The Buzz on Outstanding Professor Sue Opp
BY MONIQUE BEELER
Susan B. Opp lifts a net-covered lid from a glass terrarium alive with a colony of cockroaches. The scavengers, Madagascar Hissing Cockroaches, scurry to hide beneath a pile of soft gray egg crates piled inside, away from light pouring into their shelter through a bank of windows in a third floor laboratory in the College of Science.
Without hesitating, Opp, a petite woman with a blond pixie haircut, plunges a hand into the cockroach chaos and plucks out an irate female the size of the back of a teaspoon.
“See, she’s hissing,” says Opp, as she firmly grasps the exotic insect by the shell. “She’s mad at me. She’s trying to scare me.”
Given her line of work as an entomologist and professor of biological sciences, Opp doesn’t scare easily.
Whether dodging rattlesnakes in the field as she hunts down the fruit flies she specializes in studying or recounting the gruesome habits of creatures such as the tarantula wasp that stings its prey and buries it alive for its hatchlings to feast on later, Opp expresses appreciation for the peculiarities of the insect kingdom, often reveling in the multi-limbed creatures’ power and grace.
“The whole way that they function is so foreign,” observes Opp, who wears a gold chain at her neck with a small gold fly charm dangling from it. “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.”
An expert on the walnut husk fly that snuck into the state from the Midwest in the 1920s, Opp has dedicated her career to inspiring students and developing safe ways to manage pests. She avoids standard approaches to both endeavors, a quality that contributed to her being named Cal State East Bay’s 2008-09 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,” Opp says. “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.”
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.
For freshman animal biology classes, for instance, Opp greets students daily with an “Animal of the Day” PowerPoint display, starting on Day One with a tiny aquatic creature called a tardigrade and ending the quarter with a quick lesson about reindeer.
“The whole idea is to show the incredible diversity of animals and get students to appreciate how fascinating animals are,” Opp says. “Generally, these are not animals that I’ll ask exam questions about. It’s just a fun way to start the class.”
Students appreciate the daily conversation starter. One wrote in an evaluation of Opp: “Animal of the day rocks my socks.”
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 says. “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 walnut and olive growers and others in the agriculture industry monitor and control insect populations that threaten crops.
“I’m interested in the behavior, ecology, and evolution,” she says. “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 says. “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.”
Walnut husk flies may not be easily recognizable to most people, but anyone who has parked a car beneath a walnut tree infested by the winged menace likely has experienced its handiwork in the form of gooey black husks that drop from the tree.
Opp didn’t start her career planning to solve a farming problem. But once entomologists and others in related fields learned she had conducted her doctoral research about 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 instance, 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 Associate Professor Nancy Fegan the program in environmental science 15 years ago. Her service to the University also includes leadership positions including chair of the Committee on Budget and Resource Allocation, or COBRA, and 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 serving 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 students instructed by Opp have given her scores of 1.49 or better, with 1 representing excellent and 4 representing poor.
“Dr. Opp has so much energy presenting the material that you can’t help but to develop an interest in biology,” observed one undergraduate student on an evaluation form.
Graduate students working under Opp’s guidance have studied creatures from insects to primates and cordgrass to California poppies.
“A lot of what my students do, it doesn’t have to be what I do,” Opp says. “If they have a good idea, and they can get me excited, ‘Great! Go for it.’”
Former student Joe Zermeño arrived as a transfer student in 1997 and earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees at CSUEB under Opp’s guidance. He now teaches biology at Modesto Junior College, a job he says he won thanks to the strong background in insect ecology he developed while studying under Opp’s tutelage.
“Any of her former students would say she’s very impressive,” Zermeño says. “She cares so much about her students.”
Like many former students, Zermeño keeps in touch with Opp and recently returned to campus to seek her professional counsel over lunch. She also influences his choices in the classroom.
“She’s very dynamic and engaging,” he says. “I try to incorporate some of the things I saw in her in my teaching. Her classes were fun but challenging.”
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 says. “You’ve gotten through to someone, (and) I’ve broadened their horizons.”