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  May 14, 2001

Early Love of Nature Set Graduate Student
on Path to Academic Distinction

As a youngster growing up in Pennsylvania, Michael Wall and his parents would canoe the Allegheny River, hike the Allegheny Mountain trails, and camp out in Cook's Forest, a favorite.

"The forest had amazing white pines," recalls Wall.

His early interest in the environment and conservation issues, nurtured well by his parents, took him down a career path that eventually led to UConn.

His early experience with nature may well explain why this second-year graduate student in ecology and evolutionary biology has already earned recognition from two prestigious organizations.

One of the two, a Fulbright Fellowship, will take Wall to Sydney, Australia, this summer for a year of study at the Australian Museum, the equivalent to the nation's Smithsonian.

While in Sydney, Wall will work with entomologists on a conservation-or iented project involving a group of insects commonly referred to as 'c,' a group of moderately large insects that spray 'stink' when attacked by predators.

"We'll be looking at the factors that drive extinction in these insects," says Wall. His Ph.D. dissertation at UConn is directly linked to this research. "Ultimately, I hope to develop models that predict how prone species are to extinction."

The other high honor came Wall's way in December, when the Entomological Society of America presented him with its President's Award at the society's annual meeting in Montreal, Canada.

The 7,500-member organization honored Wall for a paper on the pollination of the Clematis socialis, a federally endangered plant found in Alabama and commonly referred to as the Alabama leather flower.

"I looked at whether or not there was something we could do in the management of this plant to decrease its rarity," says Wall. "The paper examined the insects that pollinate the plant and ways to increase its pollination."

Wall's interest in endangered plants began during his college days at Auburn University in Alabama, where he earned both undergraduat e and master's degrees in botany.

"When I was at Auburn, I also became more and more interested in the study of insects, particularly a group of insects known as the 'true bugs,' a group of insects that includes things like stink bugs, bed bugs, and water striders," he says.

While at Auburn, he began searching for a graduate institution that would provide him with the best opportunity to continue such research.

"I started looking around to see where the best people were to train with and that led me to UConn and to my advisor, Carl Schaefer," says Wall.

A weekend visit to the Storrs campus convinced him that he had found the right university and the right department.

This semester Wall is teaching both a writing and a medical entomology course with Schaefer. The teaching is going well, says Wall's advisor: "The students both like and respect him."

Schaefer says Wall is excellent in both research and in teaching. "He grasps the important question in a research problem and is then able to devise a means to answer it," he says. "He is an outstanding graduate student and will have a fine career."

When Wall leaves this summer for Sydney, he'll be taking his wife Allison, and Connor, his toddler son. Will Connor's adventures in Australia have the same impact as Wall's childhood experiences with his parents in Pennsylvania?

"It's a cliffhanger that might take 20 years for us to find out," says Wall.

But early indications are that his 20-month-old son may already be following in his dad's footsteps. Wall says his son can already discriminate between bees, beetles, butterflies, dragonflies and ants.

Clearly, his dad is impressed.

Claudia G. Chamberlain

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