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August 2017 GWIS Lead

Wednesday, September 6, 2017   (0 Comments)
Posted by: Allison Shultz
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August 2017
GWIS LEAD is a GWIS periodical profiling women leaders in science.  Subscribe
GWIS Honorary Member May Berenbaum Leads with a Lifetime of Excellence in Entomology Research and Education
Recently I had the great privilege of interviewing Dr. May Berenbaum, the department head of entomology at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Over her 36-year career, she has significantly contributed to the scientific community and has been a champion for public outreach. In 2014, she received the National Medal of Science from President Obama. Dr. Berenbaum has been given the first GWIS Jean E. Simmons Honorary Membership Award for Science Education for her work informing the public about her science. 

You have been the department head for the Entomology Department at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign for 24 years now. How is that different from being a professor? What are the things you miss? What are some of the good things about being a department head?

I don’t miss anything, really. I mean, I still teach and still have a very active research program.  Actually one reason I can do this at Illinois is that the entomology faculty here is a very collegial group of people, so there are rarely conflicts or crises. My position isn’t 100% administration—I’m just a faculty member with extra responsibilities.

What made you choose entomology as your field of study? Is that a childhood dream?

Actually when I was a kid, I was afraid of insects, although I always loved biology. (I was a bird-watcher, I enjoyed botany, and I read a lot of books about all kinds of organisms). When I was an undergrad at Yale I placed out of introductory biology because of AP credit and was allowed to take an upper-level course freshman year. Literally the only one that fit my schedule was “Terrestrial Arthropods,” and I thought, “Well, maybe I could find out at least what insects I should be afraid of.” I had an amazing instructor, Dr. Charles Remington—who was absolutely inspiring—and I’m here today because of that course and that professor.

I think, for a lot of us, there is that one professor in that one class that set you on your path.

That is why I’m still teaching a general education course for non-scientists called “Insects and People.” It’s a great course for people who are not comfortable with insects—they can take the course and confront their fears, too.
Dr. Berenbaum with President Barack Obama when she was awarded the National Medal of Science in 2014

(Photo courtesy of Wikipedia)
Speaking of your outreach, it makes up a huge part of your CV and pretty much starts at the beginning of your professorships. How important is outreach for the general scientist? There are a lot of discussions going on saying that the older generation insists that “our place is in the labs,” while younger generation is very much heavily into outreach.

I became a professor in an era when there was no expectation for scientists to do outreach, but I’ve always felt it’s absolutely essential to explain the value of the scientific enterprise to the public at large. People are entitled to know where their tax dollars are going and how they can potentially benefit. Because sound public policy is informed by sound science, scientific research is a public good, so outreach is incredibly important. Fortunately, it’s also fun.

It is fun. I like to do a lot of outreach, and it’s nice to see kids' faces when they finally get it.

And grownups too! A lot of outreach targets the K-12 population, but it’s critical to engage adults as well, to reach those people who haven’t had a science course since they were required to take one in high school. And everybody should understand at least in a basic way not only the science facts but the scientific process as well. 

A lot of your outreach specifically targets women in science. Especially in a field that, you know, girls don’t like—bugs. What are some of the cool things you have done to demonstrate that entomology is cool and fun?

The gender disparity isn’t as great as you might think. Last year, I was not the first female President of the Entomological Society of America (ESA), I was the fifth female President—the first female President was Edith Patch, in 1930. There were times in the 110-year history of the ESA when entomology was heavily focused on chemistry, and chemistry was mainly male-dominated. But gender balance has been steadily improving over the past 30 years, particularly among younger entomologists.

It is really great to see more women in the previously male-dominated sciences. Probably having great outreach helps that too. At one of the outreach events I attended, a girl couldn’t believe that the scientist was a girl. That broke my heart.

It’s for that reason I think it’s particularly important for female scientists to get involved in outreach. I was fortunate in that both of my parents were scientists. My mother had a degree in chemistry. It was never a requirement, but wanting to be a scientist was regarded as perfectly normal in my family. Not every girl growing up who wants to be a scientist necessarily has the support of both parents.
Emmet Brady, cultural entomologist and host of the Insect News Network, presents Dr. Berenbaum with an Insect News Network t-shirt.

(Photo by Kathy Keatley Garvey)
Can you tell me more about the Focus 580 Radio show? What is that about?

