Spider Women: Young ladies pursuing careers in entomology

Creepy crawlies aren't going to scare these young MSU women.

Spider Women: Young ladies pursuing careers in entomology

We all know the visual: a young girl spots the thing she dreads most -- a bug. After emitting a piercing shriek, she leaps to her feet in search of someone to squish the creepy, crawly invader for her.

But this is certainly not the case for the women who are studying in the Michigan State University (MSU) Department of Entomology. Rather than fleeing the room in terror upon sight of an insect, these students grab for the nearest microscope or magnifying glass to get a better look. 

We sat down with several of these young women to find out what drew them to study the planet's smallest animal denizens.

Kelsey TakalaKelsey Takala

Entomology major
Class of 2016
Undergraduate lab technician in the Landscape Entomology Laboratory

When I came to MSU, I had never even heard of entomology. I spent my first year majoring in forensic anthropology, but then I met Walter Pett, and that all changed. I took one of his classes, “Pests, Society and Environment,” just for fun, and I realized just how cool learning about insects really was. As a kid, I was always looking for bugs under rocks and putting them under the little Toys 'R Us microscope my parents gave me, but I had no idea I could study them for a living. I switched my major to entomology right after that and took an insect lab class as soon as I could. After a semester of playing with cockroaches and identifying insects, I was hooked. It was really cool.

Here in the Landscape Entomology Lab, I get to work with a lot of important insect species: bumblebees, emerald ash borers, white flies and others. We work across the whole spectrum of turf, tree and garden pests, testing new pesticides and helping people solve the issues that pests bring to their plants. Looking ahead, though, I definitely want to pursue a career working with bees. Honey bees are super interesting as a species, they have a really advanced form of communication, and they can use the position of the sun to determine how far away their food is, for example, and they're very important for a lot of crops.

Jessica KalinJessica Kalin

Fisheries and wildlife major
Entomology minor
Class of 2016
Undergraduate research assistant in the Doug Landis lab

I came to MSU wanting to become a veterinarian, but I quickly learned that I loved working in the outdoors too much. When I heard a friend telling me about their experiences in the Fisheries and Wildlife department, I changed majors and have never had cause to look back. I added the entomology minor during my sophomore year as a way to get experience in the lab, and now, four years later, I can't see myself doing anything else. I fell in love with it.

Working in entomology has opened a lot of doors for me. In addition to working in the lab, I help teach the “Fundamentals of Entomology” class. I'd like to use experiences like that to pursue a career in community outreach programs for a nonprofit organization, helping kids, especially ones in urban areas, get outside and experience more of the natural world. I didn't have those opportunities when I was growing up, and I'd like to give other kids the chance to experience what I never could.

Courtney LarsonCourtney Larson

Second-year Ph.D. student
Eric Benbow lab

I’ve always been interested in nature, the environment and exploring the outdoors. Insects in particular captivated me early on because of how diverse they are, and because of how just plain interesting they can be. They’re also very important to the aquatic ecosystem, which is the subject of my research. Insects are my lens into that very unique world. The project I’m working on in the Benbow lab allowed me to spend my summer on streams all across the Lower Peninsula to study how the emerald ash borer and the ash tree deaths it causes have affected Michigan’s stream ecosystems. Nobody had looked at that before, so being able to start answering that question is a privilege.

My goal is to use the training I’ve received through the Department of Entomology to someday do research and teach as a university professor in entomology and aquatic ecology. One of the most fulfilling parts about my studies so far has been the relationships I’ve built with other scientists and with members of the communities I’ve worked in, and being able to share my findings with them. I love the opportunity to have a positive impact by engaging with other people who care about the environment and the world.

Katie DemeuseKatie Demeuse

Entomology major
Class of 2015
Lab and field assistant in the Vegetable Entomology Lab and the Insect Microbiology Lab

During my first two years at MSU, my major was undecided. I always knew I wanted to do research in biology of some kind, but it wasn’t until I took a research assistant job with Zsofia Szendrei in the Vegetable Entomology Lab that I was able to narrow it down. Being in that lab, I saw just how fascinating insect behavior can be and how important insects are to so much of the world. At that point, it was an easy decision to declare entomology as my major. I think some people are hesitant to pay attention to insects at first because they can be a little unnerving, but once you get past that you see how interesting they really are. Working in Dr. Szendrei’s lab helped me do that, and I encourage other people to work past their fears about them, too.

I’m interested in the medical side of entomology -- in how insects spread and carry diseases. Working for Mike Kauffman in the Insect Microbiology Lab gave me the chance to work with mosquitoes, and that’s something I’d like to pursue in the future. Understanding how diseases work in nature and trying to find ways to stop them is both fascinating and important. I’m looking into graduate schools right now, and I’d like to one day do research and teach in this field at the university level.

This article was published in Futures, a magazine produced twice per year by Michigan State University AgBioResearch. To view past issues of Futures, visit www.futuresmagazine.msu.edu. For more information, email Holly Whetstone, editor, at whetst11@msu.edu or call 517-355-0123.

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