Ex-local overcomes rocky start to become top medical entomologist

Stan Cope Jr.

Originally published March 7, 2016.

Long before Dr. Stan Cope Jr. was a respected figure in the field of medical entomology, he was an object of ridicule in his freshman biology class at Huntington North High School.

It had to do with an insect collection that was due for the class. Cope hastily threw his together the night before, transferring bugs from trees and bushes into a shopping bag, which he then stuffed into a Budweiser box.

Sitting in class the following day, Cope’s teacher singled him out. Initially, he thought it might be for praise.

“The teacher said in front of the whole class,” he recalls, “‘Stan, do you mind if I use your collection as an example?’ And I thought, ‘Wow! This is pretty cool!’

“And he pulled it out of this bag and all of the bugs had fallen to pieces.”

His teacher looked at him disapprovingly.

“He said, ‘That is not the way you turn in an insect collection,’” Cope remembers.

Though he may not have been able to imagine it then, with chuckles from his classmates filling his ears, he would go on to become a medical entomologist, someone who studies bugs and the ways they make people sick.

Getting there wasn’t easy, however.

Cope was born and raised in Huntington. His father, Stan Cope Sr., was a medical doctor and ran his practice out of the family’s home on North Jefferson Street. Patients were a frequent sight.

“We had a full-length basketball court in the backyard, which was also the parking lot for my dad’s patients,” Cope says. “When the cars would come up, we’d have to stop the game.”

Cope remembers being curious about what his father did and made a habit of lingering by his office as he stitched people up.

“I’d usually wander in and watch,” he says. “I got to the point where I could do a lot of that stuff.”

However, as the years wore on, Cope came to the realization that his father’s line of work wasn’t for him.

“I kind of thought I didn’t have the nerve to either try to figure out what was killing somebody, or operate on them, or cut something off their skin or something like that,” Cope says.

That didn’t stop his father, though, from trying to change his mind.

“My dad always told me I was going to be a doctor, a medical doctor,” Cope says. “And I kind of rebelled against that. And that’s partly why I ended up not doing it.”

He may have decided to not follow in his father’s footsteps, but deciding what to do instead proved to be difficult. After graduating from Huntington North in 1972, Cope attended Swarthmore College, in Pennsylvania. Though he graduated from there in 1976 with a bachelor of arts in biology, he still felt aimless, just as he had when he started.

“I had finished college and took a year off,” Cope says. “My dad was putting a lot of pressure on me to do something. I had a friend who was at the University of Delaware in the entomology program and he said, ‘Hey, why don’t you think about coming here?’”

Cope had taken at few classes at Swarthmore that partially dealt with entomology, the study of bugs, and had liked them.

“I figured, ‘OK, well I’ll try that,’” he says.

Once at Delaware, Cope credits one of his professors with giving him some direction.

“Ended up working for just a great medical entomologist named Paul Catts,” he says. “He really turned me on not necessarily to the insects, but I got very, very interested in the diseases that they spread, the effect that they’ve had on world history and all that type of stuff – which is an absolutely fascinating field that I’ve really sort of developed an expertise in now.”

He graduated from Delaware in 1980, mastering in entomology with an emphasis on medical entomology. Cope continued his studies at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), graduating in 1988 with a doctorate of public health focused on medical entomology, tropical medicine and infectious diseases.

During his years at UCLA, it came to Cope’s attention that entering the military upon graduation would be a good career move.

“The U.S. military is the largest employer of medical entomologists in the world,” he notes. “These former students who (were) now serving either in the army or the navy would come through Los Angeles and they’d give a seminar on Friday afternoon and we could talk to them.”

Cope was receptive to what they had to say. By the time he graduated, the army and the navy were both recruiting him. He chose the latter.

“I took the navy because I liked the dress blue uniform better,” Cope confesses. “And it all worked out. I didn’t think I’d look good in a green suit.”

Cope says people often ask him why the military has a need for medical entomologists.

“That question comes up all the time,” he remarks. “‘Why do we have bug guys in the military?’ And the fact of the matter is, up until probably around World War II … more people died in all of our conflicts from diseases, many of which are spread by insect bites, not all of them, because there was a lot of diarrhea and typhoid and things like that, but more people died from infectious diseases and bug bites than ever died from the bombs and the bullets.

“Preventive medicine and sanitation was a huge issue in all the wars.”

