Episode 5: Erin Barbeau on Bug Dicks, Museums, and Science Fiction
Image: The isolated male genitals (aedeagus) of the beetle Ochthebius maculatus Reiche, 1872. (Source: Wikimedia Commons)
The episode can be listened to on our podcast host here: Episode 5
We are also listed on
Concepts/Examples in Entomology
- Groups of insects we mention
- Cryptic speciation (Amateur Entomologists’ Society)
- (SOME!) Insect collections
- Terminalia (genitals/reproductive structures)
- “Insect Genitalia: an Entomological Obsession” (Bug Gwen)
- Aedeagus (Amateur Entomologists’ Society)
- Ovipositors (what insects use to lay eggs)
- An example of tephritoid egg-laying structures in Anastrepha striata (Tephritidae)
- “Absurd Creature of the Week: The Wasp With a Metal-Reinforced Needle on Its Behind” (Wired, 2016)
- “Stinging wasps (Hymenoptera: Aculeata), which species have the longest sting?” (Zoological Science, 2018) (we talk about how Aculeata, the group of stinging Hymenoptera, no longer use their ovipositor to lay eggs, as it’s become a dedicated stinger)
- Biological species concept (Understanding Evolution, UC Berkeley)
- “How Parasitoids Survive” (Insider, YouTube)
- Erin’s science fiction reviews (Insectoid Reviews)
- “‘This Is the Biggest Challenge We’ve Faced Since the War’: How the Coronavirus Crisis Is Exposing the Precarious Position of Museums Worldwide” (from March 2020)
Charles: This is Assigned Scientist at Bachelor’s. I’m Charles and I’m an entomologist.
Tessa: And I’m Tessa and I’m an astrobiologist.
Charles: And today we have our second guest, Erin. Hi, Erin.
Erin: Hi. How are you guys doing?
Tessa: Pretty well.
Charles: Pretty good. Yeah. I guess to begin with, what is your background in science? What are your interests in science?
Erin: So I am also an entomologist and my research interests are primarily in museum collections, particularly collections management, and also biological control and insect plant interactions. In the past, I’ve worked with Lepidoptera, which is butterflies and moths for many, many years, since high school. I have primarily worked with curation of Lepidoptera collections before, but I’ve done just general surveys of butterfly population and abundance during prescribed burns. And then for my master’s thesis, I primarily worked with nymphalid butterflies, the brush-footed butterflies, in particular the white peacock, which is a pretty common butterfly in the southeastern United States. And I was looking at the caterpillar defenses in relation to their host plant.
From 2016 to 2017, I was on a species description project and working on a cryptic species complex of braconid wasp. So what a cryptic species complex is it’s a species that originally was thought to be one species, but in reality is several different species. And often they look very similar morphologically.
So if there hasn’t been a lot of study done with either genetic information or the ecological information, you would never know, and in this case there were genetic markers that indicated instead of being one species, there was between 3-12 different species. And it was part of my job to sit down and look at all these tiny little parasitic wasps – that’s what braconid wasps are – and try and suss out what, what’s the differences. And then some of the cases there wasn’t really much of a morphological difference; it was maybe more of an ecological difference, that maybe they were separated by hosts or seasons that they flew in because maybe one was active in the spring, whereas one was active in the fall or in geographic range because these wasps are from Australia, which is an entire continent. And the particular one that I was working with was originally found in Tasmania, but then we found them in others areas like New South Wales, et cetera. So that’s sort of what I’ve dealt with in species description.
I tend to be more on the management and curation side than the research side of things.
Tessa: What drew you to curation?
Erin: What happened was I got a biology degree and on my first day at the university I went and saw my advisor and I was like, Oh, I like bugs. And he was like, we’re sending you down to the insect collection.
