A research fellow uses bug tech tools to explore how the fear of insects keeps people from appreciating the environmental value of these six-legged critters.
Jessa Thurman is often off the beaten path, exploring jungles, rainforests and peat swamps across Australia and Southeast Asia in search of beetles, mantises and all manner of exotic wasps, flies, ants and other insects.
She digitally captures each insect, eager to understand what makes people fear them. Inside all the data she’s collecting, Thurman hopes to find answers that will help humans live in closer harmony with bugs.
She believes a better understanding of insects’ ecological value, including how they help preserve the health of everything from the water we drink to the air we breathe, will lead to greater appreciation for the most diverse group of animals on the planet.
Eight months into a prestigious Thomas J. Watson Fellowship for graduating college seniors, Thurman is “traveling around the world in pursuit of insects” for a full year. On her journey so far, she’s handled hundreds of insect varieties, ranging from pinky nail-sized fig wasps, to thumb-sized orchid mantises, to stick insects as long as an arm.
While entomologists of the past may have written down notes in a field journal, taken pictures and hopefully published an article in a scholarly journal, Thurman uses tech tools in her own mobile bug research lab to share what she’s learned about people’s love-hate relationship with insects.
She captures photos, video and audio of her tiny subjects with an iPhone 6 and macro lens, which she downloads to a Lenovo Flex 3 (a 2-in-1 laptop PC). She then uploads footage to Google Drive. She has taken more than 3,500 photos and videos, and has shared many on social media, including Instagram and Facebook, as well as on her blog, From Extermination to Appreciation.
Thurman still has a big job ahead as there are an estimated 5 to 30 million insect species worldwide. And with millions of the world’s insect subspecies still not yet fully identified, Thurman bemoans people’s all-too-frequent impulse to swat, squash or spray these six-legged critters.
“Insects are the most abundant animals on the planet,” Thurman said. Through her fellowship, she hopes to move big agriculture and consumers away from exterminating insects to appreciating their environmental value.
Insects play a vital role in the Earth’s ecosystem, from pollinating flowers to decomposing organic matter to controlling bug populations through predator insects such as the parasitoid wasp, who keeps populations of plant-eating insects in check.
“I never envisioned myself as a scientist,” said Thurman, who graduated in 2016 with a degree in biology from Hendrix College in Arkansas. She admits her early vision of scientists were of “stoic men in lab coats.” A female professor in college changed her view on the roles women can play in science, which she discovered can include digging for fossils, or even studying geology or entomology.
After months of exploring and data collecting, Thurman has yet to meet a bug she didn’t like. For people stricken with bug phobias, Thurman has some advice: “Treat them with respect and be calm.”