May Berenbaum tries to never turn down an invitation. The entomologist is as likely to be found talking about insects in front of a local ladies’ art club as she is to be lecturing a room full of fellow scientists. She’s given animated discourses on bee biology in museums, living rooms, and in front of the House Committee on Agriculture; she’s chatted with hosts of podcasts and answered questions as part of a honeybee-themed “Ask Me Anything” thread on the website Reddit.
“Frankly, I think insects are so intertwined with the lives of humans that there are an infinite number of opportunities to connect with people,” says Berenbaum, who won the National Medal of Science in 2014.
In her lab at the University of Illinois, Berenbaum has spent the last four decades studying the evolutionary arms race between plants and insects. She’s probed how insects often manage to evade plants’ defenses, and her work has helped scientists learn about the effects of pesticides and climate change on insect populations. At the same time, she has spent countless hours and days working on public outreach and science literacy projects.
Berenbaum says the role evolved out of her own experience becoming fascinated with insects. “For most of my life, I had been terrified of insects,” she says. “In college, I realized that fear stemmed from ignorance, and it made me very keen to reach out to the public and share knowledge.”
When she landed her job in Illinois, she also took to heart the fact that the school’s mission—as a land grant college— included an emphasis on public service. She felt she owed it to the Illinois taxpayers to have an ongoing dialogue about both her research and the broader importance of science in society. It’s a viewpoint that she still holds close to her heart today. “I really want to make sure people have the scientific information they need to make sound and responsible decisions in their daily lives,” she says.