And I had no idea they had this because it was just one of those things that they just they really don’t talk about on the website. So I worked there for four years as a student assistant, and then later as their outreach coordinator, where I did a lot of the educational events. When I originally went in to get a biology degree, I thought I was going to end up in environmental education and I also had maybe thought maybe I would end up as a park ranger. However, as things went on, I just found that. I really enjoyed the curation work because it was working with specimens and I had originally wanted to be a librarian, but I couldn’t bring myself tough to do an English major. Cause it would have sucked all the fun out of reading for me, and writing.
And what I found was museums basically are the libraries of life and each specimen is essentially a book on the shelf. And I was basically doing library work, but with bugs. My junior year of undergrad, I was like, this is what I want to do. So I talked to my boss who was the collector , who is an awesome dude, and he’s still done a lot of really great things for me.
And he basically said, okay, we’re gonna give you more responsibility and more projects to work on to make sure that this is something you want to do. So that’s sort of how I fell into the museum world… when I ended up in the museum world, and when I started doing things, I was like, Oh shit, this is exactly like working in a library.
It’s the same public facing stuff, like for education, it’s the same cataloging. It’s the same kind of curating your materials and having the resources available to the public and to the academics. And that’s sort of what made me fall in love with it because I, I love bugs. I have loved bugs since I was a very, very tiny child – one of my earliest memories is of sitting in the grass and just watching the bugs, so it was just something really cool that I could do to kind of take what I really liked about the library world and apply to entomology.
Charles: Yeah. I’m just vibing with this description. So my quick, so I am… I have kind of a grudge against Lepidoptera.
Erin: I knew this was coming, everyone does. I, as soon as I open my mouth and say, I like leps, some beetle person, some grasshopper person, some wasp person comes out of the woodwork and goes, you like the little brown moths, and I’m like, Yes.
Charles: So I have kind of a grudge against Lepidoptera, because as you say it’s, cause I, cause my favorite group is Dictyoptera…
Charles: Yeah for well, for anybody who is, sort of unaware in the audience, Dictyoptera is mantises, cockroaches and termites, which are like two thirds of those are among the most hated insects. So it’s, I know that it’s very petty, but I do kind of have a grudge against leps and against like, ladybugs and a couple of more charismatic beetles for just like being the glory hogs of the insect world.
Erin: Listen, I have a thing about beetles. I give beetles a lot of shit. Cause I’ve worked with beetle people who are wonderful, but I just don’t get the appeal of beetles, even though I do really like weevils, but all the weevils I have worked with. Have been bad weevils.
Charles: I actually am in a weevil lab now. So like all of the entomologists around me are beetle people and I’m lost.
Right now we’re in a particularly acute museum crisis. But like… cause like I said, I applied to the same museum studies program and I did get rejected mostly because I wanted to work specifically on taxonomy of non-Lepidoptera groups, and it was a Lepidoptera ecology lab and was like, I don’t know what to do with you.
Erin: Yeah. I worked with that lab, I worked with Deane and she was great. She was the advisor I wish I had much sooner in my academic career. Honestly, my time at CU was an incredible struggle because of mental health issues and other things going on in the background, and Deane was probably the best supervisor I could have ever asked for and got in because, because she was really supportive and she really did her best. And even when I was not really doing well and just didn’t know how to tell her what to do to help me, she still tried. And. I feel with museums and the museum program in general, like the, one of the things with it is that they wanted you to have at least two years of experience.
And that was like one of the things that really drew me to it because it made it go, okay, this is serious. And it was one of the few programs that actually dealt with natural history. Cause a lot of other ones on were more art or public administration, education related. Whereas I knew exactly I wanted to do this very specifically. I want to do collections management in a natural history collection, preferably with insects, but I’ll do other inverts. I hate mammals. Sorry I do.
Charles: Down with mammals… we’ll never have a mammalogist on the podcast . No I’m kiddin… you can come on, but you will be disrespected.
