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Entomologist couple donates world-class insect collection to ASU

Weevil gift will more than double ASU's collection, includes rare specimens.
Gift to help ASU become top center on understanding devastating weevil species.
March 23, 2017

$12M gift from researchers Lois and Charlie O’Brien to transform university’s research; couple also endowing professorship

By some estimates, there are about 10 million species of insects on the planet, but only about a tenth have been named. Key in that knowledge gap are the weevils, a mega-diverse group of beetles that devastates crops around the world. 

Now, thanks to a $12 million gift from two of the world’s foremost entomologists, Arizona State University is poised to become a leading center for understanding an insect group that has shown potential to be helpful, even as it has been harmful, to the agriculture industry.

Charlie and Lois O’Brien are entrusting to Arizona State University a global collection of meticulously classified insect specimens, including more than 1 million weevils and 250,000 planthoppers.  

The gift, one of the world’s largest and most important private collections, more than doubles ASU’s current collection and adds rare and unidentified specimens that could provide enormous scientific value. The O’Briens also are endowing professorships in the School of Life Sciences devoted to insect systematics, the process of identifying and naming new species.

ASU’s “whole approach is exactly what we were looking for as far as potential future research and the use of the collection,” Charlie O’Brien said.

The O’Briens said they selected ASU for the endowment because of its upward trajectory in research funding and strong entomological base, which includes a public insect collection with close to 1 million specimens and its curator, Nico Franz, an expert on the weevil and a long-time colleague of Charlie O’Brien.

MORE: The O’Briens: A partnership in life and in the lab

Ferran Garcia-Pichel, dean of the Division of Natural Sciences in ASU’s College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, said the gift creates a legacy of the O’Briens’ work as it elevates the university’s capacity for research.

“We are deeply indebted to the O’Briens for their transformative gift,” Garcia-Pichel said.   

Franz, curator of ASU’s Frank Hasbrouck Insect Collection, director of the Biodiversity Knowledge Integration Center and associate professor in the School of Life Sciences in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, said the university is up for the challenge the gift presents.

“The O’Briens have placed great trust in us as a research community,” he said. “And at the same time, it’s a responsibility for us to make sure this collection has the greatest possible impact in terms of research and mentoring for future generations.”

Video by Deanna Dent/ASU Now

The Hasbrouck Collection, with close to 1 million specimens, is open to the public and maintained in a newly renovated facility about 2 miles southeast of the Tempe campus. Interaction is a key component, as community members volunteer in research labs and visitors interact with undergraduate and graduate students who work on classifying and digitizing the collection.

“The specimens have a large reach in terms of their scientific visibility and ultimately their scientific impact for both research and mentoring, and that’s at the heart of what the O’Briens were looking for,” Franz said.

Weevils are known for devastating the U.S. cotton industry nearly 100 years ago. In a mournful, old blues song, “Boll Weevil,” singer Lead Belly laments: “Say, why do you pick my farm?”

The invasion forever transformed agriculture in the region, but it wasn’t confined to the U.S. The sweetpotato weevil, for example, has plagued farmers in Central and South America, Southeast Asia and East Africa. In many instances, the bugs reproduce quickly, proving pesticide-resistant and highly mobile.   

Weevil pests burrow into plant stalks and lay eggs that hatch into larvae that eat through different plant parts, including roots, stems, leaves and flowers. Today, there are about 65,000 identified weevil species. Estimates put the total number of species at about 220,000.

The U.S. has taken strides to prevent damage with Agriculture Department eradication programs in place across the South.

But aside from the potential for devastation, weevils can be put to good use.

Charlie O’Brien, a former professor at Florida Agricultural and Mechanical University, became a specialist on biocontrol and created a lab and center to eradicate invasive weed plant species using weevils.

By his count more than two dozen countries have used weevils to control major infestations of invasive terrestrial and aquatic plants.

O’Brien has discovered, or “described,” hundreds of weevil species, and several are named in his honor.

The collection he and Lois O’Brien, a leading expert on planthoppers, donated to ASU includes weevils that are 2 inches long and others that are mere specks. Among Charlie O’Brien’s favorites are clown weevils from the Philippines, which are colorfully striped. Others are gorgeously iridescent in purple jewel tones.

The O’Brien collection, amassed over 60 years of field work, promises major economic impact domestically and internationally.

“One of their unique features,” Franz said of the O’Briens, “is the combination of having amassed something of such great value and at the same time, sharing it so selflessly and widely.”


