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Alumni Spotlight: COSAM Alumnus Wins National Institutes of Health Director’s Early Independence Award

Published: 10/29/2019

By: Melanie Vynalek

Auburn College of Sciences and Mathematics (COSAM) alumnus Zach Devries received the National Institutes of Health Director’s Early Independence Award for his research on the biology, control, and health impacts of indoor pests.

A part of the High-Risk, High-Reward Research program, the award is designed to allow individuals to bypass the traditional post-doctoral period and jump right into an independent faculty position.

One of 13 recipients, DeVries’ road to get to this point was a lengthy one, beginning well before his proposal submission in September 2018.

DeVries graduated from Auburn in 2011 with a degree in zoology. Staying on two more years, he received his Master of Science in Entomology in 2013 before leaving the Auburn area.

Since then, DeVries has been with North Carolina State University, and upon completion of his doctoral degree in 2017, has been studying the impact of insects, specifically bed bugs, on human health. This work started with the idea that histamine from bed bug feces might be accumulating in infested homes. After conducting preliminary findings, DeVries and his team began working on a proposal to aid with a more complete study – the NIH grant proposal.

“The application was challenging, it required a lot of time and energy – as do all proposals – but this one was especially challenging because it required a high level of institutional [NC State] commitment,” DeVries said.

All this time and energy is proving worthwhile as DeVries takes his success with him early next year in his new role as assistant professor at the University of Kentucky.

In his “dream job,” DeVries will perform a wide variety of tasks beyond his teaching responsibilities. DeVries will develop and implement educational programs to support households, businesses and the professional pest management industry, among other groups. Additionally, he will be responsible for translating research findings for pest control operators (PCOs).

In regards to research, DeVries will provide evidence-based urban insect management recommendations to various stakeholders along with developing pest management practices and using this information to improve human health and the quality of life.

DeVries’ goals are as follows: “understand how urban pests function and behave, utilize this information to improve management strategies, improve human health and the quality of life through pest management.”

“Ultimately, I strive to provide scientifically backed evidence to support the most effective, affordable, and sustainable pest management strategies, facilitating proper pest control for everyone,” DeVries said.

Beyond that, DeVries wants to ensure the state of Kentucky is well prepared to manage any pest threats.

Looking back, DeVries says all this hard work and success would not be possible without the foundation COSAM provided him years ago.

“The work ethic needed to succeed in COSAM is the same work ethic I carry with me today,” DeVries said.

DeVries credits much of his success in COSAM to his undergraduate research experience and the professors who assisted him along the way.

“Before moving on to Entomology, Zach worked in my lab during his junior year in the area of physiological ecology.  His project, which involved measuring oxygen uptake in both water and air (bimodal breathing) and diving behavior in a giant salamander, was an elegant study that was able to explain how the animal has adapted to living in ponds and swamps where oxygen levels can become very low.  His work resulted in a senior-authored publication.  Zach was one of the top undergraduates to work in my lab in my 36 years at Auburn.  He was also the top student in my Animal Physiology course in the spring of 2010,” said Dr. Ray Henry.

In addition to his undergraduate mentor, Ray Henry, DeVries also credits Debbie Folkerts, Craig Guyer, Bob Boyd, and Art Appel for providing an engaging and memorable experience in COSAM.

His advice to current students, “get involved in research… getting real experience is the best way to find out what you enjoy and prepare yourself for any future career,” DeVries said.

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