CHAMPAIGN, lll. — University of Illinois entomologist May R. Berenbaum is the 2009 recipient of the Public Understanding of Science and Technology Award from the American Association for the Advancement of Science.
Berenbaum, a Swanlund Chair and the head of the department of entomology, created the Insect Fear Film Festival, now in its 27th year on campus. The festival engages hundreds of viewers each year with feature-length films and shorts, commentary on the films, an insect petting zoo and insect art contest.
“(The award) is particularly significant to me because I’ve been a member of AAAS since my early graduate student days,” Berenbaum said. “My father, who was a research chemist in industry, used to subscribe to Science. It was on our coffee table growing up, so this is an organization with which I have a very long association.”
She also is committed to making complicated subjects accessible for the public.
“I think that there’s a perception that some scientific findings or phenomena are too complicated to explain so that the general public can grasp them, and I just don’t believe that. People’s quality of life depends on making informed choices that involve scientific issues. That’s why I make the effort whenever I can.”
Berenbaum also is known as an authoritative public source of information on insect problems.
“I seem to have become the go-to person for any insect-related news story, which is fine,” she said. “And it’s good because insects can wreak havoc in all kinds of ways. It’s important for people to know what the potential is and what the limitations are.”
The AAAS Committee on Public Understanding of Science and Technology commended Berenbaum for her extensive service on the National Research Council. She is a national associate, an honor reserved for National Academy of Sciences members who make extraordinary contributions to the NRC.
Her work includes chairing the committee on the status of pollinators in North America, which released its findings in October 2006 – months before the massive disappearances of honey bees across the country in the phenomenon known as Colony Collapse Disorder. She emerged as spokeswoman for the scientific community on the disorder, and she has written op-ed essays and testified before Congress on the issue.
In addition to her research, she is devoted to teaching and to fostering scientific literacy. She received the 2006 Entomological Society of America Distinguished Teaching Award and has written numerous magazine articles as well as five books about insects for the general public, including “The Earwig’s Tail,” published September 2009, which exposes some of the most firmly entrenched insect myths and urban legends.
The Public Understanding of Science and Technology Award award, given since 1987, will be presented Saturday (Feb. 20) during the 176th AAAS annual meeting in San Diego.
Berenbaum graduated summa cum laude in biology from Yale University in 1975. She received a doctorate in ecology and evolutionary biology from Cornell University in 1980, and she joined the U. of I. faculty that year. She became department head in 1992.
The American Association for the Advancement of Science, founded in 1848, is the world’s largest general scientific society and includes some 262 affiliated societies and academies of science, serving 10 million individuals.