A New Era in Entomology: Q&A With ESA’s All-Woman Presidential Lineup
This year, for the first time in the long history of the Entomological Society of America, the organization’s full presidential line is an all-woman group.
|Women Presidents of the Entomological Society of America
Past, Present, and Future
ESA’s first woman president served in 1930, though another wasn’t elected until 1989. In the time since, nine others have followed, but only once consecutively before now. (See table.) Today, though, ESA’s president, vice president, vice president-elect, and immediate past president roles are all occupied by a woman entomologist:
—President Jessica L. Ware, Ph.D., American Museum of Natural History
—Vice President Marianne Alleyne, Ph.D., University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
—Vice President-Elect Jennifer Henke, Coachella Valley Mosquito and Vector Control District
—Past President Michelle S. Smith, BCE, Corteva Agriscience
So, as part of ESA’s observance of Women’s History Month—and to mark this long-overdue milestone—Entomology Today hosted a Q&A with these four leading women in entomology.
Priyadarshini Chakrabarti Basu, Ph.D., assistant professor at Mississippi State University and vice-chair of the ESA Early Career Professionals Committee, conducted the interview, in which Ware, Alleyne, Henke, and Smith share their experience and perspectives on pursuing entomology as a career, the challenges women face in the profession, advice for success both in the science and as a volunteer with ESA, the last insect they ate (!), and much more.
See the full 1-hour interview in the video above, and below read an excerpt featuring a few of the questions and answers (lightly edited for length and clarity).
Priya: Starting off as entomologists, when did you decide that you wanted to pursue entomology, and did folks at home take it well—your family, friends, teachers?
Michelle: For me, my mom was a really big influence. Not because she knew what entomology was or encouraged me to be an entomologist but because she always was very open to me dealing with critters and being out in the yard, bringing in whatever I could find, looking at it, rearing it for a little while. She was so tolerant of that. She loved nature herself. From the very, very beginning, my mom was a big influence on my love of nature and ultimately of insects.
Jessica: Similarly, my grandmother and my granddad were nature lovers. They were used to us [saying], “Here’s a frog, and here’s a snake, and here’s a handful of crickets that we have.” They really inspired us to ask a lot of questions and to be curious. That’s a real gift that they gave to us, my twin and I.
Marianne: I actually have the opposite. Not that my parents discouraged me, but I did not care about insects. It was not until the end of undergrad when I realized, “Hey, I actually don’t want to study medicine.” I realized I really did like parasitology and, fortuitously, I met somebody who worked on that, Nancy Beckage. She became my advisor for my master’s, and it was her that then showed me that insects are great models for this. Because I also knew I didn’t want to work with actual humans and blood. Insects are great, they’re great models. Over the years now, I’ve come to appreciate insects a lot.
Jennifer: My experience is a lot more like M’s [Marianne’s]. I was fortunate that my parents encouraged me to be a scientist. I had every kit that you might want as a kid growing up. But I came to entomology pretty late, my last year of undergrad. I wanted to move from studying genetics and human genetics to studying ecology. I ended up working in Art Benke’s lab at the University of Alabama my last year and got interested in stream insects. Then I moved my career from that forward.
Michelle: Like Jennifer and M, the idea of entomology as a career opportunity and as a distinct science, for me, resulted from my senior year in undergrad and my major professor being an entomologist by training, and my senior honors project was working on insects. After that, I was just really, really intrigued and charmed and very excited to continue my pursuit of entomology.
Jessica: Same for me. If it wasn’t for Karen Needham and Geoff Scudder at UBC [University of British Columbia] giving me a work-study position in the Spencer Entomological Collection, I probably would never have really found entomology, even though I liked nature. I didn’t know that that was a position. I really had only heard of pest management. I didn’t know much about the systematics or evolutionary biology side of entomology. They introduced me to that, and that was what led me on this path.
Priya: If you could go back to your younger selves, what advice would you give your younger self? Would there be anything that you would like to change? Or, for somebody like me who’s very early in our career, would you give us any advice?
Jessica: Trust yourself. If I could go back, a million times over, I would say trust yourself. In grad school, my colleagues Jesse Lipman and Lauren Spearman and I, three women, were working on a paper and we found something that was a surprise. Our professors and collaborators all said, “You must have done it wrong because you’re students. There’s no way this could be right.” They had us run these analyses over and over again for 12 months. In the meantime, somebody else published a paper showing that result was real.
