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Lab Rat of the Week: Brian D. Farrell

By Jessica Kim, Crimson Staff Writer

As a biology professor, curator of Entomology at the Museum of Comparative Zoology, and the newly appointed director of the David Rockefeller Center for Latin American Studies, Brian D. Farrell has integrated his diverse passions into his multifaceted career and lifestyle.

The son of apple farmers in northern Vermont, Farrell developed a fascination with birds when he was young. He accumulated enough knowledge to serve as a teaching fellow for a course in ornithology, the study of birds, as an undergraduate at the University of Vermont. While camping in the mountains of New Hampshire and collecting insects one summer during college, however, Farrell fell in love again.

“I slowly felt myself being drawn to insects because of their amazing diversity of lifestyle, forms, and accessibility,” Farrell said. “There are insects everywhere and they don’t flee from you when they see you like birds do.”

Inspired by a professor in entomology who studied ground beetles, Farrell chose to study beetles that feed on plants so that he could simultaneously study botany.

“I’ve felt breathless ever since with the joy of actually being able to make a living as a naturalist,” he said.

Farrell and his colleagues recently finished a six-year project of building the beetle tree of life.

“Beetles are one out of every four animals. They’re a huge piece of diversity,“ he said, explaining the various roles that they play in the environment as predators, pollinators, feeders, and parasites.

Farrell and his colleagues observed with surprise that beetle diversity parallels the trophic pyramid, which is a structure based on energy flow between organisms.

Farrell, along with several fellow scientists, recently received a grant from National Science Foundation to document all of the insect fossils in the Museum of Comparative Zoology at Harvard.

“We knew we had 30,000 fossils when we applied for the grant. That made us the second largest collection of fossil insects in the world, second after the institute of paleontology in Moscow,” Farrell said. “But we just found that we’ve got about 15,000 more that were in long-term storage, so we might be the number one.”

Farrell is also an avid lover of jazz. He integrates his passion for music and biology in his freshman seminar, titled “Why We Animals Sing.” He explained that the two main motives for singing are attracting mates and competing for territory.

“Music is not just sound. It’s about social cohesion as much as it is about mating. Social animals use sounds to stick together,” he said.

One of the courses that Farrell teaches through Harvard Summer School’s Study Abroad program, “BIO S-158: Biodiversity of Hispaniola,” is a microcosm of Farrell’s vibrant lifestyle. Not only do students explore habitats ranging from coral reefs to cloud forests, but they also play on drums at one of the local nightclubs with the professor.

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