Long ago, while sitting in a Berkeley eatery conversing with a visiting scientist, we asked each other, why do we do science? It was a no-brainer: Science provides a lifetime of experiencing the joy of discovery! My love affair with my chosen field, entomology, began when as a young boy in Los Angeles I first saw a mourning cloak butterfly on the wing, and decided instantly to pursue insects as a hobby. Innumerable days spent roaming the then-undeveloped Baldwin Hills (now colonized by homes and oil derricks) yielded collections of insects, scorpions, spiders, lizards, snakes — basically anything that crawled, ran, flew, bit, or stung. In the 1950s, I even witnessed a rare event, a massive irruption of black-tailed jackrabbits, in the adjacent grassy flatlands.
This early-life passion continued unabated until my 13th year, but wasn’t rekindled until I took courses in entomology while a graduate student at San Francisco State University. After completing my doctoral training in medical entomology at UC Berkeley, I began studying the ecology and epidemiology of tick-transmitted diseases impacting public health. Recent research has sought to clarify what behaviors and environmental factors increase one’s probable risk of exposure to infected human-biting ticks.
Life sometimes comes full circle. Certain animals I either collected or observed in my youth proved to be key players in maintaining natural cycles of human bacterial disease agents. Western fence lizards, or “blue-bellies,” were discovered to reduce the force of transmission of Lyme disease to people bitten by adult western black-legged ticks by cleansing attached, infected juvenile ticks of their bacterial burdens. Jackrabbits were found to be important hosts for certain kinds of spotted fever– and Lyme disease-group bacteria and their carrier ticks. The research is never-ending; the devil is in sorting the details, but the great joy remains the chase and the occasional epiphany.
Robert S. Lane is a professor emeritus of medical entomology in the Department of Environmental Science, Policy, and Management. He has studied the biology of ticks and the ecology, epidemiology, and prevention of tick-borne diseases in the far-western United States since the 1970s.