Question: “Hey there! I was wanting to ask something related to studying entomology. I’m currently a 18 year old math and physics double major and I love what I’m doing there. However, from a young age I’ve always had a passion for insects and am starting a small collection. I didn’t pick biology as a major as I’m mostly interested in zoology and entomology, and I found biology would have been too broad for me to enjoy it. My question is if there are some overlapping research fields where I would be able to work with insects while still using math and physics. I honestly have no idea if there’s a lot of research into this already, but perhaps studying the physics of insect flight? Is such an overlap even possible? I’m curious to know what a professional thinks about it :)”
“Is such an overlap even possible?” – short answer, yes! Let’s discuss.
This is an excellent question – here at Ask an Entomologist we quite regularly receive inquiries on how to become an entomologist or become more involved with entomology. I feel that I have good personal experience with this topic that may help others wanting to get involved with entomology.
There are many ways in which a person can work with insects as a career. The most obvious way is to study entomology specifically, however, there are different paths to becoming an entomologist. As our emailer stated, they are currently a math and physics major. Math and physics are both STEM fields that can be useful in entomology. In fact, I would argue that having a strong background in these areas may help with developing research ideas – especially in graduate school. In biology and entomology, having a basic understanding of these fields can help with understanding how life functions. In fact, there are some researchers that combine math and/or physics with entomology – especially with modeling or applying such knowledge on topics such as biomechanics. For example, some researchers have investigated the physics of insect flight and jumping mechanics. Without a strong knowledge of physics, we wouldn’t have a decent understanding of these topics.
There is a part to this email that I’d like to dive deeper into: “I didn’t pick biology as a major as I’m mostly interested in zoology and entomology, and I found biology would have been too broad for me to enjoy it.”
To address this simply, yes, biology may seemingly be broad and general, however it is important. Many of the fundamental concepts in biology are essential in Entomology. Entomology is not divorced from biology, but rather a sub-field of it. I earned my undergraduate degree in biology. It has been helpful (especially during my preliminary exams last year!) having a basic understanding of all the major concepts in biology. However, not all is lost if biology isn’t your major. You can still apply for grad positions in entomology with an undergraduate degree in math and/or physics. However, you will have to learn all the important concepts in biology during your graduate career (e.g., genetics, evolution, ecology, etc.).
I would recommend volunteering in labs that work with insects. Biology or entomology departments at a university are a good place to look. Ask professors if they have positions for undergrads – many labs do and will be happy to receive your help! The more you get involved with research, the more you’ll discover what you like and what you don’t like 🙂 – that way, you also know if you want to spend more time doing research and learning about entomology. Things can change – I thought I was going to go to graduate school for marine biology until my senior year! I worked in an insect ecology lab and it strongly impacted me – enough to change my research and career focus. That’s why it’s so important to get hands on experience. Discovering what drives and interests you before committing to a career can help a lot with the process.
To conclude, yes there are overlapping research fields that combine physics, math, and entomology. The best way to discover these is to become more involved by volunteering or working in a research lab, reading about such research, and reaching out to experts. In fact, asking about this is a nice start!