Online and On Tour: How One Entomologist Shares Her Passion for Insects With the World
By Kyndall Dye-Braumuller
Editor’s Note: This post is the sixth post in the “Standout ECPs” series contributed by the Entomological Society of America’s Early Career Professionals (ECP) Committee, highlighting outstanding ECPs that are doing great work in the profession. (An ECP is defined as anyone within the first five years of obtaining their terminal degree in their field.) Learn more about the work ECPs are doing within ESA, and read past posts in the Standout ECPs series.
In 2017, Nancy Miorelli won the ESA ECP Outreach and Public Engagement Award. As both a tour guide in Ecuador (where she offers daytime and nighttime tours highlighting insect fauna in the region’s cloud forest) and a co-founder of Ask an Entomologist, she is a superstar in her efforts for science communication and outreach related to all insects everywhere. Below, Miorelli shares perspectives on her career path, her passion for entomology, and the insect that would make the best-looking race car.
Dye-Braumuller: What is your favorite aspect about your research area?
Miorelli: Instead of traditional research, I live and work in Ecuador conducting tours focused on ecology, conservation, insects, and local culture in some of the most fragile and biodiverse ecosystems in Ecuador: the cloud forest and the northern coast. The northern coast of Ecuador is my favorite place to bring visitors not only because of the incredible biodiversity but because it’s relatively unknown. Untouched jungle—which is home to monkeys, toucans, and bizarre insects—meets the tallest mangroves in the world, which transition into titanium black beaches that sparkle in the sunlight, which touch the ocean where humpbacked whales breed during August and where the water glitters at night due to bioluminescent plankton.
My favorite part is that I can show people this amazing landscape that they most likely would not have found by themselves. The combination and inter-connectedness of conservation work, wildlife watching, meeting and staying with locals, and learning about the delicate balance between local life and conservation work is why the coastal area is so special to me.
What is a challenge that you solved during your most recent project?
Organizing the locals along the coast to be ready for tourism was one of the most difficult challenges. Because there isn’t much tourism in this part of Ecuador, finding locals and training people to work with tourists and scouting out new areas to bring people was some of the most challenging aspects of building the tours.
Also, there are only a handful of entomologists in Ecuador, so most of the locals who are accustomed to tourists who are interested in birds and mammals don’t understand why people would come to see insects. Explaining to them that people actually come to places like Ecuador just to look at bugs often leads to skepticism and incredulous stares. Another challenging aspect is the lack of reliable, consistent, internet access.
Why did you become an entomologist, and what drew you to this field?
I’m nearsighted, so, when I was a kid growing up on a one-lane dirt road in rural Connecticut, I couldn’t see birds. So that left everything else that was crawling, slithering, or jumping on the ground. I was lucky, too, because my parents never were afraid of insects, and they taught me that bugs were just cool animals, too.
Fast forward to college and I got a job studying prairie warblers and quickly decided that studying birds was obnoxious, and I butted in on the pollinator and dragonfly survey projects. I even fell face first into a swamp to catch a mosaic darner, which was one of the highlights of my career. It was here that I really started to become fascinated by insects’ colors and patterns, but I was really intrigued by how much we don’t know about them!
But, I didn’t realize entomology was a thing that could be studied so I went and did a term abroad in Australia studying general ecology. It was there that I realized that I really had a love for insects. Upon revisiting my photos, I had about 300 pictures of random insects that no one could tell me what they were and one obligatory photo of a kangaroo. After some self-reflection, it was then that I decided that I liked bugs. Since it was my senior year, I then started looking into graduate programs and found entomology.
If we could somehow make any insect or arthropod approximately as large as a Volkswagen Beetle (disregarding all scientific body-size and oxygen needs), which one would you choose?
Any one of (or maybe all of) the crazy-colored sharpshooters. I’ve always imagined that they’re decorated like racing cars, and I imagine they would be fun to ride on or race. Plus, I think they’d give people an idea of just how beautiful and colorful insects are! They totally outdo birds, in my personal opinion.
Kyndall Dye-Braumuller is a vector surveillance supervisor at the Harris County Public Health Mosquito and Vector Control Division in Houston and a member of the ESA Early Career Professionals Committee. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
All images in this post courtesy of Nancy Miorelli.