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The Co-Evolution of Insects, Plants and a Career

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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A series of graduate student conversations with leading women biologists, at the Women in Science Symposium at Cornell April 2-3.

Dr. May Berenbaum, professor in the Department of Entomology at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

Dr. May Berenbaum, professor in the Department of Entomology at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

Insects are difficult to work with. First, they are small. While titan beetles can reach 15 cm, some parasitic wasps are smaller than a single-celled paramecium. Second, they are hard to differentiate. Even veteran entomologists refer to Microlepidopterans as “little brown moths” or “LBMs.”

Dr. May Berenbaum listed these difficulties at the start of her recent lecture at the Cornell University Frontiers in the Life Sciences symposium, an event celebrating the achievements of women biologists. But she quickly moved to the joys of working with insects and what we humans can learn from our tiny co-inhabitants.

Dr. Berenbaum’s lab at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign works with one little brown moth in particular, the parsnip webworm, Depressaria pastinacella, to study the co-evolution of insects and their host plants (in this case the wild parsnip, Pastinaca sativa). Their studies have revolutionized the field of plant-insect ecology, and Dr. Berenbaum’s awards include a Guggenheim Fellowship; US National Academy of Sciences membership; and for her ongoing commitment to science communication, the AAAS Public Understanding of Science and Technology Award.

Image: The Berenbaum lab: http://www.life.illinois.edu/berenbaum/default.htm

Image: The Berenbaum lab: http://www.life.illinois.edu/berenbaum/default.htm

At the symposium I had the opportunity to sit down with Dr. Berenbaum to discuss her path to entomology and success as a woman in science. Perhaps unsurprisingly, given her evolutionary interests, Dr. Berenbaum highlighted the role of contingency. She wanted to be a biologist from childhood – perhaps a mammalogist or ethologist or botanist – but she had no idea she would wind up an entomologist. In fact she was afraid of insects. But in her sophomore year at Yale, the only course that fit her schedule was Terrestrial Arthropods. It so engaged her that she was unable to choose between insects and her prior interest, plants. So she chose both.

In her first semester of graduate school, Dr. Berenbaum’s advisor, a leader in plant-insect interactions, handed her a dusty book on the Umbelliferae (the parsnip family), written entirely in French, and told her “if you can find a project in this book, I can fund your research.” Fortunately, Dr. Berenbaum knew a little French, and she planned a project. Since she didn’t have a car, she decided to study a wild parsnip patch in walking distance of the lab. So began her research program.

Dr. Berenbaum explains why she was car-less in Buzzwords, a collection of her humor columns for American Entomologist. Again she emphasizes the importance of contingency in her career:

In his masterful autobiography, Naturalist, the great evolutionary biologist E.O. Wilson speculated that physical limitations can determine the course of a life. In his case, a painfully close encounter with a pinfish during a childhood fishing expedition left him with a left eye that couldn’t focus at long distances; not coincidentally, he devoted his career to the study of ants and other small creatures that require magnification for close observation. I am an enthusiastic subscriber to this theory, because I know of at least one physical infirmity that I possess that has influenced the course of my own career…I’ve spent my entire research career to date working on organisms that live within walking distance of the laboratory because, since before I can remember, I’ve been exceedingly prone to motion sickness.

An ecology graduate student myself, I have similar stories about how I’ve chosen my field study systems. Like Dr. Berenbaum, in my sophomore year of college I took what turned out to be a life-changing class – Plant Taxonomy – and I choose local experiments to avoid driving. But such origin stories, while tidy, can obscure the painful moments and critical decision points of a career, the mixtures of difficulty and joy.

Dr. Berenbaum’s advice to women in the sciences is to “hang in there” and to seek out supportive friends, mentors, and campus groups committed to the retention of women scholars. She also suggests the importance of anticipating challenges, especially funding. “Funding is a constant challenge for everyone,” she says, “there’s a low probability of success, and it’s a constant source of worry, particularly when you have people depending on you.” She notes that balancing responsibilities, even when those different responsibilities are “equally pleasant alternatives,” is a constant and dynamic process: “There are always responsibilities like professional service, research, and teaching – and I will never ignore a call from my daughter.”

Too often the phrase “women in science” evokes images of Rachel Carson and Marie Curie – clearly important women, but not necessarily the faces of the new generation. And role models matter. Research suggests students may be influenced by the relative omission of women scientists in textbooks. By highlighting the contributions of contemporary women researchers, journalists can play a large role in promoting gender equality in the sciences.

Dr. Berenbaum believes good scientists and good journalists share many attributes. Both are devoted to accuracy, and both work to improve their storytelling skills. “Scientists are often uncomfortable with the idea that storytelling is key to convincing a reviewer that a paper is worth publishing, or a granting agency that research is worth funding,” she notes, “But narrative matters.”

For more on Dr. Berenbaum’s research, visit http://www.life.illinois.edu/berenbaum/default.htm

Laura Jane Martin About the Author: Laura Jane Martin is a poet, essayist, and NSF graduate fellow at Cornell University, where she studies the ecology and evolution of wetland plants. She has a BS in Biophysics from Brown University. Find more of her work at ljanemartin.com. Follow on Twitter @Laura_J_Martin.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.






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