Featured Entomology alumni Ernie Bernard
Ernie Bernard is the 2018 recipient of our department’s Distinguished Alumni Award and our latest featured alumni.
Why did you choose entomology and why MSU? I earned my bachelor’s and master’s at MSU, both in entomology. Like many children, growing up I collected insects. By high school, I was weighing several career choices, but ultimately chose entomology and was accepted at MSU. My senior year of high school, 1968, I competed in the Detroit Metropolitan Science Fair with a springtail project and was one of two grand award winners, which meant I got to go to the international science fair also in Detroit. Entomology Chairperson Gordon Guyer was a judge and he was very impressive, always smiling. He walked up to me, looked at my project and asked where I was going to school. When I said MSU in entomology, Dr. Guyer asked if I wanted a summer job! The job was in Dr. James Butcher’s soil insect lab working with then-graduate-student Dick Snider, who became my mentor. I was already aware of Dick because in high school, I was intrigued with springtails and learned there was a guy working on springtails at MSU—that guy was Snider. I asked my science teacher if Snider could come give a seminar, and he did. He was the first real scientist I ever met.
It’s striking to me that I interacted with a lot of positive people at MSU. They were helpful people who wanted their students and peers to succeed. James Bath became department chair after Dr. Guyer and he was a very positive guy. One time I was fooling around extracting nematodes and extracted a tardigrade, some of which feed on nematodes. I gathered literature and realized this particular tardigrade had never been described before, so I wanted to publish the information. At that time, you had to pay page charges to publish and as a graduate student, I couldn’t afford it. I talked to Dr. Bath and he said anything with the Department’s name on it, the Department could pay for. I’ll never forget that affirmation from him.
Where did you go after MSU? I earned my PhD at the University of Georgia and was hired upon completion by the University of Tennessee, where I am today. I’ve got a 90 percent research, 10 percent teaching assignment. I love that I have complete freedom to pursue what I want. I’m a nematologist but have maintained my interest in entomology, especially springtails and proturans, and I have significant insect taxonomy expertise.
Tell us about your research. A major project now is studying the nematode diversity that inhabits millipede intestines. Millipedes are very important in breaking down leaf litter and rotted wood, which contributes to nutrient cycling. A lot of exotic millipedes have been introduced into the USA, especially in the South. These exotics have different nematodes in their intestines from the domestic ones, and some of the domestic millipedes die when exposed to the new nematodes. As invasive millipedes move north due to climate change, this could have a significant impact on our native fauna. We are determining which nematodes are present in millipedes and monitoring them so we can identify when and where change is taking place.
In another project, my lab is partnering with another lab to look at nematodes as postmortem indicators for forensic use. The University of Tennessee has a facility—the Anthropological Research Facility, better known as The Body Farm—that is a primary space for studying the decomposition of humans. Insects come almost immediately to a corpse, but we’re looking at how nematodes respond to dead vertebrates and are examining the succession of nematode species on, under and in the vicinity of a corpse.
Any thoughts for current students? I tell my students if you want to stand out from your colleagues, do more than what is required. Also, if you have other interests, pursue those, as universities and likely other employers are looking for people who can shift to different fields.
What keeps you engaged in your work? I have the huge advantage of having been at a university for a long time. Nobody gets older—the students are always the same age and that helps to keep a young perspective. Students keep me adjusting to new approaches and they bring new needs for me to respond to. I also love the unending process of discovery. I describe a lot of new species and there is always something new to learn.
Read about our past featured alumni.