COSAM Alumnus Oversees Collections and Research as VP for the San Diego Natural History Museum
Auburn alumnus Michael Wall is the “face of science” at the San Diego Natural History Museum (Nat), serving as both Vice President of Science and Conservation and Curator of Entomology.
The former College of Sciences and Mathematics (COSAM) student received a Bachelor of Science degree in 1996 and a Master of Science in Botany in 1999. Although Wall’s major was botany, he had always been interested in plant-animal interactions, specifically pollination and herbivory by insects. In the long run, the bugs won over the plants for Wall, he said.
“I met him early in my career here at Auburn, and now (after 31 years here) I recognize just how lucky I was to have a student like him join my lab,” shared COSAM’s Associate Dean for Academic Affairs, Dr. Robert Boyd. "His curiosity about biology was (and is) inspiring, and he was an outstanding teacher too! I’m proud of what he’s accomplishing there at the Nat."
In his role at the Nat, Wall oversees all collections and research, develops and implements the museum’s overall science and conservation strategy, advocates for the science side of its mission both internally and within the community, and guides the growth and maintenance of the museum’s collections. Occasionally, he gets to look at some interesting insects under the microscope, Wall said.
Right now, the Nat’s lab is leading a project to document the insect fauna of the dunes of the peninsula of Baja California. While the dunes are in great condition, they are simultaneously under threat of development. Many of the insects located in these dunes and restricted to the area, so Wall and his colleagues are studying these creatures to better understand the biological uniqueness of different dune systems and, hopefully, conserve the area.
Out of all the insects Wall has studied, his favorite – at the moment – is a newly found species and genus (Bajacanthus immaculata) discovered in Baja California Sur. The small stilt bug is decorated with “weird tubercles and striped legs and antennae,” Wall said.
On top of this research and his constant leadership at the Nat, Wall is always communicating directly with others – working with various stakeholders, students and volunteers. Looking back, he does not think he would be where he is today had his college career not panned out the way it did.
“I bounced around majors a bit before landing in COSAM. When I wanted to change my major to botany, the department head at the time listened to my interests and said, ‘you need to go talk to Bob Boyd. He is our only plant ecologist.’ I did and Dr. Boyd immediately had me out in the field working on the pollination biology of an endangered plant. I then just continued to interact with more and more of the professors. Their passion was contagious and I became more and more fascinated with nature. I grew up as a naturalist at Auburn. I don’t know what I would be doing if didn’t land in Dr. Boyd’s office that day, but it wouldn’t be where I am,” Wall said.
Wall continues to try new things in the field in order to keep his inspiration alive, and he hopes COSAM students will do this with their passions too.
“The practical advice, particularly for graduate students, is to take a project management course. Life is but a series of projects. Learn how to manage them now when life is relatively simple. As you advance in your career and begin managing lots of projects simultaneously, you’ll be thankful,” Wall said.
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