Biological Sciences

Our Lives, Our Laureates: May Berenbaum

"I can totally relate to people who hate insects because I was one of them once. But really fear does stem in large part from ignorance. And the more you know the more you can appreciate them."

I actually was entomophobic for much of my early life. From an early age, I loved nature. I loved most animals and planets and starting about 2nd grade, I developed a massive phobia about insects.  I’d go out of my way to avoid crossing paths with caterpillar.  Called my big brother in to dispatch them.

And when I got to college I was a declared biology major and placed out of introductory biology with Advanced Placement credit.  And I was allowed to take an upper level course and literally the only course that fit my schedule was one called terrestrial arthropods, which I suspected had a lot to do with insects so I thought all right fear stems from ignorance. Maybe if I take a course I’ll learn which ones I should be afraid of. 

And it was tough at the beginning but by the end of the semester I was completely sold, sort of mildly overbalanced. It’s one reason I’m very involved in outreach and public engagement because I can totally relate to people who hate insects because I was one of them once. 

But really fear does stem in large part from ignorance. And the more you know the more you can appreciate them.

This was a course at Yale University when I was a freshman and Charles Remington was the professor.  And it was tough. it really was tough. Our first week in lab we had to dissect a cockroach while it was still alive to see the respiratory system as it functions and I just almost ran out of there crying.

But week by week it got better and better and I don’t know if there is a single turning point, but there was a moment during a field trip and we were sampling a creek. And just sort of dragging an aquatic sampler and the diversity was just astonishing in that little tiny stretch of creek in the vicinity of New Haven, Connecticut. It was just amazing and that was a – I hate saying it – watershed moment. But that was an important moment.  Just never even knew they were there and not only were they there but they were there in abundance and splendor.

By the end of the semester I was pretty much convinced I wanted to be an entomologist. Again through childhood, I knew I wanted to be a biologist.  And every year I learned another term and another sub discipline of biology and I realized I would be a mammologist, or you could be an ethologist and study the behavior of mammals and so the more I learned the more I realized there were different sub disciplines within biology. But entomology was off the table until I took that course