Man of many hats
By Nancy Alexander
A number of citations hang a bit haphazardly over Tom Turpin's well-worn computer, 1992 president of the Entomological Society of America and 1995 CASE Indiana Professor of the Year among them. But it's a framed, hand-lettered maxim that perhaps characterizes Turpin best: "Anybody can be a professor, if he studies hard enough along one line, but it takes a man of wide knowledge of all the sciences to be a farmer."A number of citations hang a bit haphazardly over Tom Turpin's well-worn computer, 1992 president of the Entomological Society of America and 1995 CASE www.case.org Indiana Professor of the Year among them. But it's a framed, hand-lettered maxim that perhaps characterizes Turpin best: "Anybody can be a professor, if he studies hard enough along one line, but it takes a man of wide knowledge of all the sciences to be a farmer."
Turpin is a farmer by temperament and upbringing. (His brother still runs the family farm in Troy, Kan., in the northeast corner of the state.) But he is also an academician of wide-ranging interests, a researcher by training and a teacher by accident. Or maybe, by destiny.
Through his leadership of the Entomological Society, Turpin came to conclude that roughly half of his colleagues are "born" entomologists, collectors whose fascination with insects dates back to their childhood bug jars. Tom wasn't the kid with the ant farm or 4-H insect collection. "But like any boy on a farm, I had an interest in all things living," he says.
Turpin classifies himself instead in the other half of "made" entomologists, whose interest was sparked by a teacher along the way. Turpin came to entomology late, when an undergraduate biology professor at Washburn University suggested that graduate study of soil insects seemed a logical specialty of Turpin's ongoing interest in agriculture.
Thirty-five years later, the entomologist remains a reluctant collector who maintains some light traps at his 80-acre farm near West Point, Ind., "just for teaching."
Collecting aside, Turpin barely contains his enthusiasm for the field. "Entomology is wildlife biology, " he says, "just on a small scale. Wildlife biologists can study grizzly bears, but there aren't that many grizzly bears, and there are a whole lot more insects. Studying insects in their natural environments is a 'natural' for these people." And the array of career choices available in entomology is amazing, he adds.
Turpin came to Purdue in 1971 from graduate school and an assistant professorship at Iowa State University. His appointment was entirely research-based in entomology. "I didn't know I was a teacher," he says.
Today the range of Turpin's courses reflects the range of his interests. He is a veteran beekeeper who teaches beekeeping and bee biology. He has led a graduate-level course in pest management nearly since his arrival at Purdue. In startling contrast is a recent offering called Insects in Prose and Poetry. The undergraduate class exposes 25 students to Turpin's own fascination with entomological references in music and literature. And he is working on a proposal for a course called "Heritage and Issues of Agriculture" that would capitalize on his long-standing interest in the history of farming.
But it's been Turpin's introductory course on insects, Entomology 105: Insect Friend and Foe, that has drawn students from other disciplines into his field of study. He recalls his motivation for proposing a popularized science course 15 years ago: "Bugs are fascinating. I bet if we taught it right, students would come across campus for it."
Well, not at first. Turpin admits to being "a little disillusioned" when six students showed up for the first day of class. His recruitment of the seventh class member is the stuff of Purdue legend: "I looked out the open window and yelled to a kid on the sidewalk," he says. "Surprisingly, he came to my door and checked out the class. Then he enrolled. He is an engineer, and I still hear from him occasionally."