When John Stark started working on his undergraduate degree in the 1970s, he planned on becoming a medical doctor, not a bug expert.
He landed in entomology indirectly, after an initial interest in studying alligators led him to Louisiana State University. There, he took a graduate assistantship and signed up for classes in the entomology department.
Now Stark, a Washington State University professor of ecotoxicology and director of the Washington Stormwater Center at the WSU Puyallup Research and Extension Center, has been named an Entomological Society of America (ESA) fellow. Nominated by Laura Lavine, professor and chair of WSU’s Department of Entomology, Stark is one of nine individuals to be selected this year for the lifelong honor.
“I was stunned,” said Stark. “I knew I had a chance, but it was the first time they’d nominated me as a fellow. I must be doing something right!”
Though Stark has studied everything from the effects of chemical mixtures on zebra fish to an endangered butterfly species in California, he thinks it was his work with animal population modeling that helped him receive this honor.
“Fellows are essential to that level of critique, review, and critical thinking that gives science its foundation and validity within our society,” said Todd Murray, director of the WSU Puyallup Research and Extension Center. “Having an ESA fellow validates WSU within the science community and puts it on the map of great schools to get an entomology degree from.”
Stark’s career has taken a somewhat circuitous route. He completed his undergraduate work in New York, receiving a bachelor’s degree in pre-med biology from Syracuse University and a bachelor’s degree in forestry from State University of New York, Syracuse in 1978.
A desire to escape the cold northeast winters brought Stark to Louisiana State University, where he earned a master’s degree in entomology. During that time, he enrolled in a pesticide toxicology course and ended up falling in love with the field.
Stark later taught entomology at the University of Hawaii and earned a Ph.D. in entomology/pesticide toxicology. After graduating, Stark took a position with the USDA Agriculture Research Service studying tephritid fruit flies in Hawaii.
In 1990, he was hired by WSU to focus on the movement of pesticides in soil and groundwater.
Murray views Stark’s career as unique because it has translated to many areas outside of entomology, including product regulation and toxicology.
“When we brag about the contributions of the Department of Entomology, John has always been a showcase piece,” Murray said. “He’s well-spoken and great at communicating some of these complex ecosystem functions. I think his personal skillset has allowed him this recognition.”
Established in 1889, the ESA has over 7,000 members, including those connected to health agencies, educational institutions, and the government. ESA fellows are chosen for their exceptional contributions to the field of entomology through research, teaching, extension and outreach, administration, or the military.
Reflecting on his storied career, Stark said he’s most proud of his ESA fellow designation and his 2019 induction into the Washington State Academy of Sciences.
He’s also grateful for the collegiality and support he’s received from administrators, chairs, faculty, and staff while working at WSU.
“They made me feel like I was part of a family,” he said. “I’ve always felt like I was a part of WSU, even working in Puyallup.”
Though he plans to retire soon, Stark is still involved in a variety of projects, and he recently took on two grad students and a postdoctoral student. He wants his research to have a long-term impact.
“I hope that the work I’ve done is helping the environment and different endangered species,” he said. “The goal is to protect all species, but particularly the ones in trouble.”