Erin: My one thesis committee member is a mammologist, so like, I have worked with mammologists. I did take mammology and I did so bad at it that my professor was like, do you, are you just not doing well because you hate math? And I was like, yes,
Charles: No, the only good mammal is a mammal that is serving as a host for inverts. And that’s that on that. No, I’m kidding. We love cats here, and I guess other ones…
Erin: Yeah, I’ve always had rabbits. I was in 4H and I’ve always done rabbits. So like I do like mammals, I just am a very bitter entomologist who has to contend with conservation funding.
Charles: Well, yeah, well, it’s, I have. A couple of things to say, one is, when I was an undergrad, I took an animal diversity course because of course I did and a) annoying that it was so skewed towards vertebrates, how dare you.
Tessa: I was about to say… most the most of the biodiversity on this planet is invertebrates.
Charles: Right? So that was annoying. B) mammals are excruciating because it’s all about like skull morphology details. People say that flies are hard. But once you’re used to the, you know, the basic landscape of a fly…. skulls are NONSENSE, because this is the thing with fly, like wing venation, it’s, it’s intimidating to begin with, but then you’re like, Oh, that’s that vein, that’s that vein….
Erin: You’re talking to someone who struggles with wing venation… And I, and like I do scientific illustration and I travel best and I still screw up doing mediations. When I draw it is the only one rendition. I have ever learned is ricotta versus if Newmont and because it’s a horse head,
Charles: It is a horse head.
Erin: That is what it would be. Only one I can remember.
Charles: Well, I, this is actually interesting. I don’t know because I have so studiously avoided leps. I don’t actually know what the like, suite of common… cause like with near identifying flies, you generally begin with like, chaetotaxy [distribution of hairs on the body] and like wing venation. So what do you do with leps [Lepidoptera]?
Erin: So it depends on the group of lumps you’re working with. If it’s butterflies like, Oh dude, you don’t have to even worry about it.
Um, I mean, generally with butterflies, you don’t even care about venation and you go straight for the gonads and look at those. If you have things that you just aren’t sure what it is, or you rear it out, if you find the caterpillar, but when we’re starting to talk about things like micro moths, the LBBs….Sorry, the LBM is not the LBBs. LBBs are my bitter enemy, the little brown beetles. Um, with the LBMs like you have to look at venation and you have to look at genitalia. You have to look at life history is to ID them and. I know someone was like, Oh, you should go to grad school for micro, but, and I was like, I’m refusing to do anything else… I will walk backwards into hell. Yeah.
Charles: When I had to take the intro to insect diversity course, as, as a master’s student, the identifying moths was the most… was just the most miserable time. Terrible. I actually have a question for Tessa, which is we have referenced genitalia. Are you familiar with the importance of genitalic structure in insect identification?
Tessa: I am not actually. And I’m curious to hear how that became the defining characteristic.
Erin: If you’ve ever met a Lepidoptera person, if you’ve ever met a beetle person, all you need to know is that they look at dicks all day, all day. I know because I was one of those people.
Charles: Yeah. There’s actually a specific word for bug dicks.
Tessa, did you know this?
Tessa: No, I did not.
Charles: I don’t… Erin, do you know how to pronounce it?
Erin: Oh, if you type it in, I can try. Um,
Erin: Just a minute. Let me try to find just a moment. I’m I actually was a science consultant because I was an entomologist on this book about the evolution of the dick. I’m trying to find the title because y’all should read it because it was highly entertaining.
And they talked about some of my favorite insect bug sex facts ever.
Charles: Yeah. Okay. But yeah, no. So it in insect identification, Well, Erin, do you want to like, just describe the importance of genitals and why genitals are important in identification?
Erin: Oh, Oh, aedeagus! Yeah. That’s the word. So…
Charles: I always think that it’s more syllables than that.
Erin: Also. I say things incorrectly. So you might have something to go. Wow. That’s not how you say it,
Charles: Well… I mean, the thing about, you know, scientific terms, is that because they are engineered. Like, theoretically there’s actually no correct way in if we’re going with like a descriptivist understanding of language where the right way is just defined by common usage… so I think you’re fine.
Erin: Yes. However, I have met other people who are not into that.
