What insect/bug/arthropod best describes you (or what’s your favorite one(s)?
The natural answer for me would be scorpion, since I am a scorpion biologist. But actually, I don’t think scorpions really embody me as a person. So instead, I am going to answer Amblypygid (Tailless Whipscorpion). They look like prehistoric monstrous creatures, but are super adorable and totally rad. First of all they are the closest living relative of spiders but have no venom or silk. Secondly, when the males fight for territory, they face each other, open their giant claws, and then who ever has the smaller claw leaves, just like that. Lastly, the mom’s and their babies stay in tactile contact with each other using their long 1st pair of legs that has been modified into whip-like feelers, by gently stroking each other. So they are cuddly, monstrous looking, gentle giants. What that says about me? I’m not too sure… I do have kids. I guess I’m more of a tailless whipscorpion mom than a tiger mom.
What is your “job description”
Good question. I am the curator of arachnology (spiders, scorpions and their kin). First and foremost this means that I am a biodiversity scientist. As a curator, it is my responsibility to care for, and manage, the specimens from around the world that have been preserved here in our collections. These collections have been made by countless researchers over hundreds of years, and represent a window in time and space (geographic space, not outer space). This also means that I lead expeditions to the far-flung corners of the earth to try to document the species of arachnids that we share the earth with. An equally important aspect of my job is communicating science through education programs, lectures, and outreach all over the world.
What do you study now?
Some of the projects in my lab right now that I am the most excited about are: a study on the arthropods (insects and spiders) living in salt flats in the western USA, a project studying how scorpion venoms have evolved, and a project studying a group of “hissing” scorpions from the Caribbean and South America.
What is the best thing about your job?
Getting to travel to remote places and discover things, like new species, that no one else has seen before.
What is the worst thing about your job?
Writing. It is a skill that I have had to work on for years, and is a very important part of my job, but some days it can get really tedious staring at a computer screen when I want to be outside hiking and discovering. But I know that communicating what I find to my peers is the most important contribution I can make to my field in my lifetime. Like it or not, writing is how that’s done.
What inspired you to first study science?
I really have always been curious about the world around me. I loved digging in the garden and turning over rocks to look for worms and “bugs” as a kid. My mom claims that I would proudly bring her live cockroaches that I found outside. The thing I loved the most was watching the fish under my grandparents dock in the Bahamas.
What do you do in a typical day?
That depends on where I am. In the office I spend a lot of time discussing things with people in my lab group. We talk about ideas, results of lab work, and what to do next. I also spend a lot of time doing analysis on the computer and writing scientific articles to be published in journals. I usually spend time looking at specimens in the microscope and photographing them. Working in the field, my days are completely different. They usually begin at our camp early in the morning. After the team gets up, we will discuss where to go that day and set off in search of spiders and scorpions. Around lunch we will stop and head back to the camp, where we spend most of the afternoon sorting the specimens that we collected that day. Every specimen gets a label, which is the record of where, when and how it was collected. This is when we have our first look at what is very often species new to science, so it is very exciting. In the evening we head back out and collect with headlamps and black lights for a several hours, and then come home and try to get some sleep to do it all again the next day!
What advice would you give to someone interested in becoming an entomologist?
Well the truth is I am not really an entomologist, since that is someone who studies insects. I think I might still be qualified to answer that question though! My recommendation is don’t ever forget why you became interested in it. The excitement of discovery (even if that discovery isn’t new to anyone else) and the creativity of innovation are important things to hold on to. I would also recommend that (once you get to college) you find a Research Experiences for Undergraduates program. These are offered in universities and other institutions all over the USA, and are amazing opportunities to participate in research and really find your passion.