Curated Curiosity: How a Childhood Fascination with Insects Became a High School Internship

Jenna and Rowan sorting insect samples

Jenna, Entomology undergraduate and curatorial intern, teaching me how to sort insect samples

When I was younger, I was easily startled by the sudden movements of insects that I observed in my backyard. As I grew up, I became less skittish and more in awe of the creatures, and desired to become acquainted with the species that I discovered gnawing away at weeds or hiding under patches of fallen maple leaves. I collected pill bugs and attempted to keep them alive in small containers with dirt and a few twigs tossed in the bottom. It is no surprise that this endeavor led to unfortunate results – the jars that I provided did not seem like suitable habitats for them – yet I was not entirely certain why.

When I was about eight years old, my parents drove me to the Museum of Biological Diversity Open House, and I got to briefly visit the Triplehorn Insect Collection. I adored the organization of the collections, the tall grey cabinets which – unbeknownst to me at the time – contained thousands of preserved insects in wooden cases, and the peculiar smell that lingered in my hair and on my clothes long after I exited the room.

The visit to the Museum of Biological Diversity inspired me to examine nature in more detail and introduced me to the idea of collecting specimens in a museum for scientists, researchers, and interested members of the public to study years after a specimen is collected, pinned, and placed in its unit tray with others of its species. My interests were substantially piqued, and I decided to learn more about the insects I saw.

A couple years later I noticed a children’s book at my local library that was about caring for various insect species as pets. I read it avidly, searching for why the pill bugs that I had loved years earlier ended up dead and decaying among the sour, dry soil and peeling bark that I had crammed into the glass jars. I discovered that they require a moist environment to stay alive, and prefer a darker habitat than I had provided. I decided to take care of bugs again, expanding my living collection to include not only pill bugs, but snails, slugs, caterpillars, ladybugs, spiders, crickets, and aphids as well. I spent hours observing their behavior, sketching them, and eagerly recording my findings about them and other insects that I found in my garden in a notebook.

I currently attend a high school that incorporates internships into its curriculum. I was unsure of where I wanted my internship site to be, but I knew that I wanted it to revolve around biology, hopefully dealing with bugs in some way. However, I believed that it would be impossible to find an institution specializing in Entomology that wanted high school interns and would accept that I am only available for three hours each week. When I realized that the Triplehorn Insect Collection was a possibility, I felt that it was too good to be true. Remembering how grand the collection was at the Open House, I was immediately determined to become an intern or volunteer there. I was initially dubious that I would be accepted as an intern because the social media post that was sent out about internship availability specifically listed that they were looking for undergraduate students enrolled at Ohio State. However, I was called in for an interview, secured an internship to work under Dr. Luciana Musetti, and have gotten to witness firsthand the true wonders of the collection each week.

The author moving specimens using insect pliers

Phyllophaga crinita

So far, I have worked to transfer specimens from old cork-bottomed to new, archival quality foam-bottomed unit trays. This process is done because the older unit trays break down over time, and because the pins oxidize and become stuck inside the cork. When a pin from one of these unit trays is pulled up, the entire cork bottom often lifts with it, making the insects vulnerable to damage. Relocating the pins to new unit trays improves the conditions and accessibility of the collection. Pins in foam bottomed unit trays can be taken out easily by researchers, and ensure the preservation of the insects.

I have also worked with insect photography, during which I learned just how slippery the barcodes and labels are that identify each specimen and the information about who collected it. They are especially hard to handle while trying to place upside down and backwards on the foam board that serves as a stage, to which insects are pinned while being photographed.

The author learning about insect photography from Bridget and Jordan

Learning about insect photography from Bridget and Jordan

While working with the undergraduate interns and my mentor, I strive to learn more about the curation and maintenance of an insect collection, and throughout the process, to connect with others who are passionate about the world of Entomology and know more than I do. Insect collections interest me because of their lasting impact on science and research. Observations and data from the collection can be supplied to many disciplines: to medicinal fields for tracking diseases, to studies in biodiversity, examining the evolution of different species and mutations, and to members of the public who are simply interested in insects.

The feeling of viewing, up close, the intricate details of each beetle and getting to touch the pin that pierces their hard wings (a.k.a. elytra) with my own hands – knowing that I am looking at an insect that was collected years before my lifetime, knowing that a scientist once discovered the insect and deemed it worthy to be collected – is indescribably spectacular. It is because of moments such as these that I am exuberant that I get to serve as an intern to the Triplehorn Insect Collection and hope to study Entomology further in the future.

About the Author: Rowan Killina is currently a junior attending Columbus Alternative High School and an intern at the Triplehorn Insect Collection.