Entomologist receives Black Award for Excellence in Research

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. -- Matthew Thomas, professor of entomology in Penn State's College of Agricultural Sciences and Huck Scholar in Ecological Entomology, has been chosen to receive the 2012-13 Alex and Jessie C. Black Award for Excellence in Research.

The award, which includes a $1,500 cash stipend and a plaque, recognizes significant accomplishments in agricultural research at Penn State. Thomas will be honored at a college-wide awards ceremony May 7.

An affiliate of the Penn State Center for Infectious Disease Dynamics, Thomas studies the ecology and evolution of host-pathogen interactions, with a particular emphasis on mosquito-pathogen and mosquito-parasite interactions.

Thomas' research team aims to better understand the consequences of global change -- such as climate change, invasive species and biodiversity loss -- with an eye toward improving the effectiveness and sustainability of pest and disease management.

"Since his arrival at Penn State, Matt Thomas has done groundbreaking research on critical issues affecting global health," said Gary Thompson, the college's associate dean for research and graduate education. "His work has provided new insights into mechanisms governing the transmission of diseases such as malaria and dengue, and how their spread may be affected by temperature fluctuations and climate change."

According to Gary Felton, head of the Department of Entomology, Thomas also is one of the leading experts in the application of pathogenic fungi for controlling some of the most devastating pests in the world, while reducing the problem of pesticide resistance.

"He was part of an international team that developed a commercially available fungal product to target locusts and grasshoppers," said Felton, who nominated Thomas for the award. "He and colleagues began investigating ways of using fungal species for malaria control purely as a cheap, green alternative to chemical pesticides.

"What emerged from this work was the novel concept of 'evolution-proof,' slow-kill insecticides," he said. "The fungus does not rapidly kill the mosquito but in fact allows them to mate and reproduce. However, it kills the mosquitoes before they can spread malaria to a human host."

Felton said the concept reduces selection pressure by not directly interfering with the mosquitoes' reproductive capacity. The researchers also discovered that the fungus is highly effective against insecticide-resistant mosquitoes.

Thomas has extended his work to a broader range of insect pests, including houseflies -- a particular problem in animal agriculture -- and bed bugs, which are a serious emerging pest in the United States.

"He has obtained a patent for control of bed bugs using fungal strains," Felton said. "These pests are difficult to control with conventional pesticides, but his approach would allow the bed bugs to spread the fungus among their populations."

Thomas joined the Penn State faculty in 2008, after two years as senior principal research scientist for the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization's Division of Entomology in Canberra, Australia. He previously held several positions as a researcher and lecturer at Imperial College London, U.K.

A fellow of the American Academy for the Advancement of Science, he holds a bachelor's degree in zoology from University College Cardiff, U.K., and a doctorate in entomology from University of Southampton, U.K.

Matthew Thomas stands outside the insectary where he and his research colleagues culture mosquito species. Credit: Steve Williams, Penn State College of Agricultural SciencesAll Rights Reserved.

Last Updated January 09, 2015