Charles: Well, you can… well, you can tell them that I have one half of a linguistics degree and I say, I’m right.
Erin: Okay. So I found the book. And the book is called Phallacy: Life Lessons from the Animal Kingdom by Emily Willingham. I read the entire thing well, during consulting and it is great, Please read it.
Tessa: I will check that out.
Charles: Yeah. I saw that and I transcended because of how great the title is.
Erin: There is exactly two chapters on insects. It is the best. Finally, we are recognized for our weird obsession with beetle dicks. So, Reproductive isolation is one of the key things to determine, what is a species? They have to be reproductively isolated from each other.
So with insects…
Charles: I just want to interject,
Erin: I knew you were going to do this.
Charles: Yeah. Yeah. Important in one model of what a species is, the biological model.
Erin: So, and the biological model, which is more about, um, reproductive isolation is in order for something to be a species, is it has to be reproductively isolated from each other, through several different mechanisms, either one or more, and that they cannot successfully produce a viable offspring or zygote.
So. A lot of than sex look very similar when I said little Brown moth or a little brown beetle, the LBMs and the LBBs, there’s a reason why there’s a term for it because they all look the same, unless you’re someone who specifically works on that group on that genus and can just look at it under a scope and go, yeah.
To a lot of people who maybe aren’t in the taxonomy side of these entomology. So it feels who maybe are like ecologists or natural history. People like me. Um, they can’t just go, Oh yeah, that’s different. So in order to be 100% sure that’s different. What we do is we look at the chain of, because the genitalia often is, has slightly different structures, whether it be different hairs, it’s different number of segments. And that allows for reproductive isolation through mechanical means, which means it just doesn’t work when they try. So that’s why there is such an emphasis on dicks in the systematics and taxonomy side of entomology.
Tessa: That does make sense.
Charles: And it, you know, it extends to reproductive structures more broadly.
Like I, between my master’s and in starting my PhD program, I worked on a taxonomy project on a specific genus of, um, Tephritidae, which is so the, the, the, you know, the world at large, um, knows Drosophilidae as fruit flies. Drosophilidae being Drosophila the, you know, the flies that are used a lot in genetics and that show up when you have rotting fruit in your kitchen, um, they, you know, the Hoi polloi know those as fruit flies, but entomologists and specifically dipterists, people work on true flies, know Tephritidae has fruit flies, so we’re correct.
Um, anyways, on the, uh, project on the taxonomy of a specific genus and tephritoid flies, so those in the super family Tephritoidea, Have a structure where they have like a sclerotized ovipositor. This is mostly for your benefit Tessa, do you know what an ovipositor is?
Tessa: Yeah, it’s a, the structure they use to lay eggs and things, and I know in wasps can be used as also is the sort of base structure for the stinger.
Charles: Great job. Um, yes. So most true flies have lost like a dedicated ovipositor but tephritoid flies…
Erin: They have it.
Charles: Yeah. They like reverse engineered a separate structure to act as a sclerotized, hardened ovipositor. Anyway. So I spent basically nine months just very carefully pulling the, um, the aculeus out of the abdomen and looking at the ridges along the very end of it, to identify, like… to discriminate between different species.
Erin: Yeah. And that’s something that just doesn’t like happen as much in like the broader, um, sections of entomology I’ve been in it. Cause like I said, I’ve been in the beetle world because my boss was a beetle dude. And I’ve worked in the grasshopper world out your Lord. My, um, it’s funny. I was reading Phallacy and my first ever research advisor was, um, a quoted at it….
Charles: As a, as a side note, I guess,oviposotiors are, are considered particularly important within Hymenoptera evolution. Tessa – Do you know the term Hymenoptera?
Erin: Um, I’ve heard of it, but I can’t link it to like a common name right now.
Charles: Well, yeah, it’s basically one of the four, like, well, four or five, depending on who you ask, that’s a separate issue. Mega diverse orders of insects. And it includes wasps, bees, ants, and sawflies.