The O’Briens’ collection donation and endowment will boost the efforts of Campaign ASU 2020, a comprehensive philanthropic effort that aims to accelerate ASU’s mission and raise support for its educational priorities by raising at least $1.5 billion by 2020. Learn more at

Top photo by Deanna Dent/ASU Now

Mary Beth Faller

reporter , ASU Now


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'Car Dogs' film made with help of ASU students, faculty. See it in theaters.
March 23, 2017

Movie starring George Lopez, Nia Vardalos uses innovative model to get made, with ASU students on crew and professor at the helm

On Friday, the film industry will see an unprecedented event with the premiere of “Car Dogs” at Harkins Theatres across the Valley: It’s the first time a film has been financed, made and released in a single, non-Hollywood locale, according to the film’s director, Adam Collis.

Collis, a professor of film in the Herberger Institute of Design and the Arts at Arizona State University, said, “It’s a movie that’s written by a Scottsdale native, it’s set in Scottsdale, shot in Scottsdale, by students at Arizona State University and being exhibited in Phoenix’s own Harkins [Theatres]. … That is a bona-fide, innovative model for releasing a film.”

Collis said it was the culture of innovation that thrives at ASU that inspired him to take such a bold, new approach, leading to the creation of the Film Spark Feature Film Internship Program.

The idea for the program came to him in 2009 after his students’ rave review of a video-conference session he arranged with the cinematographer of “The Hangover” films. Since then, Collis has connected ASU with four Oscar winners; five Oscar nominees; three major studio chiefs; the presidents of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences and the Directors Guild of America; the producers of “Batman Begins,” “The Help,” “Star Trek,” “Requiem for a Dream,” “Foxcatcher,” “Moneyball,” “Boyhood” and “Dazed and Confused”; and many other active film-industry professionals.

“It’s an entirely new way of making movies through a teaching model for aspiring filmmakers,” Collis said.

Video: 'Car Dogs' red-carpet premiere Monday in Scottsdale


“Car Dogs” stars Patrick J. Adams (“Suits”), comedian George Lopez (“Lopez Tonight”) and Oscar nominee Nia Vardalos (“My Big Fat Greek Wedding”), with a special appearance by Oscar-winning actress Octavia Spencer (“The Help”). The plot centers on car salesman Mark Chamberlain (Adams), whose team has just eight hours to sell hundreds of cars to earn a new dealership. As the clock ticks down, outrageous tactics, shady tricks and hilarity ensue.

Work on the production commenced in summer 2012 when Collis and former ASU film professor F. Miguel Valenti, a producer on the film, introduced students to the “Car Dogs” script, breaking it down to its budgeting and production elements. After Collis spent a year securing independent funding, the film was finally greenlit and shot over 21 days in summer 2013. Some 271 students applied for jobs on the crew, of which 85 were given internship opportunities in the form of a 10-week, one- to six-credit class.

“It was a lot of fun with the cast and crew fully understanding that this film was in conjunction with the ASU Film Spark Program,” said Janaki Cedanna, ASU clinical assistant professor of film who ran post-production. “As a result, there were teaching moments every day, and it created a fun and exciting atmosphere.”

Actor Chris Mulkey plays the father of Mark Chamberlain in “Car Dogs.” When filming began, he wasn’t aware there would be students working on the crew. He remembers telling Collis, “This crew seems really young,” but at the same time being impressed by their professionalism.

Collis told him they were ASU students.

“I said, ‘They're amazing. They're doing great.’ They helped me run my lines and learn my stuff. It's a great program at ASU,” Mulkey said.

Film Spark has produced three feature films since 2012: “Car Dogs”; “Justice Served,” written and directed by Marvin Young (Young MC), which was shot in the summer of 2014 and will be released this year; and “Postmarked,” a dark comedy written by ASU Film Lecturer Gene Ganssle and playwright Ron Hunting, which was filmed in the summer of 2015 and directed by Ganssle with support from ASU (Ganssle said the production is working on a deal for distribution to release the film later this year).

Collis hopes the success of Film Spark and the movies it produces will serve as a point of proof that Hollywood can and should bring more motion picture endeavors to Arizona, where it can leverage resources that aren’t available elsewhere.

“I’m not saying we’re the first movie to launch regionally, but what we’re doing that is unique is that we’re launching our film in conjunction and collaboration with the biggest and most innovative school in the nation … and with Harkins, who is the Phoenix-based theater exhibitor that’s based out of Arizona,” Collis said.

He likens the process to building a rocket.

“We’ve effectively built our rocket, that’s the movie,” he said. But unlike other filmmakers, who have to compete with thousands to sell their “rocket” to distributors who will “launch” it for them, Collis and his team built their own launch pad through Film Spark.

“We’re going to get that rocket so high,” Collis said, “that other people around the country will look up and say, ‘We want to bring that movie to our chain.’”

Click here for Harkins movie times, and watch the "Car Dogs" trailer below:


ASU Now reporters Marshall Terrill and Emma Greguska contributed to this story. Top image courtesy of Car Dogs.