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Outstanding Professor abuzz with passion for bugs


Net in hand, Outstanding Professor Sue Opp conducts most of her fruit fly research in the field. (Photo: Jesse Cantley)

  • July 10, 2009

An expert on the behavior of fruit flies, entomologist Susan B. Opp has dedicated her career to inspiring science students and developing safer ways to manage agricultural pests. She avoids standard approaches to both endeavors, a quality that contributed to her selection as Cal State East Bay’s 2008-2009 George and Miriam Phillips Outstanding Professor.

“There are a lot of people on campus who do a huge amount of work and are great teachers,” said Opp, a professor of biological sciences. “To be chosen from among those people, it’s great. To be nominated, first of all, was amazing. And to see the letters people have written, and the fact that a lot of them were (by) students, gets you all teary.”

During a recent tour of the biology lab that houses many of the College of Science’s insect collections, ranging from rows of tarantula wasps in wooden cases to live specimens of giant Australian walking sticks, Opp exhibited her trademark enthusiasm for the insect kingdom.

“The whole way that they function is so foreign,” observed Opp, who wears a small golden fly dangling from a gold chain at her neck. “Yes, they have eyes and, yes, they have a mouth. But look how different theirs are from ours. They’re not only interesting, but they’re beautiful –– the colors and interesting structures. They have an external structure that can be sculptural in so many ways.”

Pausing before a glass terrarium alive with a colony of cockroaches, she lifts a net-covered lid from the container and sifts through a pile of soft gray egg crates piled inside. The scavengers scurry to hide beneath them as light pours into their shelter.

Without hesitating, Opp plucks out an irate female cockroach the size of the back of a teaspoon.

“See, she’s hissing,” said Opp, as she firmly grasps the exotic insect by the shell. “She’s mad at me. She’s trying to scare me.”

While the cockroach is a native of Madagascar, the focus of Opp’s work can be found closer to the Hayward campus, although it didn’t originate here. Opp’s expertise extends to fruit flies in general, with particular emphasis on the walnut husk fly that snuck into the state from the Midwest in the 1920s. Her research into the diet and flight patterns of fruit flies helps growers of walnuts, olives and other crops understand the best timing and conditions for combating the pests.

In nominating Opp for Outstanding Professor, Professor Jeffery Seitz, chair of the Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences, noted her instructional creativity, visionary faculty leadership, research and publication successes and service to CSUEB and the broader community.

“I don’t know anyone that works as hard or puts as much of his (or) her heart into it,” Seitz wrote in his nomination letter.

Opp’s entomology students are as likely to examine butterflies and beetles on display in the lab as watch black-and-white horror movies in a class she instructs called “Insects and Humans.”

“One of the things I’ve done for my class … is to look at how insects are portrayed in the movies,” she said. “There are these old great, B movies … about giant mosquitoes and ants.”

When it comes to combating real life pests, such as the 3/8-inch walnut husk fly, Opp opposes using chemicals and pesticides, preferring to tap her understanding about the winged insects’ behavior to help the agriculture industry monitor and control insect populations that threaten crops.

“I’m interested in the behavior, ecology and evolution,” she said. “A lot of my students have looked at flight behavior (and) how far they fly and why.”

Studying the flight and mating patterns of fruit flies helps scholars learn how best to impede the reproduction process of pests. When she’s not in the classroom, serving on University committees or leading the Academic Senate –– she recently began her second term as chair of the faculty governing body – Opp can be found hanging fly traps on olive trees outside the Science Building, exploring insect life in East Bay Regional Parks or investigating walnut groves damaged by walnut husk flies at Ardenwood Historic Farm in Fremont.

“They have a bunch of walnut (trees) there,” Opp said. “It’s all organic, so they get a natural walnut husk fly infestation. We’ve done things looking at how far flies disperse. We’ve looked at developing traps and lures for them.”

Opp didn’t start her career planning to solve farming problems. But once entomologists and others in related fields learned she had conducted doctoral research on apple maggot flies and later studies about the mating behavior of fruit flies, the calls from colleagues poured in and grants came her way. Since joining Cal State East Bay’s faculty in 1989, Opp has attracted to the University 14 outside grants totaling more than $500,000, including two representing first-time achievements for CSUEB. In 1992, for example, she received the U.S. Department of Agriculture National Research Initiatives Competitive Grants Program award, and in 2001 she earned the CSU Agricultural Research Initiative grant.

The author or co-author of 33 published articles and book chapters, Opp anticipates the publication of four more articles. She co-founded with Nancy Fegan CSUEB’s program in environmental science 15 years ago. Her service to the University includes leadership positions such as chair of COBRA and as graduate coordinator for the Department of Biological Sciences and the Marine Science master’s program for 15 years. Her educational outreach activities have included membership on the Faculty Advisory Committee and as an instructor for the East Bay Science Project, a K-12 science program that lends particular assistance to teachers from underperforming school districts.
In 2001, in recognition of her contributions to research about California agriculture, Opp was named Woman of the Year in Science for Alameda County.

Students also give Opp high marks.

Over the past five years, on evaluations of her instruction, students have given her scores of 1.49 or better, with 1 representing excellent and 4 representing poor.

“Any of her former students would say she’s very impressive, the amount of work she does,” said Joe Zermeño, who earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees at CSUEB under Opp’s guidance. “She cares so much about her students.”

Opp confirms that her passion for teaching in the classroom has contributed to her professional success and satisfaction.

“There’s nothing better than having a student come up after a lecture and say, `I never understood that before; I never thought biology was something I could do,’” Opp said. "You’ve gotten through to someone. I’ve broadened their horizons.”

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