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Week of September 24, 2012

Staff Spotlight

Entomologist sees his world through many lenses

On most days Mark O’Brien, a U-M insect division collection manager, is found sorting dead insects into 8-foot-tall specimen cabinets that fill several rooms in the Museum of Zoology within the Ruthven Museums Building.

“We’re maybe one of the best kept secrets on campus because we’re not really known for having a program in entomology or insect systematics, but we have great professors who work in that area,” says O’Brien, who manages 3.5 million to 5 million specimens.

Photo by Austin Thomason, Michigan Photography.

With the large collection, O’Brien predominantly works to organize and label the various insects acquired between 1900 and the present, as well as to make the collection accessible to various researchers.

“Most of our insect collection is not data-based, so right now I’m entering the numerous dragonfly specimens we have in a catalog,” which is available online at, he says. “Eventually we will have an online database for people to go through to find most of the insects and mites we house.”

In addition to sorting, he answers phone calls and emails assuring people the insects they found in their homes are not deadly. “Because I’ve been exposed to a lot of different areas and groups, I’m probably one of the people on campus that anyone goes to, in order to identify an insect, says O’Brien, whose areas of expertise are sand wasps, forest entomology and dragonflies.

As a collection manager and entomologist, O’Brien’s work also includes photographing insects. However, in 1999 photography took on a new importance.

“I had an initial scare with glaucoma which made me focus more seriously on my photography. Since then photography has occupied a great deal of my free time,” says O’Brien, who had taken photos since he was a teenager.

Today with his glaucoma under control, O’Brien’s love of photography continues to grow. He helped create the Ann Arbor Area Crappy Camera Club (A3C3) that meets once a month in Ann Arbor, Dexter or Ypsilanti. “Sometimes we have an assignment in mind and other times we do a film swap where everyone brings a roll of film, we put it in a bag and the roll of film you pull out is the one you have to shoot with,” he says.

Usually the members of the Crappy Camera Club travel in small groups around Michigan, snapping shots with cameras of their choosing.

“I’m not a film snob or a digital snob, I do both and I think what interests me is the quality of the image. I don’t really care about how someone did it but whether it’s pleasing to my eye,” he says.

Included in the quality of the image is the presentation of the photographs O’Brien takes. “I do all my own matting, framing and printing if it is in black and white,” says O’Brien who has had exhibits at Pierpoint Commons and the Matthaei Botanical Gardens.

In the coming months, O’Brien is preparing for another photo exhibit for the Crappy Camera Club. But he’s also working on his next project — backsides of buildings.

“The part everyone sees from the front is designed nicely but few people see the backside, which serves different functions,” he says. “Maybe I’ll call it ‘Show me your backside.’”

The weekly Spotlight features faculty and staff members at the university. To nominate a candidate, please contact the Record staff at



Mark O’Brien, insect division collection manager, sees his world through many lenses.


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