By Andrew Rimas, Globe Correspondent Boston Globe | June 4, 2007
Blood-sucking insects weren't Tom Mather's earliest love. As an undergraduate in Pennsylvania's Muhlenberg College, he started his academic life as a history major.
But the future professor of Entomology at the University of Rhode Island (and unofficial tick guru of New England) was looking for a nobler calling. "My parents left me with the idea that you should do something good for the world," he said. "So, it became my role to prevent disease transmission through the bites of blood-sucking insects."
Today, Mather is recognized as one of the country's foremost authorities on how to prevent tick bites, and, failing that, what to do if they get under your skin. Motivating people to take ticks seriously is Mather's biggest concern, and, to promote mindfulness that tick bites can potentially be fatal, he helped organize last Saturday's Tick Control Awareness Day in Rhode Island.
"Almost everybody knows someone who's had Lyme Disease," he said. At 52, Mather speaks with a relentless energy, the sort that fuels him when he runs marathons (he's run the Boston one 20 times). "But somehow people still don't take it to heart."
"We can't even get people to tuck their cuffs into their socks," he said, comparing the tick-complacent attitude to his own habits in running. "I've had numerous running injuries because I don't stretch. Guess what I still don't do? That's what's going on with people and ticks. They think you can put a little DEET on your arms and neck and call it a day."
Mather is determined to change this.
As a postgraduate researcher, Mather joined the Harvard School of Public Health in the first years after Lyme Disease had been identified as tick-borne. In those early epidemiological days, he helped identify white-footed mice as reservoirs for the disease. Deer, says Mather, are good reproductive hosts. But unless a tick has fed on a mouse (or chipmunk, or shrew), it won't carry Lyme.
"So we developed a strategy of putting pesticide on nesting material that mice use," says Mather. "They didn't have ticks anymore."
Leaving out tubes of pesticide-treated nesting material (like cotton) is one of Mather's three pillars of tick prevention. The other two are annual perimeter sprays in the yard, and repellents on clothing and pets. "If you have four outfits that you use for yardwork, and you treat those clothes once a month, you won't get a tick bite."
Knowing that people will carry on getting bitten, Mather continues his laboratory work as director of URI's Center for Vector-Borne Disease. Said Jeff Seemann, dean of the College of the Environment and Life Sciences at URI, "Tom's a 24/7 kind of guy. He's very intense. You can tell he's a marathon runner."
Mather's sense of focus is pushing his lab's efforts to create a single drug that would eliminate every threat from tick bites. He's confident that it will someday be perfected.
But prevention is the best cure. "When you see a beautiful stone wall in the country, the sort that characterizes New England, I see a rodent condominium!" And if you see leaves piled up against it, get your perimeter spray done, he added. "Put chemicals on your clothes, not your skin. Protect your pets. These are things you can do now."
Hometown: Kingston, R.I.
Family: Wife, Kim, an elementary school teacher. Son Andrew, 27, daughters Kate, 19, and Becky, 13. Step-sons Weston, 18, and Casey, 15.
Hobbies: Yardwork. "It feeds my soul." Also, running. For the past six Boston Marathons, he's guided a sight-impaired runner through the course.
On fund - raising: "We're on a $100 million capital campaign at URI right now, and last year the president of the university got Lyme Disease. He added an endowment program to the campaign for our work."