Urban entomologist Coby Schal is a leading researcher who has helped create a model urban entomology program at N.C. State.
The office of Dr. Coby Schal was a flurry of activity on an otherwise quiet late-May morning on the campus of North Carolina State University. Schal’s phone was ringing off the hook with interview requests from major U.S. and international media. Why was he in such demand this day? Just one day prior, he and colleagues at N.C. State unveiled their latest cockroach research findings — and anytime that happens, the scientific community, and the general public, take notice. Schal, the Blanton J. Whitmire Distinguished Professor of Structural Pest Management, is well known and respected around the world for his work on cockroaches — related to behavior, toxicology and physiology, pheromone and chemical ecology, and more.
In addition to being a leading urban entomology researcher, Schal has been instrumental in developing N.C. State’s Urban Entomology Unit into a well-rounded and influential program. The department includes post-doc members from Europe and Asia, and his former students hold positions in academia, both research and applied sciences, as well as in industry.
Said Mark Coffelt, head of technical services, North America Turf and Landscape, Syngenta, “What always has impressed me about Coby is his willingness to work with all groups, from academia and manufacturers to school groups and graduate students. I think he is one of the key leaders in the urban entomology world.”
Early Years. Much of Schal’s drive can be traced to his upbringing. Before they were married, his father Henry, and mother Regina, were exiled from their native Poland during World War II to concentration camps. Regina was sent to Siberia, while Henry faced the uncertainty of the notorious Auschwitz. “One thing my dad had going for him was that he was strong, so he was sent to the labor side of the camp, instead of the death side,” Schal said.
Henry escaped Auschwitz just prior to it being liberated in 1945. Following the war he met Regina and they married in 1950. The couple soon started a family that would include daughter Sarah and, three years later (in 1954), son Coby.
Life in post-WWII Poland was difficult for the Schals, and in 1957, when Coby was 2 years old, the family moved to Israel. The move helped Henry develop a vocation. “My dad was very handy — one of those people who could ‘make a toaster out of paperclips.’ The boat taking us to Israel was filled with problems that my dad learned to fix. He learned to become a plumber.”
The family settled in the small town of Kiryat Motzkin, Israel, which Schal remembers as an integrated community with Egyptians, Moroccans and Europeans. “I loved it there because I loved anything outdoors. I spent a lot of time outdoors, on nature hikes, at the beach and playing outdoor sports.” These formative years also piqued Schal’s interest in the sciences.
In 1968, when Coby was 14, the family immigrated to the United States, settling in Queens, N.Y. “I was uprooted from a small town to a town of millions. It was incredibly exciting to come to the U.S. and see the skyscrapers, but I also had a lot of trepidation about being integrated into the culture and having to learn a new language.” But Schal proved a quick study and began picking up the English language and excelling in the classroom, acing AP courses. He also was a skilled soccer player and this helped him make friends and better assimilate.
A Bump in the Road. Schal’s success in the classroom led him to SUNY-Albany in 1972, where he set his sights on becoming a pre-med major, while also playing varsity soccer. However, a couple of experiences in college led him down a different path. One was a rocky academic performance his first semester freshman year. Schal fell into a trap familiar to many college students. “I was away from home for the first time and I discovered beer and girls. My GPA was 1.87 — it’s a number that is etched into my psyche.”
The first semester was a wake-up call for Schal, whose classroom performance improved every subsequent semester; however, the rough start affected his four-year cumulative GPA, meaning med school was out of the question. Schal’s other experience that taught him he might not be cut out for the medical profession occurred while he was volunteering at a hospital. “They had me assist on a spinal tap, and I fainted,” he recalled.
Despite this setback, Schal was narrowing his focus within the sciences, pursuing his interest in the investigative part of biology. Schal spent the summer between his junior and senior years at Cranberry Lake Biological Station in upstate New York. It was there that he met the person who really turned him onto entomology: Dr. Gerald Lanier, entomologist at SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry. “He was an amazing man who loved the outdoors,” Schal said. “He inspired me to look at insects carefully and to appreciate the role they play in nature.”
