Pharaoh cicada / 17 year locust
ft. Gwen Pearson
“Just as I was starting my career as a research scientist, I was run over by a drunk driver.” The event left Gwen Pearson disabled. She then decided to abandon pursuing an academic career because it wasn’t good for her health.
“It was actually one of the best choices I ever made. I did a lot of unusual things — software development, career counseling, and managing a big research station, among others. Somehow, I ended up in the perfect job for me decades later: running an insect zoo and teaching people about bugs.”
When talking about underappreciated creatures, Gwen strives to get people emotional and leave them with good experiences. ”Making happy memories of that time you and your family got to hold a tarantula — that will create more changed attitudes than me telling you a billion factoids about them.“
Though her career is unconventional, she is primarily focused on why insects do what they do. She’s proud of how her childhood love of observing animals can now help solve real-world problems in agriculture. For example, by knowing how bugs mate, we can devise a “bug birth control” to control specific pests without killing any other species as collateral damage.
Among her favorite bug mating stories is one of the periodical cicadas. “The adults seem to appear like magic, but like most insects, they are always here, just unnoticed.”
Their larvae live underground, quietly sucking on tree roots. Once every 17 years, they will emerge en masse to mate, making headlines and causing commotions. It is thought that this unusual life cycle allows them to outlive predators, who would otherwise feed on them every generation.
Gwen believes that getting people to look deeper into the soil and around them is the first step to make them think differently about the world. Though often overlooked, small animals like insects make up the “cogs and wheels” that keep the world running.
Besides, each one of them has their own unique story for us to discover, like Gwen’s aptly named cicadas.
“You can’t beat a name like Magicicada!”
Gwen Pearson is Education and Outreach Coordinator at Purdue University’s Department of Entomology. Get to know Gwen and her insect and spidery friends.