Entomology awards John M. Clark its distinguished alumnus award

A toxicologist at heart, Clark’s entomology studies gave him the skills to flourish with his pesticide resistance and mode of action studies.

John Clark

The MSU Department of Entomology is pleased to honor John M. Clark with its 2020 Entomology Distinguished Alumnus Award. Clark is a professor of environmental toxicology and chemistry and director of Massachusetts’ Pesticide Analysis Laboratory at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst.

Barry Pittendrigh prepared Clark’s nomination and in his cover letter noted how prolific Clark has been as a leading figure in insect molecular biology and toxicology. “He is an editor, or on the editorial board of over 11 journals, has received over $18 million in funding, has over 480 peer-reviewed articles in academic journals, 12 published books, 38 book chapters, 160-plus keynote presentations and has organized 23 national and international symposia. He has played an active role in the training of over 60 graduate students and 20 postdoctoral researchers,” wrote Pittendrigh. He also describes Clark as a driving force in louse molecular biology and toxicology, a leader in elucidating the molecular basis of polygenic pesticide resistance.

Unfortunately, due to the COVID-19 pandemic restrictions, we were unable to host Clark at a celebration at MSU. I called him recently for the interview below and found him in his lab, which has an essential mission.

When did you graduate from MSU? Why did you choose entomology? I graduated with my PhD in 1981. My path to entomology was very indirect. I earned my BS in zoology and MS in entomology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Fumio Matsumura was my adviser for my master’s and I followed him to MSU when he was hired as director of the Pesticide Research Center. With Matsumura, I researched the mode of action of pyrethroid insecticides on squid nerve using biochemical and electrophysiology techniques, spending summers at the marine Biology Laboratory in Woods Hole, Massachusetts. We looked at whether a similar approach worked on the cockroach nervous system, it did and was my first entomology paper. I took many entomology courses and served as a teaching assistant for Matsumura, Jim Miller and Matt Zabic. When I got to Massachusetts, I relied heavily on knowledge from from them as well as Ring Carde’, Rich Merritt and Herold Newson. I made many decisions based on what they taught me.

Currently, I run a toxicology lab best known for mode of action studies and mechanisms of pesticide resistance. I’ve worked extensively with Colorado potato beetle, mosquito, drosophila and on the current project, human head and body lice.

Best memories as an entomology student? MSU was very social. Alice Ellis, who was head secretary at the Center, is a good friend and we still communicate. Matt Zabic would take some of us canoeing on the Two Hearted River or out in his sailboat. I’ve stayed in touch with many of my classmates and collaborate on projects with some of them, including Dick Beeman and Jeff Scott.

Thoughts for current students? Don’t get hung up thinking your first job out of school is your last job. Matsumura told me that to stay active in science, about every 10 years regardless of your project’s success, drop it and do something totally different. Sometimes I chose to move to something new, other times ideas came from colleagues, like in my work with lice. John Edman at UC-Davis thought I should explore why homeowner products for treating head louse infestations were no longer working. At first I wasn’t very interested. I suspected it was knock down resistance and that was what we eventually found in head lice populations around the world. With Barry Pittendrigh and Si Hyeock Lee, we sequenced the genes involved, identified the mutations causing resistance and have developed a number of DNA diagnostics to monitor louse populations. Now I’m working with companies looking for products that are exploiting unique target sites, products that will be less likely to impact non-target species and can be alternated with other products in a resistance management format.

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