On the past November 20th, Dr. John Welch, Liaison for Action Programs of International Services (APHIS) and co-recipient of the 2020 Scientist of the Year Award, brought to the Entomology colloquium his example of a successful entomological career outside of academia, sharing some of his adventures and the many roles he has occupied. Although Dr. Welch’s work has involved a variety of issues, over the years his main focus has been on eradication of the screwworm (Fig 1), Cochliomyia hominivorax (Diptera: Calliphoridae). The screwworm is a deadly, parasitic fly that feeds on the living tissues of warm-blooded animals. It has many nicknames, one being “man-eater”. It has been a problem for livestock and humans for decades, leading to major economic losses for farmers. Two entomologists Edward F. Knipling and Raymond C. Bushland, are known for pioneering successful eradication efforts through the Agriculture Research Service (ARS). They developed the sterile insect technique (SIT), a low dose of radiation to make the screwworms sterile. The flies are then raised in a lab and released in infested areas. These sterile males mate with the females and the eggs laid do not mature.
After being horrified by what these maggots can do to live animals, Dr. John Welch joined the Screwworm Eradication Program and moved to Chiapas in Mexico to work at the USDA-ARS Screwworm Research Unit. During the more than 30 years that Dr. Welch has worked for this program with USDA-ARS and later, USDA-APHIS, he has visited remote areas in ten Latin American countries to help eradicate these flies.
However, Dr. Welch’s job goes way beyond dog training. His usual day in the office includes intense field work, using diverse methods of transportation – from airplanes transporting sterile pupae to walking or riding horses through the farms and sites to catch fly samples and release sterile individuals (Fig 3). This also requires communication skills to interact with diverse people (and mostly in Spanish), including farmers, stakeholders, indigenous people and the general population of the villages, helping them – and being helped by them – to identify the screwworm infections.
Throughout his career, Dr. Welch has faced a number of challenges on the front lines of screwworm eradication. These have often resulted in accomplishments, such as the complete eradication of screwworm in Costa Rica. One unique difficulty arose in 2003 when the radiation apparatus that sterilized screwworm flies malfunctioned, resulting in the accidental release of fertile flies in Panama. Although this was a significant setback in the screwworm eradication program in Central America, Dr. Welch and others from the USDA worked tirelessly to correct this error. Their efforts were ultimately a success as the screwworm were eliminated from areas affected by the release of sterile flies.
Graham Stewart (@wet_naturology) is an MS student in the Palmer Lab studying wetland ecology and biogeochemistry. Meghan McConnell is a MS student in the vanEngelsdorp Lab studying honey bees. Tais Ribeiro (@taismattoso) is a PhD student in the EspindoLab, studying the ecology and evolution of the oil-collecting bees from the genus Chalepogenus.
Skoda, S. R., P. L. Phillips, and J. B. Welch (2018). Screwworm (Diptera: Calliphoridae) in the United States: Response to and Elimination of the 2016–2017 Outbreak in Florida. Journal of Medical Entomology, 55(4), 777–786.
Welch, J. B. (1990). A detector dog for screwworms (Diptera: Calliphoridae). Journal of economic entomology, 83(5), 1932-1934.