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histhia  asked:

Hello! I actually live in Abilene, TX. I am still in high school, but I really want to become an entomologist. I was wondering if you knew about anything in Texas that can help me on my way to becoming an entomologist, or if you have any tips? Thanks! :) I hope you have a wonderful day!

Hi there! Yes, I absolutely know some things you can do.

Entomology for Beginners: Solitary Activities

Go out and look for bugs! 
Even if you don’t have time to go on hikes or walks specifically to look for bugs, you’d be surprised what you can find in your daily life if you look closely enough. A few years ago, I would walk through a park to campus every day. The walk was only 10-15 minutes long, but I saw so many fun things just from looking around me.

Pay attention to the common things
Look closely at them. Ants, flies, bees, spiders, cockroaches, crickets, etc. See how close you can get to them. Pay attention to their anatomy–how does one ant differ from another you’ve seen? What do you notice about the shape of the fly’s eyes? Does the cricket have wings or not? How long are the antennae? You could do this very casually, or you could keep a little notepad to take notes. Look up some anatomy diagrams for different orders of insects and find them on living individuals.

Hatch eggs/raise young
A few months ago, I started finding insect eggs in my yard. I took them to watch them hatch and document each life stage. Some eggs were moth/butterfly eggs, some were stinkbug eggs. I wasn’t able to identify the stinkbug eggs, and when stinkbugs are growing, they change dramatically in appearance between each molt. Each species of stinkbug can have 6 or more totally different coloration patterns, all of which look nothing like the adult. I wanted to raise them to document each life stage and create a record linking them to the adults. I learned so much doing this, and if you have the time and resources, see if you can find a caterpillar or a nymph and raise it to adulthood. You’ll learn the importance of host plants, you’ll see what happens when they grow and molt, you’ll see very interesting behaviors you wouldn’t normally see in the wild. If you don’t have a container to raise bugs in, use a mason jar with a canning ring holding fabric or paper towel over the opening (don’t poke holes in a lid, the insects can get injured on the sharp edges). I’m planning to write up a guide to raising insects at some point, but for now, feel free to ask more questions and I’ll help you out.

Browse BugGuide [link]!
Find a bug you see all the time, and take its photo (or keep it in a jar) so you can look at it while trying to identify it as far as you can go. I may not know a lot of insect families from memory, but I’ve had a lot of practice going through the guides and looking for distinguishing features. It took me a long time to figure out how the site is organized. Start with the guide page [link], and click on the taxa that fits your bug. Use the tabs at the top to go between Browse (compares all taxa within the selected group), Info (in-depth information about the selected taxa), and Photos (all user submitted photos with verified IDs). 

If you see something and you are totally stuck, you can submit a photo to their ID Request page, and somebody will usually tell you what it is and provide a link to a guide page within a few days. If your photo quality is good enough, they’ll even add it to the guide.

Document your observations on iNaturalist [link]! I LOVE iNaturalist, and I credit it for helping me learn most of what I know. You take photos and upload them to your profile. If you take photos with your cellphone, iNaturalist will use the GPS data and time/data data to document where and when you took the photo, and this information is used to document what species are present in an area at any given time. A lot of university and state projects use iNaturalist data for their research and for obtaining grant money. 

Another thing I love about iNaturalist: it has tools that help you identify what you’ve seen. If you know something is a stinkbug, but you have no idea what kind, iNaturalist’s “compare” tool will show you the most common stinkbugs in your area. Just last year, I didn’t know the difference between a rice stink bug and a brown stink bug, but thanks to iNaturalist and the community of people who use it, now I can instantly identify most stink bugs to species level without looking them up. A screenshot of iNaturalist’s compare tool page is below.

Even better: iNaturalist is a community of people who love nature. It’s a mix of amateurs (like me!), state wildlife employees, and professional naturalists (professors of entomology, ornithology, etc). These people will go through observations and provide IDs, and they will comment on things telling you how you know it’s one species vs another, why it can’t be what you thought it was, etc. Even though it’s online and seems impersonal, I have “met” a ton of people on iNaturalist–everybody is friendly and very willing to help you learn. I have interacted with some people enough that when we end up unexpectedly meeting in person (which has happened a few times!), we both get very excited to finally meet! If you join iNaturalist, send me a message there and I will follow you and help you learn. My profile is here (username: nanofishology) [link]

Entomology for Beginners: Social Activities/Formal Education

Contact the Big Country Master Naturalists
This is the Master Naturalist chapter for Abilene [link] and the surrounding area. Master Naturalists are a group of trained volunteers in Texas who aim to increase the public’s appreciation of natural resources in Texas. I don’t know how active their chapter is, but according to their facebook page [link], they have regular guided hikes in Abilene State Park. If you let them know you are interested in entomology, they might be able to connect you with somebody who can mentor you.

Summer Research Programs
There are a few universities that run formal summer research programs for high school students. It’s too late to apply for this summer, but keep these in mind for next year. Not all are entomology, but even a general biology program will expose you to useful information. A couple sites that list multiple opportunities:
Biology & Biotechnology Paid Co-op/Internship Opportunities
Pathways to Science - High School Programs

Outside of formal programs, there are many professors who will take in high school students to work on research projects during the summer. I looked at colleges around Abilene and didn’t see any specific entomology departments, but you could contact professors at other universities and see if they offered paid summer internships. To find professors: go to a university’s website and navigate to the biology department. There will be a “faculty” page, typically with the professors’ areas of research listed, and you can scroll through until you find one who studies something that interests you. Look at their lab’s website, and when you find somebody who does research that sounds interesting to you, email them! Introduce yourself, ask if they offer summer internships for high school students or if they have a colleague who does. You may not find anything, but it never hurts to ask!

Zoos and Museums
Zoos and museums are a great place to learn about insects. If you have a chance to volunteer at one, that would definitely give you some good experience. I didn’t see a natural history museum in Abilene, but there is the Abilene Zoo. They have a summer teen internship program, and while it doesn’t seem to have any entomology component, you’d still get experience with animals and husbandry. When you are first starting out, it’s a good idea to have a solid foundation in the basics of biology, so that when you learn about arthropods, the concepts are more intuitive and you can see connections between all different forms of life.

More informally, if you have a chance to travel to a science museum, definitely do it. If you go on a trip, say to Dallas or Houston, and you have plans to visit a natural history museum, try emailing them in advance and request a behind-the-scenes tour with the entomology department. You’d be amazed the opportunities you can get if you know to ask for them. Most people who work in biology at museums or universities LOVE sharing their passion with people, and making connections earlier will help you build a strong network of mentors and colleagues as you progress in your education and career.