College of Agriculture & Natural Resources
Environmental Science & Policy

How a winter study abroad trip led Chris Riley (2014) to a career in urban entomology

Here Chris and his research team talk with local residents in a suburban neighborhood in Cleveland.

Chris’s interest in Entomology had an unlikely beginning.  “I thought going to Belize on a Winter Study Abroad sounded cool.”  That's about the sum of it.

Dr. Michael Raupp, a University entomologist, led that trip, and afterwards, a curious Chris took a chance and begain volunteering in Dr. Raupp’s lab.  Not originally a "bug guy," Chris quickly realized that entomology was a fantastic discipline because it allowed him to wear a number of hats - ecologist, environmental scientist, etc. - all while using insects as his system of study.  A practical person, Chris was also attracted to the field because of its career opportunities.  “Because insects are found across the world and play a valuable role in most ecosystems, there are a ton of jobs available depending on how I shape my research and what skills I continue to develop”.

After graduating from Maryland, Chris promptly began work as a PhD student in the Department of Entomology at Ohio State University, where his initial research focuses on understanding how the ecological and economic value of native and exotic trees differs within an urban forest.  His undergraduate research in UMD's Dept. of Entomology actually dealt with these native/exotic themes quite a bit and he spent many summers at UMD examining the native/exotic host preference of stink bugs in tree nurseries. Chris’s Honors thesis in Entomology, under the direction of Dr. Raupp, examined how native and exotic trees within residential landscapes differed in their susceptibility to biotic and abiotic problems.

Now, during his first year of graduate research, Chris focused on learning about the structure and composition of Cleveland’s urban forest and how it differs across land cover types. To do this, he selected 8 inner city neighborhoods and 8 adjacent suburbs and randomly selected properties throughout. He selected approximately 50 residential properties and 50 vacant lots within the inner city; and within the suburbs, he selected approximately 50 residential properties. He then spent the summer of 2015 surveying each of these lots to understand how the tree assemblages differed.  

Chris’s work examining the forest community found on vacant lots is groundbreaking. Initial observations have indicated that in many areas, vacant lots can support early successional forests.  Many studies have documented that lower income, inner city communities often lack access to green space and the wealth of benefits that green infrastructure can provide.  Could urban planners use Chris’s findings to develop green infrastructure in inner city Cleveland?  We’ll have to see.  It will at the least provide useful baseline information on Cleveland’s urban forest which will allow for the selection of the most common native and exotic trees present.  This will support future studies on the tree’s ability to support arthropod biodiversity – Chris’s main interest.

What advice does Chris have for current undergraduates?

“A large university like UMD has an almost unfathomable wealth of resources in the form of groups, workshops, organizations, research opportunities. In ENSP, we are super lucky to have faculty and staff who take the time to get to know you as an individual. Developing relationships like these in other areas, be it a club, team, or lab, can be so important because having someone that realizes your potential, supports you, and wants to see you succeed can be critical to your own development as a successful and highly productive member of the campus community.

"A strategy that worked well for me as an undergrad and continues to do so here in grad school is to seek out every interesting opportunity that you can and learn from it… being proactive and seeking out opportunities that seem even marginally interesting is your best bet at getting ahead…  Look at my own example – a random Winter Study Abroad trip has determined my whole career path!"

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