The Break He Needed. After completing his undergraduate work at SUNY-Albany, Schal decided to pursue a post-graduate degree in entomology. Unfortunately, the academic hole he dug himself in his freshman year proved a barrier; he was rejected by several grad schools at which he applied. Schal followed his girlfriend at the time to Lawrence, Kan., where she had been accepted into the University of Kansas’ entomology program. Through her connections, Schal was able to meet with department head, Bob Beer. “He was incredibly supportive. He said, ‘We’ve had students like you before whose grades made an upward trajectory.’ I applied and was accepted on probation. I hunkered down and worked really hard. It was the major break I needed.”
Working under Dr. William Bell, Schal’s career skyrocketed. After flourishing in the master’s program, Schal pursued his Ph.D. at the University of Kansas. Bell turned Schal onto cockroaches and encouraged him to visit Costa Rica to find a field site for his dissertation research on the insect. The idea was great and the country is beautiful, but one of the locations Schal chose proved problematic. “One of the places we went to in the jungle had a huge hollowed tree with a bat colony. At the base of the tree was a huge mound of bat guano with tons of cockroaches. I thought, ‘This is great. Look at all those cockroaches,’” Schal said of his experience digging through bat guano. While the experience was exciting, it almost proved fatal. A week into the project Schal became sick. “I went to the hospital with a fever, I was weak and could not walk for more than a couple blocks,” Schal recalled.
He left Costa Rica for New York, where doctors did a biopsy on his lungs. “It took a good week for them to figure out what was wrong,” he said. “They initially thought, and I thought, it was an infectious disease associated with cockroaches.” It turns out Schal had contracted Histoplasmosis from the bat guano. After treatment in New York and three months of recovery in Kansas, Schal, undaunted, returned to Costa Rica, this time to the La Selva Biological Station. “I knew not to go anywhere near that tree,” he jokingly noted. Schal’s second trip to Costa Rica was perhaps less memorable, but more important career-wise. The cockroach observations he made there, as a Ph.D. student, got him published twice in Science, a highly respected scientific journal. Many world-class entomologists will work their entire career and not get published in Science, so this accomplishment was a real feather in Schal’s cap. Schal also did post-doc research at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, studying gypsy moth pheromones.
Away From the Office
Coby Schal’s time as a graduate student at the University of Kansas was life-changing not only professionally, but personally. It was at the University of Kansas, in 1982, that he met his future wife, Pat, who was an undergraduate biology student.
Pat and Coby moved to the University of Massachusetts, where she earned her master’s degree. When Coby took a position at Rutgers, Pat did her Ph.D. work in human genetics at the University of Pennsylvania. She then went on to receive post-docs from Princeton and UNC-Chapel Hill, before accepting her current position at N.C. State, as associate professor of genetics.
The couple enjoy the outdoors (hiking and biking) and traveling together. “We like going to places that we discover before they become ‘hot spots,’ the Czech Republic, for example, before it opened up.” Schal also visited his homeland of Poland in 1987 and has made several trips to Israel.
Additionally, Coby enjoys cooking for Pat, and his specialties include preparing fresh food, and anything “experimental.”
These experiences helped Schal gain notoriety in academic circles. Even though Schal was not looking for a position in urban entomology, a position found him. Herb Streu, head of the entomology department at Rutgers University, New Brunswick, N.J., heard Schal give a cockroach presentation and encouraged him to apply for an opening in the department. This entomology position exposed Schal to not only the “lab side” of entomology, but the real-world side, working closely with pest management professionals.
NCSU Opportunity Knocks. By the early 90s Schal had become a well respected and sought-after urban entomologist, with several dozen published research papers and a reputation for leading quality research programs. Schal was happy at Rutgers and had developed a great relationship with the New Jersey Pest Control Association and its members. He also enjoyed living in New Jersey, which was in proximity to his parents in New York City. However, in 1994 an opportunity arose that he could not pass up. One of the industry’s pioneers, Blanton Whitmire (founder of Whitmire Micro-Gen), decided to make a lasting gift to academia in the form of a $4 million endowment to build a world-class urban entomology program. The funds were to be used to hire two distinguished professors in the entomology department. Schal applied and was hired as the Blanton J. Whitmire Distinguished Professor of Structural Pest Management.
