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An Interview with Gwen Pearson, the Entomologist Formerly Known as Bug Girl

For nearly a decade Gwen Pearson assumed the secret identity of Bug Girl, an entomologist who blogged about insects, science, popular culture, and other topics. Now she’s come out of the cocoon, and she’s blogging for WIRED Magazine using her real name. She will also be writing guest columns for Entomology Today. Be sure to follow her on Twitter, and also on Facebook.

She was recently interviewed by Richard Levine, the Entomology Today editor, about her past as Bug Girl and her future as Gwen.
bug_girlWhen did you start the blog, the FB page, and Twitter?
I started blogging in 2004 under the pseudonym Bug Girl, when bloggers—let alone bug bloggers—were still a relatively new thing. That online diary evolved into a very public experiment in insect outreach. It’s mind boggling — I have over 2 million views on my blog, and 46 thousand followers via various social media streams.

Now that I’m at everything’s changed. Two million people visit that site…monthly. I have thousands of social media shares on the stories I’ve written there. I’m trying not to freak out about that.

Why Bug Girl and Bug G. Membracid?
Most women used a pseudonym in the early frontier days of the Internet. When I left my faculty position and moved into Student Affairs and Higher Ed administration, it was important that I kept my personal opinions (and boy do I have them!) separate from my professional persona. I used the nickname “Bug Girl” for so long, I kind of aged out of being a girl anymore, so I changed to Bug G. Membracid a few years ago. I love membracids! I identify with their pointy heads, as a pointy-headed academic. That also separated me from the thousands of other “Bug Girls” out there (including an Australian punk band).

Gwen PearsonWhy’d you decide to ditch the secret identity?
When I left academia to strike out on my own, I kept getting offers that were contingent on using my real identity (like Since I didn’t need to hide my name anymore, I “crossed the streams” of my professional and pseudonymous identities. Time will tell if this is a good idea. Nature actually interviewed me as a case study on pseudonyms and career changing!

When you interacted with other entomologists as Bug Girl, did most of them know who you were?
I suspect many entomologists knew who I was; the pseudonym was mostly to keep students, my boss, and state legislators from finding me via Google. My audience isn’t professional entomologists, so I suspect a lot of ESA members have never heard of me.

Why were mosquito posts so prominent on your blog? Even more than Membracids.
Most of my posts were driven by interactions with my readers. Mosquito and bee posts are the majority of my writing, since that’s what generates the most questions from the general public. Most of my readers are college educated, interested in science, but not scientists or entomologists. I write to entertain first, and then educate, since the online world is crowded. Explosions and cleavage are a bit more lively than “How to prevent mosquitoes in your backyard” essays. So, I write things like “Would Zombies bite Mosquitoes?” to have a hook for non-bug people.

Where’d you get your degrees?
I did my MS and PhD at North Carolina State University; I worked on sesiid pheromone biology. I was so lucky to be in a department with so many amazing entomologists to learn from! I would describe myself as an applied entomologist/behavioral ecologist.

What ESA Section(s) have you been a member of?
I am a member of P-IE! Everyone loves P-IE.

When I was still faculty, I was active in Section C (the earlier version of P-IE), and served for many years on the Youth and Education Committee, as well as chairing that Committee and the Teaching Symposium. I am so very excited that the Insect Expo is returning! I lobbied for its return for many years, and I’m grateful to the folks that did the very hard work to bring it back this year.

Who are your humor influences?
Monty Python and Black Adder. So, clever word play and a sense of the absurd. I love Lewis Black, because we both tend to waive our arms and bang tables a lot when ranting, but it turns out my standup style is actually closer to Bob Newhart.

How’d you get the gig with WIRED?
I applied on a dare. It’s amazing and humbling to have co-workers that are Pulitzer Prize winners. I don’t know how any of this happened. I was just farting around on the internet, and one day someone offered to pay me for that. I’ve been struggling with a paralytic writing block off and on for the last couple of months. I keep thinking about my colleagues, the quality of their work, and how many people will be reading what I write now. I’m slowly getting my groove back.

What are your plans for the future?
I really wish I knew. The last year has been a roller coaster. The only course I took on computers in college was on PUNCHCARDS. Really. And now I make my living on this thing called the Internet, building websites and writing articles.

I think my PhD helped me become a good all-rounder—I learned how to make new knowledge and adapt to rapidly changing conditions. Being a faculty member taught me how to hustle and compete for limited resources, which has served me well now that I survive from contract to contract. I get to work with wonderful people, and I get to write about things I love. Life is good, and hopefully I will still be saying that a year from now.
Be sure to watch the following video interview of Gwen/Bug Girl at the the 2011 Annual Meeting of the Entomological Society of America:


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