MSU Entomology alumna’s studies led to a career with an international conservation society

Motivated by a love of pollinators, alumna Emily May suggests those interested in graduate studies find work that motivates them and builds community.

Emily May showing pinned insects to youth
Emily May honing her outreach skills with children during her graduate studies at MSU. Photo by Rufus Isaacs, MSU Entomology.

When did you graduate from MSU? I graduated in 2015 with a master’s in entomology and the Ecology, Evolutionary Biology and Behavior program.

What was your path to your current job? I work for The Xerces Society as a pollinator conservation specialist in the pesticide program. My job draws on USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) cost-share programs to provide technical assistance for farmers in the Northeastern United States for creating pollinator habitat. I help them consider what plants to use, site-specific conditions and other details. I also do a lot of outreach and communication, writing publications on pesticides and pollinators. In the past year, I’ve been laying the groundwork for Xerces to expand its work in New Mexico. In particular, I’m setting up infrastructure to increase urban outreach in Santa Fe and Albuquerque.

I started work at Xerces a week after graduating at MSU by continuing some of the work I’d been doing with Rufus Isaacs on the Integrated Crop Pollination (ICP) project, a multi-university project looking at the different contributions of various crop pollinators in different crops. My first two years with Xerces, I did outreach and extension for the ICP project. After the ICP grant ended, I switched to my current work in the pollinator and pesticide programs at Xerces.

Anyone with special impact on your career? I earned my bachelor’s degree at Middlebury College where I became interested in farming and food systems. I wanted to do an independent study of pollinators and my advisor, Helen Young, was very supportive of my interests. After leaving Middlebury, I worked on a couple of farms and then as a field research associate at MSU’s Kellogg Biological Station. I started applying to grad schools and realized what a good fit Rufus Isaacs’ work was for my interests. Fortunately, I got accepted at MSU and Rufus agreed to be my advisor. He was such a good role model of how to be a mentor and an academic.

Best memories as an entomology student or as an entomologist? I have great memories of MSU, like my time in the field traveling for pollinator work in west Michigan blueberry fields and wildflower plantings. The Isaacs lab had an annual end of summer picnic with “Lab Olympics” at Fennville. This was a series of fun activities with research themes like a shuffling of water that somewhat imitated nectar collecting by pollinators, and a field equipment relay where we raced carrying buckets and various awkward equipment familiar from our field work.

"It’s those personal connections you develop with other grad students and faculty that build community and open opportunities."

Any advice for students from your experience? Take advantage of all the opportunities that grad school offers in and out of academics. Communication skills are really essential. I was lucky to give presentations to many audiences while at MSU. Figure out how to communicate your work to people who are inside and outside of your field and to children as well as adults. Take opportunities to meet people in your field, travel to conferences and apply for the department’s travel grants. It’s those personal connections you develop with other grad students and faculty that build community and open opportunities.

Also, I’ve learned that if you work on interests that easily motivate you, the technical skills will follow from that motivation. I found I didn’t need to be concerned about learning skills like statistics because they were part of my bigger motivation to work with pollinators.

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