Tom Walla, PhD, shows off moths and butterflies in a display case.
Tom Walla, PhD, shows off moths and butterflies collected while researching in Ecuador.


Butterflies and biology buddies

It was in 1992 at a research facility in Ecuador when Tom Walla’s love of butterflies began. He borrowed a butterfly net and went hunting.

Walla, PhD, did as he was told and successfully caught a butterfly that belonged to the family being researched. Lacking the proper envelope to save the captured butterfly, Walla flattened the butterfly in the pages of a book. Walla’s colleague was impressed at the catch but disappointed in the squashed state of the butterfly.

Now, 20,000 butterflies later, it was was the only butterfly of that particular species Walla and the research team have ever caught.

“Some things are very rare in the tropics and you never know when they are going to turn up for you,” said Walla, CMU professor of biology.

Walla is well traveled having gone to Ecuador about twice a year for the past 12-15 years. He enjoys sharing these experiences with students to expand their view of biology and the world, he said.  Traveling to do research influences his teaching style, he said.

“I think the learning experience has a lot to do with the people that you meet … the kinds of people that you come in contact within your life give you some indication of the potential things you could do," he said. "They have made their own path in life founded on their own passion and their desire to change the world and I like that … I emphasize that with my students.”

Walla is working with his colleagues in the biology department to create an “alumni relationship” program called BIOSINQ, an effort to build strong connections between current biology students and recently graduated biology students working in their respective fields. Walla coordinates events. He hosts annual dinner parties and happy hours events to raise funds fund and increase the connections being made. The intent is to create a supportive network that grants undergraduate students more opportunities to be mentored, have access to funding for their personal projects and learn from CMU alumni experiences working in the field.

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