Scientist Finds Teacher Who Supported Her Love For Bugs When She Was 4


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Rebecca Varney needed Twitter’s help to find her ‘bug man’.

Nearly 30 years earlier, Varney was a bug-obsessed 4-year-old living in El Sobrante in the Bay Area. She had started an insect collection and asked her mother if other people had larger collections. Her mother suggested the nearby University of California at Berkeley, and Rebecca wrote a letter to the school, asking for information about insects.

“My name is Rebecca and I have a collection of insects. I have read about yours and it is bigger than mine. Can I see it? Also, I have a question. Do the rods have knees? Sincerely, Rebecca,” Varney recalled writing.

Although the envelope was only addressed to “University of California, Berkeley”, it was sent to the Department of Entomology. A professor responded and invited Varney and his mother to visit the Essig Museum of Entomology. He let her hold a hissing cockroach and a live scorpion, and explained how canes have knees, Varney recalled. He told her that the university had “entire classes” where she could learn about bugs, and that she could get something called a doctorate and spend her life researching them.

“And then he shook my hand and said, ‘It was nice to meet another scientist,'” Varney said.

This spring, she posted her story on Twitter and asked if people could help her find the professor who took her young scientist seriously.

A love for all things insect related

It was Vernard Richard Lewis, the first professor of black entomology at UC-Berkeley and one of many faculty members who organized tours of the Essig Museum. Now retired, Lewis, who earned a doctorate in entomology from Berkeley in 1989, clearly hasn’t lost his love for teaching and all things insect.

“Do you want to see live insects? I have them here! he said during a Zoom video call, showing a termite exhibit in his home office in Hayward, Calif.

Stop giving stars the names of your loved ones. Name a cockroach after your boo instead.

Lewis, 71, grew up in Minnesota but ended up at UC-Berkeley or “Cal” in 1972 as an undergrad because, he says, a high school teacher told him it was. was the best school in the country. From undergrad to graduate school, then to becoming a professor and now a retired counselor, Lewis has been around ever since.

As a termite specialist, he has fond memories of a 30-foot termite mound in Australia and was a founding member of the United Nations Global Termite Panel, which traveled the world to help people to grow food without being affected by termites.

But despite his busy schedule, Lewis said he made sure to find time for kids like Rebecca.

“Do I remember meeting her specifically?” No. I spoke to thousands of children, visited schools and made sure to give them time,” Lewis said. “Why? Because my grandfather is the one who instilled in me the love and passion for nature. He had this infinite patience, he never said ‘no’ to me and I was a wild child, bringing all the bugs home – the black widow spiders. I was mad.

“So all these kids, Rebecca included, when they’re all excited, I see myself.”

What to do when pests become wreckers

When Varney posted his story on Twitter, many people reached out to UC-Berkeley. It took a while to identify the professor, Lewis said, because the meeting took place in the days before the email. Everyone was trying to “rack their brains” about who might have worked at the Essig Museum during this time, he said. Two of them are no longer alive. Another said it wasn’t him. Lewis wasn’t sure until he read Varney’s comment about how she was able to pick up hissing cockroaches and scorpions, and thought, “Oh, that was me, I always have them. had around.”

It was confirmed by Varney’s mother, Mary Jo Grothman-Pelton. She didn’t remember the professor being black, but said when she heard his voice on video, she knew it was Lewis. Grothman-Pelton was a substitute teacher and her husband, Varney’s father, fixed computers. None of them were great outdoorsmen and knew nothing about insects.

When Rebecca was 3 years old, “I just remember she came in with this thing, and she opened her hand, it was this huge cricket, one of the really big ones, maybe a Jerusalem cricket, and she was so excited to show me,” Grothman-Pelton said. “I didn’t want to show her that I was scared or unhappy, but I said it would probably be happier outside.”

After visiting the museum and meeting the professor, whenever anyone asked Varney what she wanted to be when she grew up, she would tell them that she was going to get a doctorate and be a scientist and study insects. And she did, earning her PhD in 2021 from the University of Alabama in Biological Sciences and now working with aquatic invertebrates such as crustaceans as a postdoctoral researcher at the University of California, Santa Barbara.

“What I remember most about that visit was that the professor really spoke to Rebecca, he took her very seriously,” Grothman-Pelton said. “It had such an impact and encouraged that love of nature and science.”

When science was a vital pastime of European monarchs and emperors

Nearly 13,000 people on Twitter took notice of his post and tried to help Varney find his first mentor. As they did, many scientists shared similar stories – times when an adult took the time to talk about the wonders of science and answered their questions seriously. Sometimes it was that person who showed “dinosaur poo” in a class and changed someone else’s life.

Varney, in addition to keeping walking sticks in his bedroom growing up, had centipedes and a corn snake named Beverly Crusher.

“She used to sit on my head when I came home from school because my head was hot after walking from the bus stop,” said Varney, now 33.

She contacted her childhood mentor by email, and he told her that now that she had a doctorate, it was her turn to pass on that love of insects. She was a bit bummed that he didn’t remember her personally, but said it was ‘amazing’ to be able to thank the person who started her career.

“I think for all of us who are scientists, and maybe for all of us who do something that we love, there was a formative experience with another human being that kind of made to be the people we are,” said Varney, who now has a crawfish named Clawdio.

“What I’ve enjoyed the most is having hundreds of people contact me to tell me their own stories of a visit with someone who took the time to talk to them when they were kids, and that totally changed their lives.”

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