The Millersville University biology students were piled into the van, coming back from an afternoon in a local meadow as part of their entomology lab. Their professor, John Robert Wallace, who insisted on these field trips out of the classroom, was driving.
Suddenly, the van came to an abrupt halt and reversed course. “We’ve hit the jackpot!” Wallace yelled, pulling to the side of the road. Everyone jumped out and ran to the berm and excitedly started picking carrion bugs off some rotting roadkill.
It’s only one reason “Roadkill” has stuck as an affectionate nickname for Wallace. He was so poor in graduate school at Shippensburg University he sometimes relied on struck animal carcasses — though freshly killed this time — for meals.
After a memorable 25-year stint, the 62-year-old Wallace has taught his last ecology and evolution course, and other biology courses, at the college. After a last research project, the pony-tailed entomologist officially leaves the university in early June.
Plans are to spend much more time with a fly rod than an aquatic insect sweep net near Ennis, Montana, a town with more fly shops than churches and where Wallace and his wife, Susan, have owned a log home near the fabled Madison River for eight years.
He leaves a varied and impactful research career in stream ecology and medical entomology that has taken him all over the world and even onto television. As one of the world’s two certified forensic entomologists, he has appeared as a witness in criminal cases in Pennsylvania, Maryland and Massachusetts.
In one notable case, he helped prove the innocence of two men wrongly convicted of raping and murdering a child in Mississippi.
One of the key pieces of evidence against the men were bite marks on the body. Wallace found the marks were not from a human bite but likely a crayfish. Both men were exonerated and the case was featured on “The Innocence Files” on Netflix.
But Wallace is more proud of his decades-long work into the source of Buruli ulcer, a flesh-eating disease still a problem for residents in parts of West Africa and Australia. Wallace and colleagues have found the bacterium is likely transmitted to humans by mosquitoes.
He serves as an adviser on the board of several nonprofit organizations dedicated to easing victims’ pain and eradicating the disease, including a working group for the World Health Organization. He co-founded a nonprofit group for research and education, including a children’s cartoon book.
Among other things, that effort led to Wallace fly-fishing with former President Jimmy Carter along Spring Creek near State College. One revelation from that encounter: the president admitted Rosalynn Carter has a better cast than him.
Tough and beloved
No biology class with Wallace was a piece of cake. Most of his 2,000 or so students knew going in that he rarely gives an A and they would be challenged to perform in and out of the classroom. “You think small, you stay small,” was advice Wallace parroted from his own college mentor to his students. Yet his forensic entomology class would fill in a few hours, and some others always had waiting lists.
In his office and lab, framed awards or honorary degrees aren’t among the clutter reaching to the ceiling. Instead on display are about a dozen photos of the professor posing with students he prodded or ignited to blossom.
One of them is Rebecca McCabe. She told Wallace a year before graduating she wanted to make a career involving wildlife but had a poor grade-point average, was working 40 hours a week as a server and had no field experience.
If you truly want this, you will have to make changes in your life, her professor informed her bluntly. Volunteer with local conservation groups and get field work experience. Work harder.
So she did. She cut back on work hours and volunteered weekly. Giving talks on barn owls in Lancaster County Central Park, she once bought barn owl box materials with her own money so participants could assemble 13 of them. It was the summer’s most attended program. As for her grades, she pulled off a rare A from Wallace her last semester.
With Wallace’s help, she got her foot in the door as a volunteer at Hawk Mountain Sanctuary, where she impressed and climbed the ladder. Currently, she is a full-time research biologist.
Today, she references “that proper kick-in-the-butt” talk as the push she need to take flight. “He’s an amazing human and has influenced so many of his students. He’s incredibly caring, challenges you, ignites your curiosity and supports you in every way. He’s truly a gem,” she says.
When Robert Smith transferred to MU, he says he was a metal head who stood out, not in a good way. He heard about this professor who was doing interesting stream ecology work. It took a while but Wallace eventually allowed him to volunteer for field work.
“John was the first professor to give me a chance and to get to know me,” he recalls. “What made John an even greater mentor was that his attitude and love for science was contagious. I saw the amazing way that John’s attitude made him a scientist rather than someone who practiced science. His work was designed to do more than answer a question. He wanted to help the environment and people.”
With pushes from Wallace, Smith went on to become a biology professor at Lycoming College. He currently works coordinating monitoring and data for the watershed planning program run by the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection.
His former MU professor, he says, “helped me navigate grad school, being a professor and how to live life as a father, husband and scientist.”
The research of one of Wallace’s students led to the military adopting virtual autopsies because of a problem with dead soldiers coming home with unexploded ordnance on their bodies. Another former student is in charge of invasive species control in Florida.
Another helped persuade the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission to ban the sale of crayfish statewide as live bait after it was discovered invasive rusty crayfish were being sold in bait shops in Lancaster County and anglers were dumping them into streams at the end of the day.
Not surprisingly, Wallace chased bugs through fields as a kid. But where some youths might have the curiosity to look up the species of the insect, young Wallace also paid attention to the kind of plant they were feeding on. An entomologist was in the making, though Wallace notes he almost became an ornithologist.
His affinity for collecting snakes and bugs has caused him problems at home, where snakes occasionally escaped, and at MU. The milk man stopped making home deliveries to the Wallace household near Linglestown because the outside milk box was where the boy stored his snakes.
In one infamous incident at the college, Wallace had to call IT because a scanner was malfunctioning. The responding staffer found an ant colony inside. During an interview, Wallace points to some framed artifact no longer with glass, knocked over when one of his two ball python snakes escaped from the lab.
After getting his undergraduate degree from Penn State, a master’s from Shippensburg University and a doctorate in entomology from Michigan State, Wallace entered the Peace Corps.
His three years working as a volunteer in beekeeping and wildlife management programs in Guatemala were transformative. It’s one reason he pushes his students to volunteer and has steered several of his students into the Peace Corps.
Volunteering, along with participating in research projects, attending conferences and applying for grants, is a way his students can break from being just another student with a degree and get noticed by future employers.
“I tell them, no offense guys but you are all clones. In the real world, they don’t care two hoots about grades. They want to know what you did here,” Wallace says.
“I’ve made a career out of studying things that either rot flesh on live people or decompose and smell,” is how Wallace describes his final research project affiliated with MU, along with one of his students.
A dozen fetal pigs donated by Penn State will be placed into ponds and streams near Millersville to determine how rapidly various aquatic insects eat the corpse.
It’s not glamorous, but the rate of decomposition will help officials in a criminal investigation determine how long a body recovered from a body of water had been there.
Asked what legacy he hopes to have left at MU, Wallace immediately refers to his relationships with all the students along the way.
“The grants, the awards, the papers — they’re all going to collect dust and disappear. It’s the people. It’s knowing that one of my students revolutionized military strategies. I have 10 or so students with Ph.D.s now starting their own careers and getting their own students.”
When Wallace posted he would be retiring on his Facebook page, he quickly heard back from 442 people, many of them former students.
“You’ve mentored and inspired and influenced so many. Congrats bug boy!” was a typical response.
Ad Crable is an LNP | LancasterOnline outdoors writer. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.