Okay. Yeah. And so in like I was taught at least that a lot of like the overarching story of Hymenoptera evolution is that the, the lion’s share of diversity within Hymenoptera are in parasitic and parasitoids…
Erin: Yeah, parasitoid groups are the most diverse. Um, I worked at a parasitoid lab, so I’m going to just say that out.
Charles: The story there is that a lot of groups in Hymenoptera have developed very specific ovipositor adaptations so that they can get their eggs into a variety of different substrates. And then of course as you, as you said, in Aculeata, which is a subgroup of Hymenoptera, um, the ovipositor then has become a stinger.
And this is why only female insects will sting you. Cause male insects literally don’t have the apparatus.
Erin: Yeah. You can just literally pick up a male bumblebee and he’ll just be like, Oh that sucks, but he won’t do anything.
Charles: Yeah. There’s somebody that I follow on Twitter who works with paper wasps and she has, oh, just all these gorgeous Polistes. And she has a lot of videos of just like holding male wasps cause what are they gonna do?
Erin: Yeah. They’re not gonna do anything. Yeah.
Charles: So what were we talking about?
Erin: Oh, you, you were asking you to explain why the genitalia is like a big deal.
Charles: Oh, this is what I was going to ask. So we are in. A particularly acute crisis for museums now because of COVID-19. But even before then, there’s been this sort of general sense that museums are kind of doomed. I don’t know if you’ve gotten that.
Erin: Oh, dear Lord. Um, so this is a ongoing conversation within museum circles that they got basically there has been… some people will blame around various things, but there’s been a move away from the natural history side of things and a move away from museums, which makes it much harder to get funding. And a lot of us is, is we’re seeing academic museums that are with institutions like universities being shuttered packed up, um, destroyed or… so in best case, it gets sent on to another museum and worst case, they are literally destroyed and thrown out. Like what almost happened in Louisiana with the one major fish collection, because people, these days don’t necessarily realize the value of having these collections of specimens, because there has been a move away from the natural history side, especially after the advent of DNA analysis, because now you can run it through the DNA and there’s so many other more applications and it’s like, okay, now, specimens, maybe they’re useless because now we can just run the DNA, but that’s not true because we can get DNA from specimens. And we do that all the time. And there’s also been a lot of more chatter in the ecology side of things about how we need to voucher is vouchering is essential. And I don’t know when this shift started, but I think it started in the seventies and eighties that we started to get away from the natural history side of things and had teaching natural history in, um, biology classes, et cetera. So, but like, for me, I know when I went to school, I specifically took classes that required me to make collections.
But yeah, when people think of natural history, they often think. Okay. Natural history is something of the past. It’s stuffy. It’s old. It has all these other not really savory connotations to when it’s in fact, a very powerful tool to use for understanding Earth’s biodiversity. And often what happens is if we don’t know what’s there, we won’t know it’s gone.
And that’s why natural history museums are so essential nowadays because they have the specificity of historic records. Like a one researcher can maybe get funding to a monitoring project for five years, but a national history museum will have stored specimens and records for a hundred years.
Right. So looking at the records. Yeah. There’s been a lot of discussion of how this is really important and how we need to revitalize and bring this back because museums seem to be doomed because they haven’t really, people haven’t been really taught their value or their importance. And that was really a lot of my job is outreach coordinator too, at the university of central Florida at collection arthropods closet, to teach the general public, to teach students about this as a resource here for you, for you to be able to look at these historical records, to come and look and see what is in your backyard. And that’s another thing is, people don’t realize that they can come to a museum and see the back… if they contact us.
Because we are usually more than happy to show you, because we want you to know that this is what’s here, and we want you to appreciate what you have. And there’s been a lot of discussion about museums, just in general with the, how complicit they are and the systematic oppression of marginalized groups.
And that’s another reason why maybe museums have seemed to be doomed is because there hasn’t been really this turning point where we turn around and go, Hey, maybe we need to actually like, fix what we do with our harm. And that’s been in the past 30 years that we’ve been like, Oh shit, we need to actually start fixing these issues because we have caused harm.
