Virginia professor nicknamed ‘Roach Man’ stokes students’ curiosity about cockroaches

November 6, 2017 GMT

RADFORD, Va. — Startled by the sudden florescent light, a hissing cockroach scurries through his fingers looking for safety.

His blue blazer and finely-trimmed facial hair are trademarks of a professorial appearance that masks a child-like curiosity the insect has inspired in him – and his students.

On most days during the fall term, this is how you’re likely to find Dr. Jason Davis – or “Roach Man,” as he is informally known on Radford University’s campus.

“That works, I guess” Davis said of his nickname. “I like the notion that people are starting to recognize there are some things going on here and are taking an interest.”

For four years, Davis and his students have studied the behaviors and hormones that help insects grow bigger and reproduce. The hope is through understanding this, the team will be able to quantify how to control certain species and use the byproduct they naturally produce to benefit society.

“The students have ownership of these projects, and that’s what gets them excited,” Davis said. “Our group is always sharing information. They are coming up with as many ideas as I am.”

In one lab, Davis and the students have created a model in which roaches consume leftover human food and produce fertilizer.

Luis Arias, a biology major and one of Davis’ students, said after some trial and error, the researchers discovered the perfect amount of roach waste to outdo traditional potting soil.

“The roach poop has worked out very well,” Arias joked. “We’ve done other trials in the past with different amounts of frass. I knew nothing about this. I would have never thought we would have gotten these results.”

Frass is a scientific word for insect poop.

Alex Atwood, a senior biology student, has been studying various types of roaches with Davis for the last three years. The insects are housed in glass cases on an upper floor of the university’s new Center for the Sciences building.

“When I first started out, I didn’t know what route of research I wanted to get into. Then I got in here,” Atwood said. “This is really cool. These can be used as a model organism for other things. You can learn about human diseases and so much more.”

The group’s research is not limited to crawling insects. Some students study fruit flies, and others learn about birds and larger organisms.

“It is really interdisciplinary,” Davis said. “It’s about giving the students hands-on application of what they learn in the classroom.”

Junior biology researcher Drew Wolford put his lessons to use in a unique way this past summer. With Davis’ help, Wolford said, he traveled to Peru to study a native strand of parasitic fungus and its effect on other organisms.

“It fascinates me,” he said. “Some research doesn’t always relate back to humans, and that’s OK. This research does. With cockroaches … imagine all the food people don’t eat. You can take all that food and feed it to these cockroaches and grow plants with their frass.”

The personal conviction and curiosity of his students, and the small groups they come in, is what attracted Davis to RU.

“Radford is more interested in the quality of our students than just getting big grants,” Davis explained. “That’s one of the reasons I like being here. If I just wanted to get big grant money, I’d have less time to work with students. These guys take time to explain stuff, they have class loads. They’re the ones with the hands in the lab.

“That’s the fun part.”