8-year-old girls are rarely encouraged to play with bugs. Because of this, Sophia Spencer has been regularly teased by her peers for seeking out and examining grasshoppers and other insects in between classes.
While Sophia’s passion for entomology is likely a sign she’ll be an expert in the field someday, the teasing she received dampened her spirits. Aware of this, her mom, Nicole, contacted the Entomological Society of Canada, hoping an expert would maintain her daughter’s enthusiasm. “She is often teased at school by her peers because she will proudly display her current bug friend on her shoulder,” wrote Nicole.
Once the message was received, the society emailed an anonymized version of the message to all 350 of its members. The call was also posted to Twitter.
A young girl who loves insects is being bullied & needs our support. DM your email & we'll connect you! #BugsR4Girls pic.twitter.com/kjtfSJSlre
— Entomological Society of Canada (@CanEntomologist) August 25, 2016
“She has asked me for over a year if this is a job she can do one day, exploring and learning more about bugs and insects. I have told her that of course, she could; however, I am at a loss on how to continue to encourage her,” wrote Nicole. “I was wondering if a professional entomologist would speak to her over the phone to encourage her love and explain to her how she could make this into a career. I am constantly looking for articles and information on the species and how to recognize them, but find the lack of answers to her questions unhelpful.”
“If someone could maybe talk to her for even five minutes, or who won’t mind being a penpal for her, I would appreciate it so much. I want her to know from an expert that she is not weird or strange (what kids call her) for loving bugs and insects,” Sophia’s mom added.
It wasn’t long before scientists replied. Some posted photos of their beloved insects, others shared drawings they made as children. One entomologist told Sophia she is welcome at their lab anytime, and another scientist offered to send her supplies to catch bugs — including nets, paper, and books she might want to pursue her career.
However, it was the action taken by Morgan Jackson, a P.h.D of entomology from the University of Guelph in Ontario, that made all the difference. As IFLScience reports, Jackson’s specialty is stilt-legged flies but he applied the same skills he used studying insects to document the success of #BugsR4Girls using typical numerical methods. He noted 1,094 tweets using the hashtag in four months, tracked the growth, and compared the engagement before and after the hashtag launch. He then followed up with a statement from Sophia herself.
She said, “It felt good to have so many people support me, and it was cool to see other girls and grown-ups studying bugs. It made me feel like I could do it too, and I definitely, definitely, definitely want to study bugs when I grow up, probably grasshoppers…. My mom says I’m back to being my funny old self with my confidence after seeing all the girls who like bugs. And now I have a microscope somebody sent to me, and when I bring it to school, the kids in my school, whenever they find a bug they come and tell me and say “Sophia, Sophia, we found a bug!”
Her contribution resulted in her being named junior author in the paper, which is entitled “Engaging for a Good Cause: Sophia’s Story and Why #BugsR4Girls.” The paper explores how Twitter can be utilized by the scientific community. Sophia is now one of the youngest people to have contributed to a peer-reviewed scientific paper.
She later told NPR: “Kids now, after I told them the whole story, they’re like, ‘Oh, well — could you teach me more about bugs?’. And I’m like, ‘Sure.’”
She added, “And a lot of the kids stopped bullying me about it. I feel really good.”
Jackson and Spencer’s work resulted in an opinion piece in the same journal, which later gained the highest score ever achieved in that publication.
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