Throughout his time in the military, Cope was tasked with keeping troops safe from bugs and the diseases they can carry.

“That’s the overarching thing and you can do that in a number of ways, either by deploying with them and doing preventative medicine for these insect-related issues,” he explains.

Cope says he was also tasked with monitoring food supplies for insect contamination and training and certifying troops to apply pesticides.

He served in the navy for nearly 24 years, retiring with the rank of captain in September 2012. During that time, one of the most important lessons he learned was how to strike a balance between being a military officer and a scientist.

“When you’re an officer in the military as a scientist, you really have two careers, and to me this is an important point,” he reflects. “You have a career as a military officer first; your scientific career is secondary. And sometimes those things overlap. Sometimes they don’t. (There are) times where you’re doing nothing but military stuff, as you might imagine.

“The good thing is that when you get out, you’re highly employable, because you have a lot of administrative skills, leadership positions, you’ve learned how to handle usually multi-million dollar budgets, et cetera.”

Two weeks after leaving the military, Cope took a job with Terminix, where he currently serves as director of entomology and regulatory services.

Aside from his duties with Terminix, he serves as president of the American Mosquito Control Association (AMCA), which seeks to enhance health and quality of life through the suppression of mosquitoes and the diseases they carry. Cope’s term began in February and spans a year.

So far, the post has kept him incredibly busy, thanks to the threat posed by the Zika virus.

“I thought I’d be just going around to meetings and giving talks and smiling and shaking a lot of hands and getting the substantial presidential entertainment budget that you get,” says Cope, jokingly. “Lo and behold, my first week on the job I have to come up with a plan to spend millions of dollars and have the plan ready in two days or something like that. We’re still working on it.”

The Zika virus is carried by certain mosquitoes and spread through South and Central America last year. The virus has been documented to cause a fever and rash in one of five people who have been infected. Researchers are currently trying to determine if there is a link between the virus and microcephaly in babies who are born to women infected with the virus. Newborns with microcephaly have abnormally small heads, which results from stunted brain development.

After originating in Africa, Cope isn’t surprised that Zika made it to the Americas.

“In Central and South America, there are artificial containers everywhere that hold water and that’s the prime breeding site for the Zika mosquitoes,” he states. “They’re not in muddy water, they’re not in lakes or rivers, they’re in artificial containers like tires, any type of trash that can cup, bird baths, anything that will hold a teeny amount of water, and I mean a teeny amount.

“I’ve seen as many as 200 mosquito larvae developing in something the size of a bottle cap.”

Although cases of the virus have been documented in the United States, each case has resulted from traveling outside the country. Cope doesn’t foresee the virus spreading in the US as it has elsewhere.

“We don’t have the sanitation issues in most places and we have a few other things that are really important and those are called screens, air conditioning and even television, because people tend to stay in their houses more than they used to, so they’re not exposed as much,” he says.

Furthermore, the mosquitoes in the US capable of carrying the virus are confined to the southern states. And those mosquitoes are weak fliers.

“Different types of mosquitoes have different flight ranges, which is really, really important when you think about disease transmission,” Cope says. “The mosquitoes that spread the Zika virus usually only ever fly literally about 100 yards from the water that they grow up in, that they breed in."

When he’s not busy keeping an eye on Zika from his vantage point as AMCA president, Cope hopes to continue mentoring members of the association’s Young Professionals group, which he helped start a few years ago.

“I’ve never forgotten all the help that I had along the way, particularly when I was not quite sure what I wanted to do,” Cope says of his career. “I’ve never forgotten that. So, I have always tried to myself available and still do to people who want to talk about careers or want to talk about different ways you can break into this field.”

Nothing makes Cope feel better than learning he’s made an impact in someone’s life.

“A female navy entomologist just came up to me about a year ago,” he shares, “and she said, ‘You probably don’t remember, but I talked to you at one of these meetings about joining the military and after talking to you, that’s what I decided to do and I love it.’

“You get one of those and it makes everything worthwhile.”

Cope now resides in Lake Bluff, IL. He is married with two children.

All in all, things have turned out well for the former Huntington North freshman with the slapdash bug collection.

“I never thought of myself as going to be a bug person,” muses Cope. “And I never, ever thought of myself as being somebody that wanted to go into the military.

“It was all serendipity, how it all came together.”