A bug’s life: Braden Evans’ fascination with insects passed on to Fleming students

By Jamie Morris

It was a pie chart he was shown as an undergraduate biology student at Guelph that convinced Braden Evans he should focus on insects. The chart showed all animal species. The tiniest of slivers represented the 5,416 species of mammals; another sliver showed the 10,000 species of birds. Most of the pie? Insects. Close to a million species.

Insects, he learned, were everywhere, equipped to occupy every conceivable ecological niche by an astounding variety of adaptations.

Which is the perfect segue . . . because Braden himself has found a niche for which he is perfectly adapted: teaching in Fleming College’s Ecosystems Management Program.

Columnist Jamie Morris.

To understand how well-adapted he is, you’d have to do what I did and sit in on a class.

But before I share that experience, a little about the meandering path that led Braden to his niche. It has taken a while (he’s now 41).

After completing his BSc., a dramatic detour: for close to 10 years he worked in the automotive sector. The company, Ford, paid for Braden to complete an M.B.A. part-time at York’s Schulich School of Business.

He could easily have had a comfortable career in the automotive industry. But at Schulich he encountered inspiring teachers and decided to pursue further studies and maybe become a teacher himself.

In 2010 he returned to Guelph to work on a doctorate in entomology, focusing on organic management of insect pest problems. A bold move. He and his wife (who teaches secondary school science in the Toronto board) had just started a family (they now have three kids, ranging in age from one to nine).

Surprisingly the MBA turned out to be a real asset in his doctoral work. His fluency in the language of business allowed him to communicate effectively with vegetable growers and commercial producers of biological control agents.

After finishing off his doctorate Braden worked on a Florida research project, looking at biological controls of the spider-mites that damage strawberry crops. (The idea was to use other insects — spider-mite predators — to remedy the problem).

So at this point Braden had a few options: he could work for a commercial agricultural enterprise; he could be a university professor and continue to research (his doctoral work focused on evaluating the infectivity of entomopathogenic nematodes on swede midge in organic broccoli fields).

He chose a third option. Teaching, he realized, was his niche, but teaching at the college level rather than university. At universities, the focus is on research and completing grant proposals; in colleges it’s on teaching. And for college instructors, being more of a generalist is a real asset. All of his background could be brought into play.

In the fall of 2018 he shot out his resume to colleges. Josh Feltham, Program Coordinator in Fleming’s Ecosystem Management Program at Fleming was looking for someone to teach an Environmental Economics course. A doctorate in entomology with an MBA? A perfect fit, and Braden was hired.

Braden is juggling a number of assignments and projects. Four days a week he teaches courses ranging from aquatic entomology to business communication at Seneca College. He’s also working with a private sector company, coordinating trials with licensed Ontario cannabis producers to control greenhouse pests. One day a week he is teaching here in Lindsay.

In the future he hopes to teach full-time at Frost campus. “This is a special little campus; it flies under the radar,” he says. He talks of how completely invested the instructors are in doing more than just delivering material in a classroom. The approach is holistic: students are learning life-skills, workload management and teamwork.

The Class

This is really a workshop, offered as part of the Ecohealth Conference, put on by the third-year Fleming Ecosystem Management Program. The title is “Braden’s Believe-it-or-Not: The Wonderful World of Arthropods.”

The lab space is full — students, alumni, and members of the public. An introductory screen is up and in front of pairs of stools are microscope, tweezers, and shallow basins. (From wandering past the lab I know he’s been setting up for a couple of hours.)

At the outset we’re told his goal — to convince us of something he passionately believes: insects are cool! He begins by defining “entomology” then throws up a version of the graph that first hooked him.

We’re soon into the “believe-it-or-not” portion and learning about bizarre adaptations — parasites and parasites of parasites, insect cannibals, and Bombardier beetles that when ingested by frogs release an acid that causes the frogs to belch them up, still fully-alive.

As he goes along he’s constantly checking in with his audience, teasing out answers, nodding appreciatively at contributions. There’s lots of laughter.

The last portion is all hands-on. Everyone is given a goldenrod gall to dissect or take away. We’re given commercially-prepared dried nematodes (microscopic soil-dwelling worms that attack over 200 species of pest insects). We add them to water and under a microscope observe the revived nematodes wriggling.

Most fun of all, we’re given a “Team Biodiversity Challenge.” Braden has collected samples from the Rouge River and as a group we work in pairs to count and identify all the insects then tabulate the results, finding over 200 caddis flies, stoneflies, and other insects.

Wrapping-up, like any gifted teacher, Braden probes to find out what we students enjoyed and learned from most, and what we’ll remember.

Our collective takeaway? Insects are cool! Mine, personally: Here’s someone who’s found a job that fulfills him and for which he’s perfectly adapted.

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