And it’s kind of just, an avalanche of different things… of the move away from natural history and move away from funding these very not immediate gratification projects. That it’s very much, what can this do for me? How does this help humanity? But. Sometimes the tangible outcomes aren’t as tangible as the funding wants it to be.
Tessa: Frequently a common problem in science.
Erin: that… yes. And then the, also the realization that there has been issues with the culture of museums and there’s been sort of this. Old guard issue too, where we have a lot of older people and they’re starting to age out, retire and pass away, which is great because that means younger people like me actually have a chance because often these… you know, like you literally have to wait for someone to die before he can get a job.
Cause they’re in there for so long. So like it’s really a combination of the science funding trends and how science funding in the U S at least has been. Growing smaller and smaller and harder and harder to get and is harder and harder every year to justify having these large collections just by having these things, despite their usefulness, despite that they have these tangible benefits that it’s just kind of a snowball effect.
Charles: Yeah. Well, I have two thoughts. One is, I think your point about there just, isn’t a quick turnaround on like return on investment, which is a really toxic idea in science to begin with for anything. But particularly for museums, you’re not going to see it pay dividends in terms of what you’re getting out of it in five years or 10 years, or maybe 50 years.
But if you want to do like a conservation study and you want to compare population density of a species in 1850 versus now we don’t have time machines and I’ve, I’ve heard from physicists that we probably never will. So the only way to access 1850 is through museum collections that have materials from 1850.
And then secondly, I think you brought up. Briefly the idea of harms of museums. And this is interesting to me, particularly in like the natural history space, where often when people talk about sort of bad museums, we talk about overtly like obviously bad things like the British museum, having a lot of alluded artifact.
And I wonder if, if this resonates with you at all the harms of natural history, As a field and of natural historical collections, to me feels a lot more subtle…
Erin: Natural history museums and just museums in general, like museums originally were created to show either wealth or to show civilization as civilizations progress that is what museums were created to be. It is. The earliest documents around the museums and what they are explicitly say that. And when I talk about the biological side of things, I want to kind of just say that people don’t always realized that it’s not just artifacts that are in British history museums, It is specimens and specimens and the biological side. So like zoology collections. They have also has this, um, they have been implicated and have always been implicit in colonization and imperialism because where do your specimens come from? How do you get them? Whose land if they come from, who gave you the right to take them?
And furthermore, there has been many, many ties between… and it’s an example of how natural history questions on the biology of, of society have been used to dehumanize indigenous peoples and uphold white supremacy. A bug specimen itself, it’s a bug specimen. But if you think about where did it come from, who collected it and where it came from, then you start realizing, Oh, okay. Yeah, this is, this is an outcome of what everything museums are built on and came from. When I talk about museums and ethics, there are many onion layers to this, like many layers of onions.
So we start out with, okay, we see the obvious issues with looted artifacts. We would loot archeological sites. Are that being given back, um, special cultural objects being displayed when they shouldn’t or not being returned to the people they originally were stolen from. And that’s usually talked about within the context of anthropology.
But then we think about it and think about how museums originally used to display human skeletons of indigenous people then, and that’s a biological specimen, which is, it feels so gross and so awful to say. And originally those specimens, those people, their remains were displayed along with the zoological, specimens and anthropology materials. So there wasn’t a divide until maybe the sixties when we started going, Oh, maybe we shouldn’t display human skeletons, human remains, that sort of thing. So there’s been this very long history where the biology side of things is just as complicit as the anthropology … side of things.
And that’s kind of what I mean by the harm that was caused and not to mention that the people who are in charge often were white and male and working, and were essentially the gatekeepers of the field. And in the past 20 some years or so, there has been more women in museum, but they’re mostly white.
There’s not very many people of color professionals out there. There aren’t a lot of openly queer professionals that I know of, at least in the natural history side of things there, maybe more in the art side because art has always been more open to that.
