URBANA -- A top University of Illinois scientist who has dedicated her career to helping people understand bugs and biology has won a prestigious award for environmental science, which carries a $200,000 prize.
May Berenbaum, a UI entomology professor and department head, will receive the 2011 Tyler Prize for Environmental Achievement, placing her alongside noted primatologist Jane Goodall and conservation biologist Paul Ehrlich, among others.
The award recognizes individuals who have "contributed in an outstanding manner to scientific knowledge and public leadership to preserve and enhance the environment of the world," according to the Tyler Prize committee.
"It's enormous. I'm still kind of stunned," Berenbaum said Tuesday, after the prize was announced.
She learned about the award a month ago, and when she first saw the email she assumed it was an invitation to serve on the prize committee.
"I knew I'd been nominated, but this is the Tyler Prize. It seemed to me it'd be quite a long shot," Berenbaum said.
Past recipients include several of Berenbaum's "personal scientific heroes," such as Ehrlich, an expert on the impact of human population on the environment; noted botanist Peter Raven, longtime director of the Missouri Botanical Garden; and zoologist George Evelyn Hutchinson, the father of American limnology, or the study of lakes. Berenbaum got the chance to meet Hutchinson when she was an undergraduate at Yale University.
Genial and unassuming, Berenbaum is considered one of the leading entomologists in the world, with ground-breaking research on the chemical interactions between plant-eating insects and their host plants. In recent years she has also become a leading scientific voice on the declining bee population and the potential impact on pollination.
She was nominated for the Tyler Prize by her longtime colleague, UI entomology Prof. Gene Robinson.
"She is the pre-eminent entomologist of our times, and her elegant work on insect-plant interactions has transformed our understanding of co-evolution," Robinson said in an email Tuesday.
She's not only made "paradigm-changing discoveries in her field, but she also is superb at communicating science, whether it is to a congressional committee, a kindergarten class, or any other venue."
The prize committee cited Berenbaum for contributions to the field of co-evolution between insects and plants, for her application of those concepts to agricultural practices, and "for sharing her insights on the role of insects in our ecosystems."
"Professor Berenbaum has done more to advance the field of entomology and explain its significance than nearly any other researcher today," said Owen Lind, professor of biology at Baylor University and the chair of the Tyler Prize executive committee.
Berenbaum has written numerous books on insect fact and folklore, and has led several projects to educate the public and enlist "citizen scientists" in collecting data on environmental subjects.
Her annual Insect Fear Film Festival, founded in 1984, has become a popular campus event, combining insect horror movies with basic education about the creatures.
In 2007, she initiated the BeeSpotter website, which helps people collect and post information about the 49 species of wild bees across the United States. The most "spectacular finding," she said, came from a beespotter in Peoria who photographed "bombus affinis," a bumblebee species thought to be extinct in that part of Illinois, she said.
In 2009 Berenbaum founded the UI Pollinatarium, the first museum in the country devoted to pollinators, one of her passions.
She chaired the committee on the status of pollinators in North America, which released its findings in October 2006 months before scientists first reported the widespread disappearance of honeybees in North America, a phenomenon known as Colony Collapse Disorder.
"The university is fortunate to have a faculty member of such expertise, energy and enthusiasm for her work," Bob Easter, interim vice president and chancellor of the Urbana campus, said in a release.
Robinson, a colleague for 21 years, said the entomology department has flourished under Berenbaum's leadership, ranking among the top two programs in the country. She is dedicated to "helping everyone in the department students, postdocs and faculty achieve all they can achieve," he said.
Berenbaum will receive the cash prize and a medal at an April 15 banquet at the University of Southern California.
She hopes to use the money to continue her research and to support projects like the beespotting network, as there's no ready source of funding for citizen-science initiatives. It's mostly supported through "altruism and good will."
Berenbaum often tells the story of how she was initially afraid of insects but took an entomology course at Yale to learn more about them. The rest, she said, "is history."
"They're amazing, incredible, and they are unrelentingly entertaining," with infinitely diverse ways of dealing with the world, she said. "It's really mind-boggling."