Like most kids, I went through a wide range of dream careers while growing up. I wanted to be a pediatrician in elementary school; in middle school, I aspired to become a biomedical engineer. In high school, I planned to become a software developer as I loved the problem-solving and methodical aspects of coding. Eventually, my interests evolved into a potential future in biostatistics or computational biology. Though my future goals shifted over time, my interests always circled back to biology.
The summer before my senior year, I was accepted to the Ohio State Academy, a dual enrollment program that allows local high school students to take classes at OSU. That summer, I took an evolution course with Dr. Erin Lindstedt. It was a whirlwind; a semester’s worth of content shoved into a six-week course. I loved every second of it, and I was inspired by Dr. Lindstedt’s passion for the subject and for teaching. Those six weeks easily flew by and by the end of the summer, I knew exactly what I wanted to do in the future.
During my senior year of high school, I spent most of my days taking classes at OSU and I used this opportunity to explore my interests in biology. Though entomology hadn’t initially been one of my interests, I was assigned to read The Insect Crisis by Oliver Milman in my Organismal Diversity class. While reading, I learned about the many challenges insects face today such as the increased use of insecticides, climate change, and habitat loss as well as what this decrease in insect populations could mean for life on the planet in the future. This book was my introduction to the world of entomology, and I was hooked.
By the time the second semester rolled around, I knew I wanted to learn more about entomology and signed up to take Insect Behavior with Dr. Larry Phelan. Much like my experience in Dr. Lindstedt’s class, I was enthralled not only by the subject matter but also by Dr. Phelan’s excitement and love for both entomology and teaching. And so, I decided to make it my future mission to become a professor of entomology and to do research on insect conservation.
As the second semester ended, I started looking for summer opportunities to further my knowledge and experience in entomology. I vaguely recalled that my Organismal Diversity class took a field trip to the Museum of Biological Diversity, a trip I ended up missing due to a college visit that same day. Hoping to find an opportunity there, I looked into their website and was pleasantly surprised to learn about the Triplehorn Insect Collection. After reading some blog posts about what work is done at the Collection, I reached out to the Collection Curator, Dr. Lu Musetti. We met and discussed my interests in research and set up a schedule for me to start my internship for the summer.
During my time at the Collection, I’ve experienced bits and pieces of the multitude of jobs that go into maintaining an insect collection. The first lesson I learned at the Collection is that organization, patience, and attention to detail are what hold everything together. My first couple weeks were spent transferring unit trays of various insects from drawers that had two pins on the front into ones that had three. Keeping things uniform and organized was key. I also spent time adding donation labels to Hymenoptera (the order of bees and wasps) specimens, a task that involved picking up each specimen, but only if it also had a location label, adding a tiny rectangle of paper indicating where it was donated from, and placing it back down into the unit tray with the pin perpendicular to the tray and evenly spaced between its neighbors. In total, I added 1,127 donation labels and while some may consider this task to be mundane and tedious, I found the repetition to be peaceful, and I enjoyed the opportunity to admire each and every specimen.
Later in the summer, I worked with Jenna, an undergraduate assistant in the Collection, once a week to organize the Cerambycidae, the family of the longhorn beetles. This job involved sorting specimens into labeled unit trays that contained the same species from the same biogeographical region. For example, the Tragidion annulatum pictured on the left is from Arizona so it’s placed in a unit tray labeled ‘Nearctic’, a region that encompasses most of the United States and Canada. The Tragidion annulatum pictured on the right are from Mexico so they’re placed in a separate unit tray labeled ‘Neotropical’, a region that encompasses Mexico, Central America, and South America.
These trays then got roughly alphabetized and put into drawers. The project was like a big puzzle. We had to decipher handwritten labels and match up the same species all the while ensuring that there was enough space in each unit tray, drawer, and cabinet. Again, organization and attention to detail were key. Like my work with the Hymenoptera, one of my favorite parts of this job was seeing firsthand the incredible beauty of these beetles. From the fiery pattern and substantial size of Acrocinus longimanus to the powder blue stripes on Anoplophora elegans to the puffball-like tufts on the antennae of, my personal favorite, Aristobia approximator. I was amazed by the diversity in this family of beetles and came to appreciate the richness each specimen contributed to its ecosystem.
When I wasn’t working on the Cerambycidae, I was helping Dr. Musetti with the alcohol-preserved cockroach collection. I worked with gloves and protective eyewear to pour out the old alcohol (often browned and somewhat slimy with age), gently transfer the specimen into a new vial, and then replace the alcohol. Like most jobs at the Collection, the work was repetitive. Despite this and the sometimes overwhelming smell, it was exciting to have a look into yet another aspect of what it takes to keep an insect collection going.
It is my hope that everyone, whether they have an affinity for insects or not, can have an opportunity to admire the beauty within the insect world as I did during my internship. As I look at the cabinet of Cerambycidae with all 49 drawers I helped to organize and the rows of new vials I helped to curate, I feel a sense of pride knowing that I worked to complete these small steps in the long journey of curation. My time in the Collection has been shorter than most and I often find myself wishing I could stay longer, imagining becoming a more permanent fixture in the Collection in the upcoming years. I’m so grateful for my time with Dr. Musetti, Jenna, and the rest of the team. I trust that all the lessons and skills which I’ve learned from them will be invaluable to my future as an entomologist, student, and teacher. Going forward, I plan to continue in the world of entomology with enthusiasm and hope to inspire an appreciation for insects in others much like my mentors and teachers did this past year.