Charles: Well, a lot of art is more explicitly…
Charles: Yeah. Well, I was gonna just say gay, like art is a lot of artists is obviously gay. I’m like… exactly what you’re saying about the source of specimens. Cause this is something that I struggle a lot with natural history, particularly with entomology where the lion’s share of insect diversity is in relatively tropical areas. And so our understanding of the full breadth of insect diversity comes from this legacy of imperialism, colonialism, and very entitled European exploration.
Erin: It’s hard for me to sometimes talk about it right off the top of my head, because there’s so much like every class I took in my program, we literally had an ethics module.
I know nine pro by heart at this point, I know a lot of the laws and I know a lot of ethics and I know a lot of the case studies and there’s just, there is that legacy of this is where our specimens came from. And this is where our understanding came from. And we have to acknowledge and understand that we caused harm.
And now we have to make amends for it. If that means support and that community variety thing, supporting marginalized scientists, supporting research in those areas, collaborating with them. If we’re doing research in that area and many times now with a lot of the import export laws, you have to have a collaborator in that specific region in order to even bring your stuff back, or you have to leave it there and let them work on it.
Charles: One thing that we haven’t talked about yet, Erin is your blog and, uh, reviewing science fiction.
Erin: Yeah. So I am pretty deep. Well, I want to say deep, but I’m fairly involved in certain segments of the science fiction book community, because. Science fiction has been a constant thread in my life. I actually… science fiction, like ever since I was a little kid, like, it has been a big part of my life because it was one of those things where I saw myself in it, because growing up, I always, like I said, I’ve been mentally ill since I was at least 10.
I can remember anxiety attacks when I was six. So like, that’s really, like, I’ve always known that there was something off about me. So seeing myself in characters that are aliens or characters that are escaping from a normal world to their true home, which is a magical world, that’s really resonated with me, and I loved Star Trek growing up.
Yeah. Yeah. I am non binary and it was a, it took me a very long time to get there and without science fiction, I would have not gotten there because… a book came out in 2013 called Ancillary Justice. I am lucky…
Tessa: Excellent book, by the way. If anyone needs a recommendation.
Erin: It is literally my favorite book ever.
It basically, it changed my life. It’s very hard for me to talk about it without crying because the author and like she is also a very kind and gracious human being who tries her best to be a good ally. And it was the book that kind of like gave me the entire community of queer people, of trans people.
And things started to click. And I saw myself in the characters and first it was very much like, okay, well I’m gay. I like girls. But the lesbian label has never felt right for me. And later it turned out well does because you’re not a girl. So because of this book, it was basically what kickstarted me to finally start to process and stop shoving myself into a box that had caused me a lot of really unhappiness and pain over the years. And it allowed me to meet a lot of people who I hang out with out with, and who are really good friends and who have gotten me through some really hard times. …
The characters there are non binary and in their culture, they don’t have gender, but like she chose to use she, her pronouns as a, for several reasons, some to subvert the trope of in writing originally, when it was taught for many, many years, you were supposed to use he, him as the general like general pronoun for any person that you were going to like say what their gender was them.
And anyways, I got off on a tangent, but this book is very much, one of the things that one, many words, it got me to renew my love for the genre because I was feeling so burned out with the genre. I wasn’t finding things I liked. I was feeling very alienated by the genre. And then I read this book and I met other people like me and I saw myself and these characters and it helped me start to unpack and learn to live with who I am truly and accept myself.
And a chapter in Ancillary Mercy is probably one of the most important sections of any piece of literature I’ve ever loved, because it very much, it got me through a lot of my depressive issues and a lot of the other stuff going on in my life, because it basically was like, you are a person worthy of love, even if you can’t conceive that you can be.
So I am a diehard Leckie fan. And because of that, I got involved in the Radche fandom, which is a very wonderful, sweet little fandom. And I really love my friends in it and they’re great. And that because of an, because my friends, I started writing like seriously, again, it’s many… fiction. And I got published last year in a science fiction magazine specifically for trans and non-binary stuff.
