May Berenbaum

From an “Ecologist Directory” maintained by the ESA Education Office about 2004-2011. Profile circa 2004.
Degree                                        Ph.D. 1980 (Cornell University)
Position                                      Head of the Department of Entomology
Department                                Department of Entomology
Organization                              University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign
Dr. Berenbaum is the winner of the Ecological Society of America’s 2004 Robert H. MacArthur Award, which is given biannually to an established ecologist in mid-career for meritorious contributions to ecology, in the expectation of continued outstanding ecological research.

Portrait of Dr. May Berenbaum in a University of Illinois t-shirt.
Dr. May Berenbaum

Describe your route to a career in (or using) ecology. What challenges did you need to overcome? What was your training, and what positions have you held?
How I got into chemical ecology was more or less the result of a fundamental inability to choose among equally attractive alternatives. I knew from an early age that I wanted to be a biologist of some sort-I loved animals and plants and nature in general. What kind depended on what book I had just read-mammalogist, ornithologist, ethologist, and so on, depending on whether Gerald Durrell’s The Overloaded Ark or Joy Adamson’s Born Free or A. W. Eckert’s The Great Auk or Niko Tinbergen’s Curious Naturalists What wasn’t on the list, however, was “entomologist,” due to a deep-seated unreasoning pathological fear of insects. When I arrived at Yale as a biology major with AP credit, I was allowed to take an upper level course second semester freshman year-the only one that fit my schedule was Bio. 42b-Terrestrial Arthropods. Figuring fear stems from ignorance, I soldiered ahead, counting at least on learning which species I should be afraid of. I found instead that I had been ushered into a totally captivating world by the professor, Dr. Charles Remington, and haven’t looked back since. By junior year I had taken a course, offered by Jim Rodman, on the phylogeny of vascular plants and became entranced by plants. During my senior year, searching for electives, I took an absolutely marvelous course in plant biochemistry taught by Bruce Stowe and decided that’s what I wanted to do with the rest of my life. Then, by happy accident, attended a seminar given by the man who was to be my advisor, Paul Feeny, which illustrated clearly that the study of chemical ecology would allow me to indulge in all my pleasures and I’ve been working at the ecological interface of entomology, botany, and chemistry ever since.
I’m actually head of the Department of Entomology here at University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, but I’m a member of two campus units with ecological components–the Program in Ecology and Evolutionary Biology (PEEB, an inter-College graduate program) and the Center for Ecological Entomology at the Illinois Natural History Survey (which until recently was the Center for Economic Entomology–same acronym, but now the name better reflects the philosophy).
It’s been a major challenge to work at the interface of different disciplines–it’s difficult to keep current with multiple literatures, much less to master them. I always feel that I’m skating on thin ice in any particular pond.
What advice do you have for communicating ecology to diverse audiences?
Many ecological concepts (as they relate to natural history and environmental quality) are more easily conveyed to the general public than are concepts from many other biological subdisciplines, in part because they can be related to the sensory experiences of the audience (one can “see” a habitat or ecosystem more readily than one can “see” a DNA helix). Always keep in mind, though, that the vast majority of people, even those favorably disposed toward biology, don’t necessarily have much formal training in the subject, so the best advice I can offer is to get to know your audiences and custom-tailor your efforts to meet their needs.
Ecology offers a wonderful opportunity to put biophilia to work–the science will be that much more effective if there is real-world potential for application behind it.