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Bob O’Neil Memorial (1955 - 2008)

Bob O’Neil passed away February 6th at home with his family following nearly a year long battle with bladder cancer. He is survived by his wife Liz, and his children Jennifer, Nathaniel, Jonathan, and Elspeth. He was a professor of entomology specializing in biological control. Bob came to Purdue as an assistant professor in 1984 and developed an internationally recognized research, teaching and outreach program in biological control.

He was born July 14, 1955 in Boston, MA, and grew up in the suburban town of Belmont, MA, earned his bachelor's degree from University of Massachusetts where he was first exposed to the science of entomology and the concepts of biological control. He continued to develop his interest in this area while earning his masters degree from Texas A&M University and his PhD from University of Florida in Gainesville.

When he came to Purdue, Bob realized that a biological control program needed a combination of attributes to be successful including research, systems appropriate for biological control options, student training, stakeholder education, and international cooperation. The Midwest historically lagged behind other parts of the country in this approach, but Bob recognized the opportunity and developed a program that made a difference.

His research program challenged the conventional wisdom about the role of predators and their potential to control and regulate pest populations. He was the first to recognize that predator guilds across a wide diversity of crops share similar set of adaptations regardless of crop environments, and he identified suites of adaptations that characterize how predators locate prey, survive and reproduce in cropping systems. 

Bob worked on a long list of pests and cropping systems that spanned the globe from the Midwest to West Africa to Central America and to Asia. The first time I met Bob was 1992 in Benin, West Africa where we worked together on mite pests of cassava and their mite predators. A few years later, he started a collaboration with the Pan American School of Agriculture (Zamorano) in Honduras that has become one of his many important legacies.

The Zamorano project fosters capacity building through cultural and scientific exchanges. Bob made this program what it is today after he took over as project director in the mid 1990s. In just 6 years, he put Zamorano and Purdue on the map as destinations for global cooperation. He helped more than 70 undergraduate students and a dozen faculty from Purdue visit Zamorano as study abroad or scientific exchange participants. A similar number of Zamorano students came to Purdue for in-service training, as well as higher degree training as Bachelors, Masters and PhD students. This program continues today as one of the best reciprocal scientific exchange programs at Purdue thanks to Bob’s dedicated and selfless efforts.

Recently he served as a regional research leader working on soybean aphid. His previous work with soybeans, low density predator/prey systems in Central America, and a regional extension/outreach network put Bob in a position to move quickly and decisively when the new exotic soybean aphid arrived in Indiana and the Midwest. He became the point person for foreign exploration for natural enemies of soybean aphids in Japan and China, and for coordinating the regional research efforts on soybean aphid ecology and population dynamics.

Bob always had a passion for working with students and teaching inquisitive minds. He taught a popular biological control course, contributed to an advanced ecology course, and offered regular graduate discussion seminars on topical issues. He was the major professor for 8 MS, 6 PhD and 3 post-doctoral students all of whom have gone on to further studies or successful careers. Bob started the Midwest Biological Control Institute (MBCI) along with colleagues in the region to provide quality graduate education in biological control where specialists were not at a “critical mass” in any one institute. Seventeen years later the institute has trained 284 students (more than 30 from Purdue) from more than a dozen states and 3 countries. A spin-off of these efforts was a graduate-level course he developed with colleagues from Illinois University and Iowa State and delivered using distance technology.

One of Bob’s best administrative attributes (Bob would vehemently deny he had any interests or abilities where administration was concerned) was his ability to leverage, network and catalyze activities with an impact considerably beyond his individual contribution. His work with Zamorano and MBCI are two examples already been mentioned. Other examples include leadership roles he played in his discipline and in his professional society. He was twice elected as chair of the regional biological control working in the Midwest and chaired their ad hoc “Ladybird” committee that started MBCI, was chair of the multi-state committee, Biological Control section of the Entomological Society of America, and vice-president of the Nearctic Regional Section of the International Organization of Biological Control.

Bob was a hoot to be around.  He had an incredible wit and well-deserved contempt for self-serving protocols. A good example is the way the “Ladybird” committee mentioned above got its name. Bob and a group of colleagues were sitting in the “Ladybird Johnson” room at the Amway Grand Plaza Hotel in Grand Rapids, Michigan tasked with the responsibility of proposing a regional training initiative. This was the genesis of MBCI, and as a way to underscore the importance of the committee, Bob proposed naming the committee after the meeting room. 

Bob liked being around people and people liked being around Bob. He was social, very gregarious, and someone you were easily drawn toward. A regular at the Co-Rec athletic facility, Bob grew to know many colleagues through any of a number of pick-up team games, or his always humorous running commentary in the locker room. Someone once said Bob had an optimistic view of the world - which of course he had to have since he was a life long Boston Red Sox fan (what a joy it must have been for him to see his beloved Red Sox win their second World Series last fall). 

Bob had a serious side where work and his profession were concerned. He could be a contrarian, but those who knew him invariably got a reasoned perspective. He took his responsibilities seriously and understood that he had professional and personal responsibilities that extended beyond his immediate program and students. He was a good university citizen, and well known as a dedicated volunteer for many local events and social causes in the community.

About a year ago, he noticed some physical symptoms that got his attention. He went to the doctor thinking maybe he was suffering from high blood pressure or some other stress-related phenomenon. The doctors initially found nothing. After some additional symptoms were found, he had a scan done that revealed an undefined mass. Exploratory surgery revealed bladder cancer, and the battle for his life began. He took chemotherapy throughout the summer, and had exploratory surgery again in the fall, but the results were not encouraging. This did not dissuade Bob. He pursued an experimental treatment even when others had given up hope. Bob kept a brave face throughout his ordeal, right up to the very end.

On February 6th, we lost a trusted colleague, valuable peer and dear friend. He made the world a better place and I’m privileged to have known him and been part of his universe. He was a unique guy who will be profoundly missed. 


In this Issue:
Feature Article

Department News

From the Head Bug

Outreach Update

Entomology Students

Alumni News