AM-580 is our local NPR station and it’s based on campus. Very early on, I was invited to be a guest on a call-in show, during which people would call with questions. Typically, an entomologist on a call-in radio show dispenses advice on how to kill insect pests, but that’s not my specialty within entomology—when I was a guest, people were encouraged to call in with basic questions about insect biology. I was a guest more than 80 times and every time was a little bit unnerving since I never knew what kinds of questions I’d get—often people would call in with a description of an insect they’d seen and just based on the description I’d have to figure out which of the million or so species it might have been. 

You’ve also been featured on Science Friday three times, and it is really a very fantastic show. What was is like being on their show?

It's always great! I have enormous respect for science journalists who host radio shows or write stories for national newspapers. They perform such a valuable service, sharing science with so many people! That’s one reason I’m on Twitter now. I don’t have a huge following—it’s approaching 3,000—but it’s amazing to be able to share information with so many people who are passionate about insects any time of day or night just about anywhere in the world!

Insects are a huge part of our daily life.

It’s basically impossible to live on the planet without insects.

We rely on them so much for even just our food.

Yes. They are irreplaceable pollinators and in that way contribute to providing us with a reliable supply of fruits, nuts, and vegetables in our diet. They’re also important nutrient recyclers and waste haulers, helping to insure that soils remain fertile and livestock aren’t plagued by parasites that breed in dung. In many parts of the world, insects themselves are eaten regularly; that’s not really the case now in the United States but they may become more popular as interest grows in producing animal protein sustainably. Insects convert food into biomass more efficiently than most vertebrates, require far less water, and emit lower levels of greenhouse gases as they grow. Insects might well be the animal protein of the future!
Dr. Berenbaum poses with colleagues of the “Bee Team” from UC-Davis. Pictured are emeritus professor and native pollinator specialist Dr. Robbin Thorp, Dr. Brian Johnson, Berenbaum, and extension apiculturist Dr. Eric Mussen.
The sculpture is by UC-Davis artist Donna Billick.
(Photo by Kathy Keatley Garvey)
You had some grants to study Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD) in bees and the mechanisms that allow insects to develop metabolic resistance to insecticides. Looking at all your grants, you seem to always be involved with the "en vogue" science. How did you manage to be on the top of all these hits of science questions of the time?

Mostly my research is curiosity-driven, and I’m very committed to conducting research that has value to society. For example, I’ve long been interested in butterflies in Illinois and, in 1999, when a report came out from Cornell University that caterpillars on plants growing near cornfields planted with genetically modified corn might be adversely affected by wind-borne pollen, we were of course interested in finding out whether our local caterpillars feeding on plants near GMO corn were experiencing problems.

As for bees, my main research goal in entomology has been to figure out how plant-feeding insects deal with poisons—either the natural chemicals that are produced by the plants they eat or the synthetic chemicals that humans use to kill them.  Like caterpillars, bees are plant-feeding insects but, unlike caterpillars, they feed only on nectar and pollen (and not on leaves, roots, or other plant parts). To break down plant chemicals, both bees and caterpillars rely on the same type of enzymes, which are encoded by a large gene superfamily. A colleague of mine here was heading up the honey bee genome project and, because he knew I had worked with this gene superfamily in butterflies, he asked if I’d be interested in participating in the honey bee genome project by annotating the honey bee genes in the superfamily of detoxification genes. The genome project was completed just as Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD) began to appear, and having the genome sequenced made it possible to develop new tools for investigating the possible causes of CCD. It was both fortuitous and fortunate that what would have otherwise been an intractable problem manifested itself just as a revolution in bee research was enabled by the sequencing of the genome. 
In 1979, when you were at Cornell doing your work there, you actually won the SDE-GWIS (Sigma Delta Epsilon GWIS) science award. Tell me a little about that.
 
It was so long ago ... I think it might have been an award from the local chapter. It was the first award I received for my commitment to communicating science. 
 

That is wonderful. What was your favorite conference you’ve attended over your career?
 
Well, I think there were two. One was the very first conference that I attended. I was a graduate student in 1980 and my major professor was the co-organizer of the first Gordon Conference on Plant-Herbivore Interactions. Gordon Conferences are very special scientific meetings because they’re very small and very prestigious (in fact, they’re invitation-only). Because my advisor was the co-organizer, I got invited to an intimate meeting with just about all of my scientific heroes—practically everyone who was famous in the field was there, and I met them all before I had even written my dissertation! 

The other favorite was the 25th International Congress of Entomology, held during the last week of September last year in Orlando. The International Congress of Entomology has been meeting essentially every four years since 1910 and, prior to 2016, it had met in the USA only twice before—in Ithaca, NY, in 1928 and in Washington, DC, in 1976. So, for the first time in 40 years, the Congress returned to the USA, hosted by the Entomological Society of America, during the year I served as President. With more than 6600 people attending, it ended up being the largest gathering of entomologists in the history of the discipline. It was unbelievable. 

