In Depth

Bug-loving girl who was teased at school co-authors research paper

Sophia Spencer, 8, featured in a PhD student’s article after her mother appealed to scientists for help

An eight-year-old amateur entomologist who was teased for her unusual hobby has featured in a research paper after the scientific community took her under their wing.

Sophia Spencer, from Ontario, Canada, loves nothing more than showing off her latest insect find, but often finds herself the butt of jokes.

After schoolmates mocked her “weird and strange” interest, “I really thought loving bugs wasn't the best hobby,” she told NPR.

Afraid that her daughter would be discouraged from pursuing her passion, Sophie’s mother, Nicole Spencer, reached out Entomological Society of Canada for support last year.

“She is often teased at school by her peers because she will proudly display her current bug friend on her shoulder,” she wrote in a letter posted to Twitter by the society. “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.”

Nicole said that “even five minutes” of conversation with a real-life bug expert would be welcomed.

However, the scientific community’s response went far beyond her modest request. The tweet was shared more than 1,000 times, and responses soon poured in from entomologists. Women in the field were especially motivated to share their passion and expertise with a budding female scientist, many using the hashtag #BugsR4girls.

Sophia told NPR that the wave of support changed her own outlook, as well as that of her classmates. “After I realised bugs are for girls I thought to myself, ‘Well, I think I should start loving bugs again, because just because people say they’re weird and gross doesn’t mean I shouldn’t like them.’”

“Kids now, after I told them the whole story, they’re like, ‘Oh, well - could you teach me more about bugs?’”

Her experience inspired Morgan D. Jackson, the PhD student who runs the Entomological Society of Canada’s Twitter account, to write a research paper exploring the story’s implications for “scientific societies using social media, and the promotion of women in science”.

A year later, Sophie has achieved a milestone that many grown-up scientists work towards for years - she has been cited as a co-author in Jackson’s paper, published in the latest edition of the Annals of the Entomological Society of America.

“It felt good to have so many people support me, and it was cool to see other girls and grown-ups studying bugs,” Sophia explained in her contribution to the paper. “It made me feel like I could do it too.”

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