Featured entomology alumni Jay McPherson

Jay McPherson is the 2017 recipient of our department’s Distinguished Alumni Award.

Jay McPherson with Bill Ravlin

Jay McPherson is the 2017 recipient of our department’s Distinguished Alumni Award.

Why did you choose entomology? I grew up exploring the canyons and hills in San Diego, which is a very dry area, called chaparral, and loved collecting snakes, lizards and insects. At 14 years old, I decided I wanted to be a biologist and being a veterinarian was what made sense to me. In high school, I began preparing for my career by working at a pet hospital. I entered San Diego State University and enrolled in the pre-vet program. As a sophomore, I took comparative anatomy, which I really didn’t enjoy. The next semester, I took a general invertebrate zoology course, which I found fascinating and extremely stimulating. As a junior, through a serendipitous path, I took general entomology, which I loved. Both courses were more like a series of mini-courses and introduced me to animal diversity, which turned out to be the area in which I was really interested. At that point, I decided to leave the pre-vet program and specialize in invertebrate zoology. During the next 1.5 years, I took additional courses in entomology, marine invertebrate zoology and parasitology. During my senior year, I enrolled in aquatic entomology, which required studying an insect of our choosing. I chose to study Notonecta hoffmanni (backswimmer), which became the basis for the research requirement for my master’s degree in biology at San Diego State.

Why did you study at MSU? I applied to MSU because of my major professor at San Diego State University, Cal Norland. I’d lived my entire life in San Diego and had no intention of going anywhere beyond California for my doctoral studies. I picked four universities (including the University of California, Berkeley) and Norland told me I should consider MSU, which had an up-and-coming entomology department. Within two months of applying, I had an offer from MSU—my first offer—and I took it. MSU Entomology had many students and faculty specializing in entomology and that was a new experience for me. In addition, I had the opportunity to take a variety of courses. That broad background at MSU placed me in a good position to teach entomology at Southern Illinois University (SIU), where I’ve spent my entire career.

What are your best memories as an entomology student? Most outstanding in my mind was the comradery between faculty and students, how well everyone got along. I’ve seen other departments with barriers between the faculty and students, but at MSU, I never had a problem approaching any faculty member. Fred Stehr was my major professor and Roland Fischer was my postdoctoral mentor. Stehr was important in my entomological training, and Fischer was instrumental in my career as a heteropteran specialist. Like many young people, my wife Jean and I met at MSU and married in the Alumni Chapel. We love to visit campus.

Thoughts for current students? Many of us as students think we know what we want to do with our careers. However, after graduating, you may be unable to find positions that exactly match your career ambitions. My advice for students and their major professors is to add in some protection by building a broad expertise. Choose some courses beyond your focus area and get the most out of them. Take time to network. Such efforts will broaden your background and may prove extremely valuable in the future.

How does your work affect people’s lives? I have taught literally thousands of students in the areas of biology, invertebrate zoology and entomology. They’ve learned insects are more than just cockroaches, wasps and sources of disease. For most of my career, I have been the only entomologist at SIU, and it has been my responsibility to be the source of entomological information for the surrounding community. Often, I am called, “The Bugman.”

What keeps you engaged in your work? I still enjoy the thrill of discovering new things. Research is my hobby, as I am officially retired. My department has been kind to me, allowing me to keep the same space—office, lab, museum—that I had before retirement. What can be better than that?

Read about past featured alumni in the Alumni Profiles section.

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