Featured entomology alumni Dan Lawson

Dan Lawson is the recipient of our department’s first Distinguished Alumni Award and will accept his award and present a seminar on campus Oct. 24, 2016.

Dan Lawson

How did your studies at MSU influence your career? After completing my master’s degree in MSU’s Fisheries and Wildlife Department, I took a year off and worked for entomology professor Rich Merritt as a technician on a new project. Soon I decided to pursue a PhD in aquatic entomology in the Merritt Lab. However, entomology clicked even earlier for me. I took a general entomology course taught by Roland Fisher as an undergrad. He was an outstanding instructor and I got hooked. Great teachers are so important!

After completing my PhD, I was fixed on the idea of a tenure-track position, but aquatic positions were difficult to obtain. I was on soft money for years at MSU while working at the Kellogg Biological Station. Keith Kennedy, a one-time MSU Entomology professor, was at the SC Johnson & Son company in Wisconsin and encouraged me to take a visit. I was impressed with their marvelous facilities, view of environmental sustainability and the support they provided for projects. In the end, I worked for SC Johnson for over 20 years and had a great time there. My first assignment was to bring the insect-rearing facility up-to-date with procedures such as documenting good laboratory practices (GLP) for the company’s insect control products. Within a few years I became a product development manager supporting mosquito control products, like Off! and Raid, within the U.S. and overseas. In many parts of the world, they don’t use window screens, so they have different indoor pest control problems compared to the U.S. The global travel for that job was a great experience. I remember standing on the Great Wall of China with Keith Kennedy and looking at each other and saying, “Did you ever think back in the days when we were at MSU that we’d be here some day?”

More recently, I was involved with international regulatory issues and, towards the end of my career, working with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation on helping to mitigate malaria in economically challenging areas around the world. SC Johnson is excellent in evaluating the consumer’s needs, wishes and every-day challenges before developing a new product. The Gates Foundation recognized that expertise and we became their collaborators for some of their efforts in this fight against malaria.

How did entomology contribute to your career? MSU’s Entomology program positioned me so I could excel at anything I wanted to do. MSU has a multidisciplinary approach to research. You learn to work in teams, which is incredibly important anywhere you might work. Team work is how you accomplish great things. My experience included system science, working with different departments and broad interactions with various disciplines.

Another important skill emphasized at MSU was basic communication and learning how to effectively deliver your scientific message to a wide audience. Students were pressed to have tight, focused presentations -- delivering content that is understandable, fostering a communication style that works within an interdisciplinary setting. I may not know engineering or computer science like I do entomology, but I do understand interdisciplinary aspects that allow me to communicate to those groups. If you cannot communicate and get your points over to a diverse crowd, you are doomed in any field one might chose to pursue.

Best memories as an entomology student? So much fun, the camaraderie between faculty and students was just great.

How has your work impacted people’s lives? You’re always hopeful your work has impact. Although I am retired, the Gates Foundation work with malaria continues and I believe is poised for great impact. So many people die of malaria. I also appreciate the work I did with others in SC Johnson product development. I hope we made the lives of those using our products better.

Thoughts for current students? Take course work outside of your core scientific area. The multidisciplinary aspect really helped me in my long-term career. I started at MSU in computer science with a heavy dose of mathematics but longed for an application. Looking around, I saw fisheries biology as a better fit for me as the curriculum gave me room to expand my interests. Then, in my master’s studies I delved more into benthic invertebrates (lake sediment dwellers). My doctoral studies moved into stream ecology and my post-doc work combined aquatic entomology with microbiology. Every time I took a step in my career, I changed focus a bit to delve into a new area. While that might be uncomfortable to some, by staying too much in your comfort zone, I’ve found you don’t learn nearly as much. Taking a broad curriculum rounded me out as a student and made me a better scientist.

I’m looking forward to being on campus and interacting with the department in October. Pleased to have this opportunity!

Read about past featured alumni in the Alumni Profiles section.

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