Learning more about women in science through my virtual internship – Guest post by Rebecca Carranza

I’ve been enthralled by science from a very young age. Some of my fondest childhood memories involve me spending hours exploring creeks, lifting rocks to find bugs, and watching every nature show I could find. The more I learned the more I loved it, but as I learned I noticed something odd – no one in science looked like me.

Growing up as a latina in a working class neighborhood I had trouble finding a role model and even peers who loved science in the ways that I did. None of my family members had ever attended college, which made the journey toward majoring in science seem much more intimidating. “Can someone like me really succeed in the world of science?” I had certainly never seen someone like me thriving in science. “Will I be good enough?” These were both questions that plagued me when making the decision to major in Biology during my first year at Elon University.

Today, I am a Junior and I am involved in undergraduate research on insect vibrational communication. I couldn’t be happier with my choice. I have learned so much and have thrived in the academic setting. Still, my mind frequently wanders to vulnerable times when I would have truly benefited from seeing others like me succeeding in science. Could I help make a difference for other young women? Could I, maybe, help improve the diversity, equity, and inclusion of all other underrepresented groups in science? How?

Fast forward to June this year, right in the middle of the pandemic, when I received an email from Dr. Hamel about a possible virtual internship with Ohio State University – it involved specimen data transcription, literature review, etc. I thought that would be a good fit for me so I immediately contacted Dr. Musetti about it.

There were several potential projects, including specimen data entry based on photographs and building an electronic literature archive for the collection, but the one that spoke to me the most was one that would involve tracking down information about the scientific work of Dr. Dorothy Johnson Knull. In her email to me Dr. Musetti wrote: “Dorothy is particularly dear to me as she is the only other woman associated (informally) with the collection as curator. She helped her husband build the collection, but she never received the recognition she deserved.” I was hooked right there and then.

Dr. Dorothy Johnson Knull, 1954

Dr. Dorothy Johnson Knull, 1954. Photo courtesy of Sally Wilson.

Dorothy Johnson Knull (1928-1971) was an entomologist and a taxonomist specialized in the study of leafhoppers. She obtained her PhD in Entomology in 1934 and described many new species of leafhoppers. Her collection, including type specimens of most of the species she described, are deposited at Ohio State. She married Josef Knull, the first official Curator of the OSU Insect Collection (now called Triplehorn Insect Collection), and worked for many years as a volunteer curator in the collection. Despite all that, her contribution went relatively unrecognized for decades, her name always coming associated with her husband’s.

The overall goal of my internship is to raise Dorothy Knull’s profile and get her some much deserved recognition for her contributions to science and to the Triplehorn Insect Collection. This is also a great opportunity for me to learn more about taxonomy and the process of species description, among other things.

Sample of Knull's publications and work on data transcription

Samples of Knull’s publications and my data transcription work.

The first objective is to produce a list of all the species she described and to gather the specimen data for all primary and secondary types mentioned in her publications. That information will later be entered in the collection’s online database and associated with images of the specimens that are deposited in the collection. We plan to create a Wikipedia page for Dorothy Knull and write a bio to be added to the collection’s website.

Dorsal view of the holotype of leafhopper, Erythroneura mansonae

Erythroneura mansonae Knull (holotype, dorsal view). Photo courtesy of Dmitry Dmitriev, INHS

Upon reading her publications I found heartwarming bits of information that made me personally relate to Dorothy Knull, like when she dedicated a new leafhopper species, Erythroneura masonae (Knull, 1954), to her mother “who shared a love for entomology.”

Being able to play a role in the process of documenting her work and highlighting her contribution to science has planted a newfound appreciation for virtual internships in me. I first had to learn how to read and interpret taxonomic literature, something I had never done before. I am also learning how to keep detailed records and to standardize specimen information so it can be uploaded to the collection’s database. Moreover, working on this project I have crossed paths with individuals I would not have met otherwise and the experience has been enriching as I have grown my relationships and expanded my knowledge on women’s contributions to science.

As we strive to increase the visibility of the work of women in science our work might also open avenues for the recognition and inclusion of other underrepresented groups in science.

Meeting my internship advisor Dr. Musetti has given me the diverse and holistic outlook on science that I have always needed. Despite being states away, I feel connected to the project and to my advisor. We have weekly Zoom meetings during which we discuss various topics such as information on Dorothy Knull and even our own personal experiences in science. I personally would recommend virtual internships as a way to step out of one’s comfort zone in science and I am looking forward to what the future has in store!

Literature References:

Knull, DJ (1954) New Erythroneura (Eratoneura) of the Dira group with notes (Homoptera: Cicadellidae). The Ohio Journal of Science 54(3): 170. (free online pdf  from OSU Knowledge Bank)

Photos by the author unless credited otherwise.


About the Author:

Rebecca CarranzaRebecca Carranza is a Junior Biology student at Elon University who is focusing her undergraduate research on ant mutualism with treehoppers alongside insect vibrational communication. She is interested in learning how different attendant ant species affect the behavior of a local North Carolina treehopper species Entylia carinata. With guidance from her research advisor Dr. Jennifer Hamel, she will be proposing a research project this upcoming fall. Rebecca is passionate about ecological science and will also be serving as a teacher’s assistant for the Biodiversity class of 2020-2021. Find Rebecca on Instagram