Getting Personal: UI entomologist May Berenbaum

 

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Explain in one sentence what it is you do.

I'm an entomologist – I study insects.

What time do you typically get up? What do you do the first hour of the morning?

6 a.m. Get dressed, walk the dog, feed the dog and cats, drink a Frappuccino, read The News-Gazette and check e-mail.

What did you have for lunch today? Where and with whom?

Coffee smoothie. On foot, in transit between Serendipity (in the Illini Union) and Morrill Hall, with my colleague and friend, Art Zangerl.

Best high school memory:

Giving a five-page valedictory address entirely in verse at graduation.

Tell me about your favorite pair of shoes.

Birkenstock vegan sandals.

What does a perfect Sunday afternoon include?

Going to the movies with my film-professor husband and cinema-major daughter.

Was there one book you read as a child that you still cherish? Own? Read?

Too many to choose among! "The Great Auk" by Allan Eckert impressed upon me the sad irrevocability of extinction. "The Golden Treasury of Poetry," selected by Louis Untermeyer, still provides poetic inspiration. "Thank You for the Giant Sea Tortoise and Other Unforeseen Results of New York Magazine Competitions" by Mary Ann Madden – enduringly hilarious.

Where on Earth are you dying to go? Why?

New Harmony, Ind. It's where Thomas Say, "Father of American Entomology" (1787-1834), is buried. Not surprisingly, my family has steadfastly refused to vacation there with me.

Tell me about your favorite pet.

I can't choose. They've all been wonderful. Most unusual, though, was probably Bullwinkle, the geriatric pony mule.

Have you discovered as you matured that you are becoming like one of your parents? Which one and how?

Both – just about every phenotypic trait with any genetic basis has manifested itself at this point.

What would you order for your last meal?

If I knew it was going to be my last meal, I don't think I'd have much of an appetite.

What can you NOT live without?

My iPhone.

Who do you have on your iPod?

The lamest playlist imaginable – 231 songs, all of which mention insects or other arthropods in some way from "African Killer Bees" by Gear Daddies to "Yellow Butterfly" by Tahiti 80.

What's the happiest memory of your life?

No contest – the day my daughter, Hannah, was born.

If you could host a dinner party with any one living person in the world, what three people would you invite?

Barack Obama, Jon Stewart and Billy Petersen ("Gil Grissom" on "CSI").

What's the best advice you've ever been given?

Keep an open mind.

What's your best piece of advice?

Probably a line borrowed from "The Little Prince" by Antoine de Saint-Exupery: "You have to put up with caterpillars if you want to get acquainted with butterflies." It works in entomology and in life in general.

What was your first job and how much did you make an hour?

The summer after my freshman year in college, I was an unpaid intern collecting venom from paper wasps (strapped down on tiny gurneys) to assist an allergist in Buffalo, N.Y., using it to develop antivenin.

What was a pivotal decision in your career and how did you arrive at that decision?

My decision as a new graduate student in spring 1976 to study wild parsnips and parsnip webworms. I picked the system because I was afraid to drive at the time (I still don't like it) and there was a field of wild parsnips infested with webworms across the street from my office. About one-third of the 200-plus papers I've published relate to parsnips and/or webworms.

Do you have a bad habit? What is it?

Chocolate when I'm worried, which is most of the time.

How do you handle a stressful situation?

Lots of chocolate.

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