Each of my boys has gone through phases of being fascinated with bugs. My oldest would spend hours turning over every rock in the backyard searching for pill bugs. The other desperately wanted to keep ants as pets until I convinced him that trapping them in plastic cups probably wasn’t the most humane choice.
But as awesome as my boys’ fixations with insects were, they’ve been relatively short-lived: clearly neither were destined to become bug scientists.
This was not the case for Sophia Spencer, though. The 8-year-old from Canada was so deeply passionate about bugs that she started taking them to school with her.
That sounds totally innocuous and lovely, right? The problem was, the kids at her school weren’t as into it as Sophia hoped they would be, and her mother Nicole reports that she was even bullied for it.
Not wanting to let any teasing get in the way of her daughter’s interests, Nicole wrote an email to the Entomological Society of Canada (ESC) for advice on how to nurture her daughter’s love of bugs — as well as some encouraging tips to help Sophia overcome teasing that she was enduring.
“She is often teased at school by her peers because she will proudly display her current bug friend on her shoulder,” Nicole wrote. “I was wondering if a professional entomologist would speak to her over the phone to encourage her love and explain to her how she could make this into a career. If someone could maybe talk to her for even five minutes, or who won’t mind being a pen-pal for her, I would appreciate it so much.”
Nicole’s email was then forwarded to Morgan Jackson, who runs the ESC’s social media channels. Jackson tells Babble that he immediately decided to send out a tweet with a copy of Nicole’s email to his colleagues, in hopes that they’d be able to offer some encouraging advice to the young girl.
And on August 25 of last year, that’s just what Jackson did.
“A young girl who loves insects is being bullied & needs our support,” Jackson tweeted. “DM your email & we’ll connect you!” Attached to the tweet was Nicole’s letter, along with the catchy hashtag “#BugsR4Girls.”
Jackson tells Babble that the tweet basically “went crazy from there,” with many people in the entomological and science community getting in touch with Sophia to let her know that “she can do it” no matter what anyone else says, and reassuring her that being a scientist is actually one of the coolest things in the world.
“It was super, super cool for me to see and watch happen,” says Jackson, “To see my entomological community really rally behind her.”
Jackson says that Sophia’s story reached over a million people, and had quite an impact on the 8-year-old herself. And so, around Christmas time of last year, Jackson decided to write a scientific paper about the experience — a paper that would focus on how social media can make a powerful difference in the lives of young budding scientists just like Sophia.
Soon after, Jackson had one more idea, too: “Wouldn’t be cool if Sophia could come on as a co-author?”
And that is exactly what happened. Jackson co-authored the paper along with Sophia, whose thoughts about the experience were recorded in the article, which was just published in Annals of the Entomological Society of America, in a special edition of the journal about science communication.
I don’t know about you, but this story has me absolutely grinning ear to ear. And just take a look at the heartwarming words that Sophia wrote about her experience:
“After my mom sent the message and showed me all the responses, I was happy … It felt good to have so many people support me, and it was cool to see other girls and grown-ups studying bugs. It made me feel like I could do it too, and I definitely, definitely, definitely want to study bugs when I grow up, probably grasshoppers.”
Jackson says that it usually takes an entomologist 25-30 years to get published in a scientific journal like that, so Sophia truly did luck out. Not only that, but her self-esteem is at a much better place, and she happily reports that the teasing has dissipated. She was even able to infect some of her fellow students with her love of bugs!
“[N]ow I have a microscope somebody sent to me, and when I bring it to school, the kids in my school, whenever they find a bug they come and tell me and say ‘Sophia, Sophia, we found a bug!’” Sophia proudly proclaims in the paper. “I told my best friend and her sister about bugs, and now they think they’re cool, and her sister will pick up any bug. I think other girls who saw my story would like to study bugs too.”
Yes, Sophia. We think so, too. Your passion is truly inspiring, and we wish you the best of luck as you pursue your dreams. (Oh, and we can’t wait to read your next publication!)