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STEM is for Everyone: Richard Mankin, Entomologist

Richard Mankin is an entomologist who studies bugs and insects by "listening" to them. Using acoustic tools, Mankin helps detect, monitor, and solve problems related to pests and invasive species.

Icons related to bugs and insects to represent Richard Mankins's career in entomology

A Career Studying Bugs and Insects

Scientists who study bugs and insects often do fieldwork to track and observe their subjects by looking. Turning over a log, peering closely at a pile of dirt, or investigating tree leaves can reveal a thriving ecosystem — or signs of an ecosystem being threatened or damaged by an invasive pest or infestation. Looking for bugs and insects is one thing, but Richard Mankin, an entomologist with the U.S. Department of Agriculture Agricultural Research Service (USDA ARS), listens to bugs and insects as a way of detecting and monitoring pest problems. In addition to listening in on insects, Mankin's research involves the development and use of sound-based (acoustic) tools that can help control these problems by using sound to alter bug and insect patterns or disrupt behaviors.

The Noisy World of Bugs and Insects

Crickets and bees have tell-tale sounds, and the buzz of a mosquito might even wake you up at night. Cicadas, too, give themselves away with their repeated clicking. But when you think of bugs and insects, as a whole, you might not think of them as inherently noisy. Mankin's research suggests quite the opposite. With specialized tools, the gnawing, chomping, and feeding of insects that have infested a host creates a soundtrack that scientists can use to detect and monitor invasive pest problems.

Due to a muscle disease, Mankin uses crutches and leg braces to get around, but this doesn't stop him from doing field work as an entomologist. In interviews about scientists with disabilities, he has said that despite his disability, he was always determined to be a scientist. He's candid about the fact that it hasn't always been easy, but negotiating his disability led him to his first work in a USDA insect lab. In that process, he realized there were ways to apply physics tools to the field of entomology, and he's been listening to insects ever since.

"My research focuses on detecting and controlling hidden insect infestations. I also work on questions about how insects use the senses of smell and sound in communication." — Richard Mankin, USDA Agricultural Research Service

Studying Bugs and Insects with Sound Science

With special sound equipment, Mankin can literally hear insects eating, moving, and communicating. Using sound, scientists can detect infestations, estimate the size of a pest population, and more. Scientists sometimes use sensitive microphones to eavesdrop on bugs and insects, but other monitoring tools include ultrasonic sensors, vibration sensors, and even accelerometers. With a device that detects the vibrations created by insects eating something like a tree and uses a piezoelectric crystal, for example, Mankin can measure voltage changes that correlate to the insects eating.

There are millions of species of insects, but the work of Mankin and other scientists suggests that the sounds insects make can be as unique in some cases as a fingerprint, and these sounds can reveal the presence of unwanted pests long before there may be visible signs. By being able to detect, identify, and monitor insects by sound (even when you can't see them, deep in the soil or high in the trees, for instance), scientists may be able to develop more environmentally-friendly ways to target infestation problems. Invasive pests that may cause extensive and costly damage to crops and agricultural industries. Pests can pose problems in orchards, vineyards, farms, and in all kinds of crops. They can also be a problem in storage facilities and silos.

In addition to detection of insect infestations, Mankin's work also involves experimenting to see if bug and insect sound patterns can be used to help solve pest problems. For example, Mankin developed a buzzer-based system to trick male insects and interfere with the mating cycle of an invasive species responsible for the multi-billion-dollar citrus greening problem in Florida. (You can see an example of this kind of Arduino-based setup in this article about Mankin's work with Asian Citrus Psyllids.)

A long list of scientific papers and articles hint at the scope of Mankin's work and the range of bugs and insects he has studied at the USDA ARS, including the red palm weevil (Rhynchophorus ferrugineus, a threat to palm trees), Asian citrus psyllids (Diaphorina citri, which carry the bacteria that leads to citrus greening), the yellow fever mosquito (Aedes aegypti), the grape root borer (Vitacea polistiformis, a threat to vineyards), the hardwood stump borer (Mallodon dasystomus), the cowpea beetle (Callosobruchus maculatus), rice weevils (Sitophilus oryzae), and many other species.

"I was born to be a scientist so I couldn't do anything else." — Richard Mankin

Listen to Bug and Insect Sound Samples

Students can listen in on Mankin's (and other entomologists' research) with sound clips on the Bug Bytes Sound Library page. Thanks to the availability of these sound samples, students can listen to recordings of specific kinds of mosquitos, cockroaches, larvae, ants, termites, beetles, grubs, and more. (Note: depending on your browser, you may need to download the sound files rather than listening in a browser for them to play properly.)

Explore Bugs, Insects, and Sound with Student Projects and Lessons

Students inspired by Makin's story and curious about bugs and insects (or worms, spiders, centipedes, and other invertebrates) or the ways in which sound and acoustic technologies can be used for monitoring and detection may enjoy projects like these:

Students interested in the ways Mankin combines physics, electronics, and high-tech equipment in his study of bugs and insects can learn more about using sensors with projects and resources like these:

Educators can lead hands-on sound science and sensor-based explorations with lesson plans like these:

Related STEM Careers

The following career profiles help students learn more about careers related to entomology:
"There's a number of insects like the coconut rhinoceros beetle that you can't see when they get into tree trunks. For a long time we've been using sounds to detect these hidden insects..." — Richard Mankin

Learn More

The STEM is for Everyone Series

For more information about this series of profiles of scientists with disabilities and to learn about other scientists and engineers, see the following posts:

This post is part of our STEM is for Everyone: Scientists with Disabilities series. This series is made possible by generous support from Mitsubishi Electric America Foundation, a non-profit foundation jointly funded by Mitsubishi Electric Corporation of Japan and its US affiliates, working to make changes for the better by empowering youth with disabilities to lead productive lives.

Insect icons adapted from icons by Freepik from www.flaticon.com.

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