Posted on Monday, September 23, 2019
After conducting aquatics research in fisheries and briefly considering medical school, Westminster College alumna Erin Hassett ’17 has decided that the bug life is for her.
Hassett, who earned her bachelor’s degree in environmental science in 2017, is currently pursuing her master’s degree in entomology—the study of insects—at Cornell University.
Because she is specifically researching vector-borne diseases, she is studying insects that carry diseases, particularly those that are of public health importance.
Though Hassett sometimes works with mosquitoes, she is primarily interested in tick-borne diseases. She credits her interest in the field of study to Dr. Diana Ortiz, assistant professor of biology at Westminster.
“Dr. Diana Ortiz was critical in helping me choose my career path, and her support pushed me to apply to Cornell’s program,” Hassett said. “She has been one of my biggest influencers in my academic career.”
She also found guidance and inspiration in Dr. Helen Boylan, director the Center for the Environment and professor of chemistry, and Dr. Clarence Harms, professor of biology emeritus and former director of the Westminster Field Station.
“I really admire Dr. Boylan’s passion, drive and enthusiasm for environmental concerns, and she always gave me support and valuable feedback,” Hassett said.
“And Dr. Harms is a constant inspiration to me and has helped me understand what is important in life,” Hassett said. “I don’t think I would be where I am now without the advice, wisdom and friendship he has given me over the past six years.”
After completing her undergraduate degree, Hassett knew she was not yet ready to pursue graduate school. Instead, she chose to take a gap year, in hopes of making herself more competitive and skilled before applying.
“Outside of Westminster, taking a gap year to gain more experience was one of the best decisions I made,” Hassett said.
Hassett’s gap year took her to Nashville, where she worked at the Tennessee Department of Health. Her interest in entomology grew as she focused on mosquito disease surveillance and pesticide resistance testing there. This drove Hassett to apply to Cornell, as the university was introducing its new entomology program with a concentration in vector-borne diseases at the conclusion of her gap year.
This past summer, Hassett’s studies at Cornell took her to Staten Island, New York, where she visited three different parks to study if people’s behavior in public parks put them at risk for encountering ticks. To do this, Hassett observed human movement in different park spaces and collected and identified more than 10,000 ticks. She also interviewed about 200 individuals to learn more about their level of knowledge regarding ticks and tick-borne diseases, their attitudes towards the severity of tick-borne diseases and their behaviors in protecting themselves from ticks when they go outside.
Hassett’s finding that people are very interested in talking about ticks, especially as they pertain to Lyme disease, prompted a radio show host to invite her on-air to discuss her work with “Shoe Shoe & Lemonade Radio & Podcast.”
“It is always great to know that people are interested in your work, and it gave me a strong satisfaction knowing that I was able to help educate the public and potentially make a difference,” Hassett said.
In regards to tick safety and the fall tick season, Hassett suggests taking precautions both before and after entering a potential tick habitat. Prior to possible interaction, people should tuck their pants into their socks, wear light-colored clothing so they can easily see ticks on them and apply bug spray.
Then, following outdoor activities, people should conduct body checks, focusing on small places on their bodies, and take a shower. Hassett also encourages people to know what ticks look like.
To learn more about Hassett’s story and work, contact her at email@example.com.
~ Danielle Grady ’20