skill that I got from entomology.

I took my addiction medicine boards recently and hope to switch to running a clinic focusing on opioid abuse disorder. Entomology influences my perspective of the opioid epidemic, which I view as a function of systemic factors. We had a perfect storm of governmental, pharmaceutical, economical and societal factors that created this epidemic. It’s not so different from the factors that explain how a new invasive species like soybean aphid gets established. Not only do we have a plant, soybean, that is susceptible to the insect, but we also have the aphid’s overwintering plant, buckthorn, which is also an invasive species. The training I got in Entomology prepared me to view patients’ health in the context of systems that underpin and create medical problems. That is why I’m interested in why someone has a substance abuse disorder and the systemic things we can do to help them.

Working in an area like Marquette, I’ve found I have more options for deciding what I want my expertise to be and some freedom to build it. I grew up vacationing in the Upper Peninsula and still appreciate the outdoors. Biking, skiing and fishing are within 6 minutes of my house. That’s really helpful, being a busy physician, and is part of why practicing medicine here works for me.

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