When Becky Nichols was in graduate school there weren’t many women studying to become entomologists. Over the years, she has seen this change dramatically.
“Now about half of the graduate degrees in entomology are awarded to women,” said Nichols, Great Smoky Mountains National Park’s entomologist. “This is not true in all scientific fields, however, and there is still work to be done to make these career paths more inclusive and equitable for all people.”
With that goal in mind, the United Nations General Assembly declared Feb. 11 the annual International Day of Women and Girls in Science in 2015. The day recognizes the critical role women and girls play in science and technology.
Nichols grew up in a rural area in Washington and spent a lot of time outdoors surrounded by nature. “Our family vacations usually involved camping and hiking in state and national parks and forests,” she said. “I developed an appreciation and respect for nature at a young age, and I’ve had an interest in biology for as long as I can remember.”
She started college at Washington State University as a wildlife biology major, not certain what type of career to pursue. Taking classes in many biological fields of study revealed that her interests were in the branch of zoology concerned with the study of insects.
“My family, friends, and mentors were always supportive of whatever career choice I was interested in, and numerous people along the way provided encouragement and guidance,” she said. “It wasn’t always easy being one of the few females in my field of study, but over time this has changed, and it is now quite common to see women and people of all backgrounds in many scientific disciplines.”
Nichols spent summers working for the U.S. Department of Agriculture on grasshopper control programs, which exposed her to different types of jobs in entomology. Research in graduate school at Texas Tech and the University of Missouri focused specifically on aquatic entomology, insect ecology, and biodiversity, leading eventually to a job in the Smokies.
What we might find Nichols doing on any particular day depends largely on the season. In summer, we might find her in park streams collecting aquatic insects or in various other habitats studying insect populations. This time of the year she is often in the laboratory identifying insects, preparing specimens for the park’s natural history collection, or working on a computer processing data.
Nichols first learned about the Smokies’ famous synchronous fireflies in 1998 just after she started working in the park. “The fireflies were well known by the local community at Elkmont when people still lived in the area,” she said. “It was quite amazing to see the display for the first time with just a handful of other local people who knew about it.” Now she determines the lightning bugs’ peak display period by calculating “degree days,” a measure of maximum and minimum air and soil temperature data from the Elkmont site.
Other insect-related duties include monitoring aquatic insect diversity to determine stream health, helping to coordinate the All Taxa Biodiversity Inventory, and working with cooperating scientists and park partners conducting research projects.
Nichols often gives presentations to students of various ages and genders about entomology, natural history, biodiversity, and her career path. “Many times, they are not aware of the types of job opportunities, and I like to encourage them to pursue whatever interests them,” she said. “Also, I think seeing a female in my role helps them to realize that there are no boundaries.”
During the summers Nichols hires interns or seasonal employees to assist with field work, and many are young women. Their experiences in the Smokies often help them to better determine what type of career they want to pursue, and Nichols provides as much guidance as she can. She is thrilled to see some of her former employees — both male and female — go on to become professional scientists.
“I think it’s important for women and girls to feel like there are no barriers to pursuing whatever field they choose,” Nichols said. “Women have made amazing contributions to science, and we need to continue working towards an environment that encourages equal participation of people from all backgrounds. A diverse group of scientists enhances creativity and ensures that we are more likely to come up with new ideas and perspectives.”
Frances Figart is the editor of Smokies Life magazine and the Creative Services Director for the 34,000-member Great Smoky Mountains Association, an educational nonprofit partner of Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Learn more at smokiesinformation.org and reach the author at [email protected]
This article originally appeared on Asheville Citizen Times: Word From the Smokies: Entomologist reflects on role of women in science