 
 
That is wonderful. Conferences are really important for developing your career and meeting people. You were able to go up and chat with the big names in your field, which is really amazing. When I go to a conference and get to meet some people, I’m just like “Oh my goodness! You are that person, and you wrote this paper, and I get to actually sit and talk with you!” Most people are really nice about it.
 
They are. It doesn’t matter who you are; what matters is the science you are working on.
Dr. Berenbaum moves in for a photo of honey bees on a flowering artichoke.
(Photo by Kathy Keatley Garvey)
We talked a little bit about growing up. You had two chemists as parents, and they were very happy to have you go into science as well. Beyond your parents, what did you find the most valuable in terms of career development—what are three skills every budding scientist, graduate student, postdoc, assistant professor, etc. should have to make sure their careers really are on the right track?

Well, being able to write is often underestimated but incredibly important. Writing well means you can communicate your ideas and your findings to your peers. People often think it’s incidental, but it’s not—it’s essential.

Probably another important skill is multitasking. Being a scientist means you have to be able to work on several different kinds of projects at the same time. And they don’t all involve research—there are always administrative responsibilities irrespective of whether you’re a scientist at a university or in a government laboratory or in private industry. 

Another useful skill is the ability to frame an original and testable hypothesis. That’s the first step in the scientific process, and everything else depends on the quality of that first step. It’s not necessarily a skill you’re born with—like most skills, it requires practice.


You still teach a lot. What has been one of the most rewarding experiences you've had, and can you give an example of one really challenging experience?

With respect to a rewarding experience, for years I’ve taught a general education course in entomology for non-scientists—“Insects and People.” Generally students take the course because they have to satisfy a university requirement and that’s all they expect out of the class, but one political science major liked the class so much she actually changed her major, went to graduate school, earned a PhD in entomology, and became an insect scientist herself.

As for a challenging experience, well, teaching always demands a lot of time and effort and over the years there will inevitably be students who remain resolutely indifferent or unsatisfied no matter how hard you try to make a course interesting and enjoyable. Even knowing that it’s inevitable doesn’t make it less disappointing. 
Dr. Berenbaum takes a photo with her cell phone as extension apiculturist Dr. Eric Mussen points out a honey bee on a pomegranate blossom.
(Photo by Kathy Keatley Garvey)
Looking at the current academic model, a lot of the younger generation scientists are realizing that the tenure track professor position is almost like a unicorn now; do you think that the current model is maybe failing some scientists, and as someone who has been through the whole academic tenure and succeeded extraordinarily well, do you think that all of the graduate students should still be shooting for those tenure track positions, or should we start really thinking of different tracks into other things and building those skills?

One advantage of becoming an entomologist is that you have so many career options within the discipline. Some of our alumni are faculty members in entomology departments in land grant universities but some students have ended up joining the military and working for the Department of Defense, some work in big national labs, or in private industry labs, some work in science policy and still others are involved in environmental nonprofits. So, here at Illinois we’ve always emphasized the diversity of career paths open to entomologists. 

And it sounds like your department really has that focus in providing that information to your students while a lot of other departments are lagging behind.

In 1992, when I became head of the department, we started an annual alumni event, inviting back to campus alumni who have had interesting and successful careers to give a seminar and share with the students their path to success. Over the years, we’ve had military alumni come back, we’ve had policy alumni back, and industrial scientists back. You can definitely be successful in different entomological careers, not only in academia. 

That's really wonderful to hear. I think a lot of students need to know that there are multiple career options; we can still have a lot of science PhDs, and the diversity only helps us get better. You've been a mentor to many students. What are some of the characteristics that good advisors and good mentors should have?

A mentor should be willing and able to pay attention. That’s not always easy—there are many, many distractions—but a good mentor should be willing to devote time and attention to a mentee without waiting to be asked.  

Final question. What is your number one piece of advice to current graduate students and post-docs about career opportunities and shaping their careers?

Follow your passion, and don't be afraid to try things out.
Interview conducted by Michelle Booze, transcribed by Shu Li, and edited Rozzy Finn.

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Founded in 1921, Graduate Women in Science is an inter-disciplinary society of scientists who collectively seek to advance the participation and recognition of women in science and to foster research through grants, awards and fellowships. We comprise over 20 active chapters of more than 800 women who are "United in Friendship through Science" to support and inspire member professional goals and mutual appreciation of science. Learn more at www.gwis.org.

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