The Bug Geek is becoming the champion of challenges! Last week she illustrated in clever graphical form the emotions she had encountered during the manuscript writing process, and this week she tops it with a challenge to see how well we can talk to 10-year-olds about science. I played along with the first one just for fun (see The Ups and Downs of Bug Collecting—I also earned the tag “easily-entertained professional research entomologist with too much time on his hands” for my efforts!), but the second challenge hit closer to home. You see, like the Geek I believe strongly that the responsibility for recruiting the next generation of scientists rests squarely on the shoulders of today’s scientists. Who else but us will excite them about science and show them not only the importance that science plays in our daily lives, but how cool and fun it is!
I’ve been a professional entomologist for three decades now, and for most of that time I’ve also been involved in giving presentations to children about insects and the science of entomology. I also happen to be an avocational entomologist—insects are not just my livelihood, but also my hobby! I live, breath, and eat insects (okay, maybe not so much the latter), and wherever I have lived my name has quickly made it to the local schools as someone who can keep the kids occupied for an hour or two. I have done dozens, perhaps even hundreds of “kid outreach” sessions during the past 30 years—how could I not take up the Geeks’s challenge?! The only question was which “entomologist” I should take the challenge as—the professional one who conducts insect research on biotech crops, or the avocational one who travels the country and beyond looking for new and rare beetles. Ultimately I decided to try both (you knew that was coming!), so here I present my 250-word (precisely) attempts to convince a 10-year-old in written form that science, and specifically entomology, is fun, cool, and incredibly important for the future of our planet.
I work for a company that helps farmers grow crops that don’t need to be sprayed with insecticides. These “insect-protected crops” are grown by farmers all across the world and help the environment by reducing the need for insecticides to grow our food. We create these plants by adding a small piece of DNA in the laboratory so that the plants produce a protein inside their leaves that only insects don’t like. Not all of the plants produce the protein, so we have to test the plants to make sure insects can’t feed on them. I do this by growing plants in the greenhouse, and when they are big enough I put insects that we grow in our laboratory on the plants to see if they can eat the leaves. If the plants don’t get eaten, I collect the seeds and grow them outside like a farmer would do. If the plants don’t get eaten by insects outside either, then other people in my company test the plants to make sure they grow normally and produce as much food as plants without the protein. Insects might become immune to the proteins, so I also test new proteins to find new ones we can use in case the old ones stop working. I mix the protein with a special insect diet to see how much protein is needed to make the insect stop eating. I love my job because I get to study bugs while helping to improve the environment.
I have the best hobby in the world—I travel across the US and other countries looking for beetles! There are more kinds of beetles in the world than any other kind of animal, and most of them are unknown to science. When I find a new beetle, I get to give it whatever name I want. Even many of the ones that we know about we don’t know where they live or what they eat. The heaviest insect in the world is a beetle (the Goliath Beetle from Africa) – it weighs more than a mouse! Some of the tiniest insects of all are beetles also – it would take a quarter million feather-winged beetles to weigh as much as one Goliath Beetle! There are beetles in the Amazon rain forest that play “King of the Log.” Males find a rotten log and sit on it, and when another male comes along he knocks him off with his horns. He does this to save the log for a female beetle so she can lay her eggs in it. The baby beetles eat the rotten wood. I especially like tiger beetles – they have stripes and bright, metallic colors that glitter in the sun. They use their long legs, big eyes, and huge sickle-shaped jaws to run down and catch other insects and eat them. Many kinds of tiger beetles can live in only one place on earth – we must do everything we can to protect their habitats so they don’t go extinct.
Copyright © Ted C. MacRae 2012