“It was really a gem of a position,” Schal said. “I held the people and department [at N.C. State] in high regard as one of the best, most broad-based programs. Rutgers was tremendous, but it was a tiny department. At the time I was the only urban entomologist, whereas, here I am fortunate to have Mike Waldvogel as a full-time extension urban entomologist, plus two others full time. So this was a huge opportunity to build an urban entomology program.”
In helping N.C. State build the program, Schal has made a concerted effort to expose students to all entomology disciplines — and this has become perhaps his most important, overriding objective. “I think Coby really has a model urban entomology program for the future because it’s one that integrates basic discoveries in insect biology and translates them into applications for management,” said Ed Vargo, professor and interim department head, N.C. State Department of Entomology. “His research runs the whole continuum from basic science to basic discovery to real-world applications.”
Cockroach Research Notoriety. N.C. State has conducted important urban pest management on a variety of pests, but the department has particularly made a name for itself with its cockroach research. For example, in 1993, Schal’s colleague at N.C. State, Dr. Jules Silverman, discovered that cockroach baits were failing not because the insects were resistant to the insecticide, but because they were deterred by glucose. He also established that this trait is heritable — it has a genetic basis. And just this past May the department released groundbreaking cockroach research examining how genetic mutation has given some cockroaches a competitive advantage that has enabled them to survive and multiply.
Why cockroaches? “Researchers often seek ‘model systems’ that best address specific questions, but are also convenient to maintain in the lab. This is why the mouse and fruit flies are the work-horses of biomedical and genetics research, respectively. The cockroach has been a work-horse of insect physiology — the study of structure and function of whole organisms and of specific organ systems,” Schal said.
While most people associate N.C. State Urban Entomology with cockroaches, the department’s research efforts are far-reaching. One example is the department’s work with bed bugs, which includes a collaborative effort among Schal and Vargo and others to investigate the genetics of bed bugs. Another example is in Peru, where the department, working with a grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, is deploying Aedes aegypti mosquito traps to control dengue-carrying Aedes aegypti mosquitoes.
Schal also has diversified the program by working with international students, an important development according to Dr. Roger Gold, professor and endowed chair, Texas A&M University. Gold said he is always impressed after interviewing Schal’s students. “I know that through talking with his former students, that Coby is an outstanding professor and lecturer. I also know that he has made an effort to work through the high school outreach programs near his university, and he has sponsored many students, some of which, I am sure, were recruited to entomology.”
Although Schal’s appointment is 100 percent research, he works hand-in-hand with his students. He also gives presentations and assists in developing the program for the highly regarded North Carolina Pest Management PCT School, and he is always available as a sounding board for PMPs.
“Coby is a researcher, but in many ways he acts as extension guy. He’s not just sitting in a corner with research. He’s out in the field trying to find solutions,” said Donnie Shelton, president of Triangle Pest Control, Holly Springs, N.C.
Schal, in turn, has learned much about pests by working in the field with PMPs such as Scott McNeely, Billy Tesh, Mitch Taylor and Shelton. For example, he’s picked up tips on how to most effectively use baits. “Something that I have learned from a pest management professional here in North Carolina, is when you go to an infested apartment always use a couple baits. Put a little bit of each bait down, interrogate the cockroach and find out what it likes. If the cockroach likes bait A, go with it. The next time you return, repeat this test and maybe it will like bait B, or bait C. So feed the roach what it likes.”
Looking Ahead. At 59, Schal remains a leading voice in urban entomology. He and the staff at N.C. State are hard at work in the lab and in the field, seeking answers and solutions that ultimately help PMPs. He’s excited about the future of entomology and considers genetics to be the next frontier. Current research that excites him is the department’s efforts to sequence the cockroach genome. But more than any research project he works on, what really drives Schal is collaborating with others, whether it’s other departments at N.C. State or PMPs. “You might feel like you know it all and think ‘Why do I need to go out in the field?’ but every time I go out in the field, I watch pest management professionals and I realize they are doing something that I had not thought of.”