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October 26, 2017

Student Discovers Love for Entomology After Suffering From Parasite

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As a graduate student in Cornell’s Entomology Department, Chris Marshall hunted for beetles in a Mexican jungle and returned from the adventure with an unusual memento: a bot fly larvae nestled in his tricep.

The story traces deep into a Mexican jungle.

While Marshall and a colleague searched for a species of nocturnal beetles during their trip, they found themselves lost and without water, snake-bite kits, venom kits or any other supplies. To put it lightly, “it was failed boyscout hour,” Marshall said.

The two researchers did their best given the circumstances, cutting sapling trees with knives and creating a hammock out of tree plants to take shelter in for the night. The following morning, the sound of howler monkeys near their main camp returned them to safety.

Assuming that the only scars from that harrowing night were a collection of mosquito bites, Marshall eventually made his way back to Ithaca.

However, after returning to Cornell, Marshall soon noticed a stubborn wound on his arm that leaked water rather than blood when scratched.

A visit to his advisor revealed that the strange opening was in fact a maggot pumping water from beneath his skin to breathe.

Marshall took this seemingly horrific opportunity and made it a teachable one. Working as a teaching assistant in a Cornell insect systematics class at the time, he decided to transform his new visitor into a classroom experiment.

“I had heard these stories of people who did this, and I thought that I wanted to try and do this,” Marshall said. “I didn’t hurt, so I wasn’t going to kill it. I just wondered what was going to happen to it.”

As an entomologist, Marshall seeks to ask, “How should we begin to understand what a species is and what it means to the ecosystem?” Enthusiastic to observe firsthand the development of the bot fly, this question led Marshall to research its life cycle and he followed its growth like an advent calendar.

Since then, Marshall cannot say that he has been the host for more bugs, but he hosts them to the general public in a different way.

Today, Marshall works as a curator and taxonomist of the insect collection at Oregon State University — a job title that involves searching for new species.

“I am one person in an army of people who describe biodiversity,” Marshall said. “What people don’t realize is that the vast majority of species on the planet we know nothing about.”

After finishing his undergraduate career at Reed College, Marshall entered the world with uncertainty as to what field was his true calling and thought he would enter academia.

“You don’t generally leave undergrad knowing that you can go out and discover species at all. You maybe saw it on Animal Planet, but it doesn’t seem real,” he said.

But in his day-to-day work life, Marshall does just that. He explores the descriptions of species, identifies what they do in the world and attempts to grant them names. His passion for spotting different species, Marshall said, has always been of interest to him.

To explore the field, Marshall enrolled in an entomology class at Harvard University where he finally learned that his knack for searching for species and describing them could be translated into a career. Soon after, he joined the Cornell community as a graduate student from 1992 to 2000.

“Cornell was my first time being surrounded by other people really like me,” he said describing the culture at Cornell.

“I just felt so excited to be with all these graduate students who were interested in describing biodiversity, figuring out how things evolved, and determining the patterns and relationships among these things,” he added.

Much of Marshall’s work now resembles what he did at Cornell. His focus on specimen-based research steered Marshall to the museum scene, where he can devote hours of his day immersed among collections of dead insects.

He also devotes himself to raising awareness among the public and the OSU community about the work natural history museums conduct, in addition to trying to obtain resources “in terms of funding, support and volunteerism.”

“I really love museum development and working with museums to try to raise the visibility and stature of the collection itself as a resource,” Marshall said. “But I also really enjoy doing research — scientific research — on the taxonomy and systematics of beetles,” a task that he first got involved in at Cornell.

“I see the collection as a research lab space like a library,” he said. “I see it as a resource, and the curator forms an integral part of helping people tap into that resource to help everyone get excited about the collection.”

In the coming years, Marshall will continue to explore entomology both in the field and in the museum.

“I just love the sense of discovery, and what I try to get students to realize is that the knowledge is there but there is a frontier which you can reach at which all of a sudden the knowledge isn’t there,” Marshall said. “That’s the place where you can make a difference and figure things out and discover.”

That sense of discovery that Marshall encountered at Cornell has continued to cultivate his curiosity for bugs today. And though the bot fly lasted less than a month — and now rests in a pickled jar in his current home — its effects have carried Marshall through decades.