Written by Joe Ballenger
Your Name: Chelsea
Your Bug Question: Hi, I’m a middle school student and I was hoping you could answer a few of my questions about being an entomologist for a research paper I’m writing.
Your Name: Jensen
To Whom it may concern,
I am a (high school) student and I have a project where I interview someone about their job. I have decided to interview a zoologist and I was hoping that you could answer a few questions.
Awhile back, Nancy wrote an article explaining what an entomologist does in What Is an Entomologist? She also recently talked about what she’s doing in Ecuador and her background in a few live posts. She’s doing some amazing things, and they’re worth watching because she answers these questions from her perspective.
Her posts are a great introduction to the topic of entomology, because she explains what scientists are and why we study bugs. However people still ask us some more in-depth questions that I wanted to address here, because they shed some light on what doing science is like.
Science is a job like any other, and no two of us have the same job description. In general, though, we have a time we need to be at work. There are meetings, bosses, and things that everyone else has. You have projects you have to get done, work you need to prioritize, and the like. Everyone with an office job does all of these things, so we can identify with a lot of other professions.
Sure, we’ve talked about research. We do that all the time, and it’s an important part of talking about science. Specifically, we’ve talked about the results of research…but not doing the research itself.
So…what is it like to be a scientist?
First, what is your name and where did you get your degree in entomology?
My name is Joe Ballenger (that’s my real name: I’m not anonymous), and I’ve got two degrees.
I earned my BSc at Iowa State University in 2010. A BSc is a general degree, basically a high school degree with an emphasis on insect biology.
My MSc was earned at the University of Georgia in 2012. A MSc is a more specialized degree, where you learn techniques used in a specific line of research. I specialized in molecular biology, which is the study of the nuts and bolts of how bugs work.
Where do you work and what is your usual work day like?
I am currently doing contract work for a company called Monsanto. Monsanto is an agricultural company that specializes in crop production. There’s a lot of work that goes on there, mostly plant breeding. The company is more known for biotechnology, even though that’s a somewhat minor part of the company’s work.
My usual workday begins at 8:30-ish, and I usually leave work around 5. At some point during the week, we usually have a few meetings to prioritize work and figure out if there’s anything unexpected going on.
A lot of what I do is running tests to make sure the proteins the company is producing are specific…so I make sure they only kill certain types of insects.
Is there a project or an insect currently focusing on?
The projects I’m working on revolve mainly around looking for new ways to control the Tarnished Plant Bug. Proteins which attack this insect have been discovered, and there’s a lot of work which needs to be done before they can be used. A lot of the stuff I do supports questions of interest to regulators, and also looks at how these proteins work.
Do you have a favorite insect?
I really like wasps, and other parasites. There’s so many cool things which they do. Some form societies, and make nests which are really big and well organized. Others live inside other insects, and have to knock out or evade the immune system. Many of these wasps even take over the brains of their hosts, and cause the insects to become bodyguards.
So wasps are my favorite insect, followed by Strepsipterans. Strepsipterans are the only truly parasitic insect, and every little part of their biology is completely unlike any other insect.
What is your favorite part about being an entomologist?
I really like the opportunity to work directly with insects, and set up experiments. This is what I love about science, and it’s a large part of the reason I decided not to pursue a PhD.
What kind of education does a zoologist typically need?
This depends on whether you want to teach, or stay on the lab bench.
Traditionally, PhDs tend to run things while people with MScs perform the experiments. However, this is rapidly changing with PhDs taking a bigger role in labwork.
I’d recommend getting a MSc, at least. There’s a lot of questions about what will happen to PhDs over the next few decades, which can be read about here.
Does a zoologist travel often?
I typically get the opportunity to travel for work every couple of years. At scientific conferences, I get to speak with other scientists and compare notes about the sorts of experiments we’re doing.
In the past, I’ve had the chance to travel to places like Ecuador to teach entomology classes. My current role doesn’t involve that, but I’d really like to be able to travel to other countries.
The Bottom Line
Science is a job, and I’m not going to lie, it’s a tedious one at times. This is what a bad day feels like in lab:
The good days, however, are pretty much a straight-up dance party.
— Joe Ballenger (@Stylopidae) November 18, 2015
As much as I hate to say it-and believe that I hate to say this-but doing science isn’t as sexy as you see on TV. I spend a lot of my day sitting at a workbench, transferring liquid between tubes. Listening to me explain what I do is a lot more interesting than watching me do what I do. A lot of science is like that.
I like doing that, though, because I like the feeling I get when I get results.
All of this being said, I feel I should point out that research is not a career for everyone. I honestly love science, but there are a lot of very intelligent people who opt for STEM careers away from the bench.
If you’re considering a career in science, you should do what you love. There are a lot of neat jobs in science, and not all of them are based on research.