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An Interview with Dr. John Brown at the U.S. National Museum of Natural
History, August 2003
Mr. Toan Chung interviewed Dr. John Brown in August 2003.
[I added information (some within square brackets) to clarify the interview.]
E. M. B. 2004.
1. What inspired you to enter into the field of entomology?
I think that just the love of the outdoors and then that sort of turned into love of insects. I just hung on that through elementary school, junior high, and then high school. I just liked bugs and nature. I kind of liked both plants and insects, and I leaned towards insects. That’s sort of where my career took me.
2. What kind of specific work do you do?
Taxonomy, biogeography, phylogenetic research, collections, and identifications. Plus it’s mostly looking at dead bugs and trying to figure out what they are and how they’re [evolutionarily] related.
3. What taxonomic groups of arthropods are your assignments?
I work on Tortricid Moths (Leaf-rolling Moths), and had no interest in them whatsoever before I went to graduate school. There, my advisor worked on Tortricid Moths, and he helped direct my research into that area. I mean, I proposed crazy projects like "how about this, how about that?" and he’d say "No, no, no, you need better projects. Now, here’s a good idea!" Of course it would be in his area of expertise, so that really directed me to work with Tortricids. And just through happenstance, serendipity, or something else, they happen to be an incredibly economically-important group because many of them are agricultural pests. If I didn’t have my present job, I’d work with Lepidoptera in general or butterflies or something like that. I’m very lucky that he directed me into Tortricidae.
4 and 5. What is the most exciting project you have worked on, and what keeps you excited about your profession?
What keeps me excited about my profession is that there is no end to the "stuff." There are so many undescribed species. One of the many things I do is describe new things. That can just go on forever. You can describe new species every day through your career and you’d hardly make a dent in the number of species that are out there. And then I get pulled into interesting projects because I’m an expert on Tortricidae which is important in several ways. It’s a worldwide family. People who are doing work in the tropics and need to know about Tortricids, call me because I work at the National Museum.
I’ve been involved in a biodiversity project in Costa Rica. In the last several years, other researchers and I set up transects and collected arthropods. It’s really a kick and very fun. No two days are the same even here in the museum.
I work in the Systematics Entomology (SEL) Laboratory of the USDA. Members of another USDA group APHIS (Animal Plant and Health Inspection Service), are located in all U.S. ports of entry. So, there’s an army of inspectors and organism specialists out there. After tons of commodities come in to this country on boats, APHIS people have to inspect them. When they find insects [with a particular commodity], they have to stop the shipment of the commodity and send the insects [or other arthropods] to us in the SEL. For example, inspectors might find some Lepidoptera, Hemiptera, Coleoptera, or Diptera. There is a specialist for each group. On a daily basis, specimens arrive for me to identify. Today, a shipment of cut flowers is being held in Boston, until I identify some moths that came in with the flowers. I don’t have to determine a specimen’s economic value or whether it’s a widespread pest. I just identify the insect and send it to staff in Beltsville, MD. The staff return the insect and its identification to the port. There, specialists make a risk assessment and determine whether the specimen is a foreign pest or a widespread species that’s all over the world. The specialists then decide whether or not to spray the flowers for pests or send the flowers back to their shipper.
6. Would you like to work on any arthropod group that is currently outside your assignment? If yes, which one?
Because my group [Tortricidae] has about 9000 species worldwide, I’ll never ever master the whole group. I’m focusing on Tortricidae.
7. In retirement (if you ever feel like retiring), would you still continue work with arthropods ("bugs")?
Yeah, I think many museum arthropod people would continue to work on arthropods, because they would love to continue their work. Their work becomes their hobbies. Certainly I would continue to work with insects if my work would not have to focus on continuing to do scientific research with the goal of publishing results. Publishing can become a pain and have some unpleasant aspects at times. Just playing with the collection and collecting is so much fun. It’s like being a kid again when I go out and hunt for arthropods.
8. How often do you see changes occurring in species due to environmental changes that occur in your specialty arthropods?
Never in my groups do species adapt fast enough for me to see evolution of a new species, but I see changes in species distribution.
I worked on tortricids of Plummers Island, Maryland, collected about 100 years ago by early members of the Washington Biologists’ Field Club. About 5 years ago, I collected Tortricids on Plummers Island, and I found a big difference in their species composition compared to the collections from about a century ago. The change was evidently due to the century of change in the Island’s environment.
9. Is biotic conservation important to you? If yes, then why?
It is so simple. It should be important to everybody. We share the globe with everything and everybody. So we need to preserve everything we’ve got.
10. What is your most remarkable "bug" encounter?
I can’t really think of a certain remarkable bug encounter, but there was this one project I was involved in Arizona where there was a fear of a huge avocado pest. After my technician and I arrived there, we were greeted by dignitaries, officials, and Mexican agriculture people. Everyone was walking on eggshells to make sure we were happy. They tried to accommodate us until we helped them. But then we found out it wasn’t even the expected huge pest at all! It was pretty exciting for a couple of days.
When you get into that situation where insects have a political implication, it gets kind of exciting very quickly. It isn’t the insects alone that are so important, but how they affect the economy and trade.
11. What is your most dangerous "bug" encounter?
I cannot imagine one. I haven’t had any deadly encounters that would leave scars under my shorts or anything. I have run across rattlesnakes and things like that, but no dangerous bugs.
12. If you had to choose between a vertebrate or arthropod ("bug") for a pet which would you choose?
I’ve had both, but I like vertebrates a lot better. I want a pet to wait for me at my front door, run me, and lick my face. I had a pet tarantula once. These spiders live for years. Longevity is a very important factor. One wouldn’t want a pet that lives for a short time. Female tarantulas can live for 30 years. I think it’s all in a pet’s responsiveness. Tarantulas don’t particularly react to you with "Hi! You’re home!" So, yeah, I’m kind of fond of vertebrate pets.