(I first met Heather Bird at a butterfly count at Dry Island Buffalo Jump a few years ago. She is the granddaughter of Dr. Charles Bird, who was leading the count. It was great to see a young person, obviously enthusiastic about insects, following in the footsteps of her grandfather. She is currently a graduate student under Dr. Felix Sperling at the University of Alberta.)
One of my first exposures to entomology was in high school when I was job shadowing a prof at the University of Lethbridge. He worked with electron microscopy and was scanning the head of a micro moth. It was so cool! However, everyone I showed the photos to freaked out! Girls in high school (and guys, too!) were not keen on a close-up of a moth’s face.
It wasn’t until I started looking for a master’s student position that I seriously considered studying entomology. During my undergrad, I was interested in genetics –especially molecular evolution, learning about how the genetic structure of a population changes over time as different environmental conditions push and pull with their selective pressures. Absolutely fascinating! Now I am a graduate student at the University of Alberta, researching the phylogenetics of a pest moth species, the Jack pine budworm.
Working in entomology is cool because my grandfather does a lot of work with butterflies and now moths, so on the family side of things I have a lot of moral support. And all of the people I work with are incredible teammates, some of the best I have ever had! My professor and lab mates are hugely inspirational!
What does an average day look like? It depends a lot on the season. During the school year, grad students balance course work, teaching undergrad labs, and working on our research projects. Then in the summer, when classes are over, it is time to get out into the field!
By late May, the caterpillars will be big enough to collect so I will switch from computer work to field work and drive around Alberta picking budworms off coniferous trees and enjoying the sunshine! Towards the end of summer, the work moves from the field to the lab where the caterpillars are reared to adults, frozen, and have their DNA extracted. Then, once the DNA is purified and sequenced, it is back to the computer work, which is probably where I spend most of my time. Classes will be starting by then, so I will be teaching, too.
What are my career goals? Honestly, it is difficult to say! I have started to enjoy teaching, which is not something that I ever thought I would say, being an incredibly shy and quiet person for most of my life. But, if there are no research assistant positions available in my field when I graduate, then I think it would be fun to teach in a small college.
Words of advice? Entomology has many aspects including the agricultural side, to forestry, to the home-grown enthusiast, to little genetic projects like mine. Because it is such an interesting and adaptable field I would encourage anyone who is considering any sort of degree in biology to look into projects involving entomology. Being a student is great, and one of the best things about it is that you can try new things and it is okay if you are not good at them at first, because you are still learning!
Thanks for reading!
Signing out – Heather Bird