‘Tick Talk:’ A conversation with entomology professor Mather

Known as “The TickGuy,” Thomas Mather is a professor of plant sciences and entomology, director of the Vector-Borne Disease Center on campus and TickEncounter Resource Center at the University of Rhode Island. 

“[My] research interests include the ecological dynamics of tick-transmitted diseases and strategies for optimizing tick control and awareness,” Mather said in a written biography.   

Mather earned his Bachelor’s at Muhlenberg College, where he began his research into insects through a summer program. The program studied how aquatic insects affect the well-being of a watershed, and said how this was his first demonstration of interest in the entomology field. 

This led to his Master’s from the University of Delaware, where he focused his degree in the entomology department, specifically in medical entomology.

“Sometimes people don’t understand Medical Entomology you know — what are you, are you a bug doctor or something?” Mather said. “Here is sort of a public health entomologist, so the idea is that you are worried about insects and other bugs that are related to public health.”  

Since then, his studies have revolved around public health, with his thesis project for his Master’s focused on the consequences of pesticide use for mosquitos on other species. Mather continued his education and earned his PhD at the University of Wisconsin, followed by his postdoctoral at the Harvard University School of Public Health. 

While studying at Harvard, Mather spoke about how the bacteria known to cause Lyme disease was being discovered in science. He mentioned how one of his colleagues dissected ticks as part of his studies, and most likely saw the bacteria that causes Lyme disease in these ticks, but simply didn’t know anything about it. Mather also said how he also might have seen the bacteria in ticks from his studies but did not know how to identify them. 

In reference to his nickname, “The TickGuy,” he referred to it as a way for people to remember what he studies and has made his career out of; educating the public about ticks and the risks associated with them. 

“I realized, I don’t really care if they know my name, but I want them to know what I do,” Mather said.  

In his field, Mather is well known for his research, as he has published close to 145 papers throughout his career. Mather also has four U.S. Patents and two U.S. Trademarks for his various tick device products. 

Currently, Mather not only is a professor at URI but also works as the director of the TickEncounter Resource Center. The center’s website, called TickEncounter, allows people to upload photos of ticks or bites when they come into contact with them. Within 24 hours, someone from the TickEncounter will help the individual identify the type of tick and the safe methods for removal and care.The TickEncounter website has received recognition from local to international scales, and he has gained funding from multiple organizations, according to his profile on the website. Some of the organizations include the US Department of Agriculture, the National Institute of Health and the National Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).