I always say this to my colleagues and grad students, and I would say this to myself if I could go back in time: Trust yourself. If you work hard and are intellectually rigorous with your data set, people make discoveries all the time. But maybe we’re socially conditioned to second guess ourselves. Don’t second guess yourself, trust yourself. That’s what I would say.
Marianne: Advocate for yourself and, if you can, advocate for those around you. In the end, it all will pay off. If you are a good colleague, at times when you need your colleagues’ help, there’s going to be somebody there to stand up for you and be an ally for you.
Michelle: I felt like I needed to do everything equally well and be a full-time mom and a full-time employee and a full-time partner. That’s impossible. You can’t do that. I stopped working for a little while. What I realized during that time was: Trying to balance everything really is hard, and I needed to be a lot kinder to myself.
Jennifer: A piece that I still hold onto from somebody who gave it to me is that this is your life. And, so, you can ask for guidance from other people, but in the end you have to live with the consequences of [a decision]. You have to make the decision that you can live with, whatever that happens to be. Sometimes that’s really unsatisfying to come into, because you don’t like any of the options in front of you, but it’s yours. It’s your life that you’re going to live with, even if you’re in a situation that stinks.
Priya: At what point in your entomology career did you decide to volunteer for a leadership role in ESA? What made that click?
Jennifer: As a master’s student, my major advisor at that time happened to be the program chair for his professional society. They brought the meeting to our school in Athens. It just always was that service was the third thing that you were supposed to do. You were supposed to train the next generation, you were supposed to do your research, and then you’re supposed to give back to professional organizations.
I got involved in ESA pretty early: Yes, I can stand up and moderate a session. And it progressed from there. People see that you do what you say you’re going to do, and they ask you to come back and do other things.
Michelle: I felt drawn to service very early on, starting with very small roles like an awards committee or something like that. It was a defined timeline, not a huge commitment, and it grew from there.
One point that I’d like to make, is that, in order to run for office, it really took somebody coming and asking me. I encourage everybody to [realize] you could be the person that reaches out to someone else and says, “You’d be a great leader.” Reach out and encourage somebody else to run for an office if you think they’ll be well suited. That’s what it took for me, and we all have the power to do that for someone else as well.
Jessica: I had organized symposia, I had moderated, but I would never have really thought that I could be valuable as a leader to the society. But somebody came up to me and said, “Hey, have you ever considered running?” I thought, “Oh, they must be talking to somebody else,” but no.
If that person hadn’t said that to me, I probably wouldn’t have considered running for, first, Section leadership and then for the Governing Board. Thanks to the person who inspired me to run, and I just echo what Michelle said. There’s a lot of examples of people who are enthusiastic and passionate, but they just may not know that there’s a spot for them, but there’s actually spots for everybody. Don’t count yourself out.
Marianne: There’s many different jobs. If there’s something that is of interest to you—like, my passion is science policy—we have those. We have organizing meetings or symposia, volunteers for that.
For me, it was, that I won an award as a graduate student, and one of the things you had to do is go to the business meeting of your Section, and that’s where you accepted it. And all of a sudden, I was in this business meeting, and I volunteered for something there, just because I had to show up. We don’t do that anymore.
Other examples: My major advisor from my master’s, Nancy Beckage, was very involved in what was then Section B, now PBT [Physiology, Biochemistry, and Toxicology], and then my major advisor for my Ph.D. was Rob Wiedenmann who eventually also became president of ESA. I’m passing it on. Now, my graduate student’s on the Student Affairs Committee.
Jessica: You can start anywhere. I had this idea that maybe there was this hierarchy: First, you do student, then you do ECP, but no. You can enter from any door. And, if you’re curious or you have questions about the different committees, the ESA website has a nice description of all the different committees.
Often the chairs of those committees are happy to talk to you about what the positions are and what the committee entails. You can also reach out to headquarters staff, and they have a lot of information. Rosina Romano does membership coordination, and she can give you insight into the different committees, and there are staff liaisons on each committee, too.
If you want to do Section work, you can speak to your Section representatives, and I’m sure—at least for Systematics, Evolution and Biodiversity—they would say, “You want to volunteer? Come on,” because they would be so excited for you to want to participate.
Marianne: Do something that you want to do. Don’t say, “Oh, I have to go through this really boring committee that I’m not really interested in.” Don’t start there. Do something you really like and you’re comfortable with.
Topics discussed include: challenges women face as entomologists, ways to improve the profession, advice for volunteering at ESA and other professional societies, favorite insects, eating insects, and more.
Entomological Society of America