And like, I’m not gonna, like, outright say like what parts of the story, but if you read the story and if you’ve read her work, she can really see the influence and. Yeah. So the story is called … you can kind of see my influences. So because of that, like that book is just so influential and because of that book and because I kept having people come to me and be like, okay, you like Ancillary are, so you must review all of your science fiction.
I started writing reviews, try to review science fiction that is by marginalized folks, because that is the one thing that I get asked for a lot is, Hey, what are other books that are good, that are gay or BI gay people, or by people who aren’t white or about people who aren’t white, that sort of thing.
It’s very much, I already was reading these books. I was already discussing these books and it just made sense to start writing reviews, but like, because of, because of these books and because of course I fight, like I got really into and found a different community and found my trans community that I wasn’t finding in science.
And I really can talk a lot about how, like, how positive, like the science fiction community has been on my life. And like right now, like I really deep … series because it’s probably, yeah. That’s where I met Tessa, actually. Um, which is, it’s a very different from Radche and it’s Interesting because what I found in Radche with Radche, I found my gender and my queerness, the… series, which I’ve already read the next book, which comes out on Tuesday. But just with both books, I see my mental illness in it. I see it. And it’s very much reading. It is like is writing, I see you. This is for you, I’ve struggled with the same things.
So it’s a different sort of healing because. I had to come into my own with my queerness before I could really start to work on my mental illness and understand how it, how everything worked together, because it was just one piece of the puzzle, because what I liked about those books was that there was magic, but it was science.
Charles: Do you have any sort of concluding thoughts, things that we didn’t get to, things that you want people to know? Interesting bug facts.
Erin: Well, why don’t I just talk for a few minutes about my actual master’s thesis, because we literally haven’t really got into it because I was so busy talking about museums.
So what I did for my masters. It was when I say, okay, I studied white. She talked about her flies and their defensive behavior in relation to host plants. What I really mean is I watched caterpillars puke for two summers. Um, that my research has actually focused on regurgitation as a defense mechanism because regurgitation can sometimes contain on secondary compounds that are sequestered or taken out from the plants.
And these butterflies had recently shifted to using a Plantago lanceolata, which contains … glycosides, a toxin a lot of other butterflies use as defense in their Caterpillar stages and sometimes as in their adult stage. I originally didn’t know what was going to exactly do for my master’s thesis. And my advisor Deane, who is absolutely great.
She was like, Oh, Hey, I have these caterpillars. Uh, for people who aren’t familiar with Deane’s work is she is basically the Caterpillar, Caterpillar lady. She focuses on Caterpillar ecology in relation to chemical defenses. And she was like, Hey, I have these caterpillars that puke and I was like, Oh my God, it’s too cool.
So I ended up doing caterpillar torture or AKA I pinched them to make them puke and it doesn’t hurt them. I use soft forceps and stuff. So what I found was that actually, it actually does have a negative impact on their development, but like, it doesn’t really seem, and to change that much between the host plants, but I have to do more research on it and hopefully I get to publish my thesis and next year, because it’s been slow going because of COVID that I wanted to do it by now, but just things have slowed down.
Charles: Erin, where can people find you online?
Erin: So you can find me my review blog, Insectoid Reviews, through wordpress.com. And then you can find me on Twitter @insectoidreview or @bug_wrangler. I don’t use @bug_wrangler very often, but that is my professional one. So sometimes I will post if I have a paper published.
And if you’re interested in my research in mind, botanical and scientific illustration, you can check me out at erinbarbeau.wordpress.com. And I also have an art Instagram, which is @caterpillar.creative.
Charles: Uh, you can find me on Twitter @cockroacharles. And Tessa?
Erin: Oh, and I’m on Twitter @spacermase.
Charles: And you can find the show on Twitter @ASABpod or at our website, ASABpodcast.com. We are currently on Apple podcasts and we will soon also be on Spotify.