President's Corner: Pieces of the Past, Present, and Future

Alvin Simmons, Ph.D.

Alvin Simmons, Ph.D.

February 5, 2020

As announced this week, we will have two Plenary Speakers for Entomology 2020

One is Dr. Chavonda Jacobs-Young, the first woman and first person of color to serve as Administrator of USDA-Agricultural Research Service. She leads an agency that employs the largest assemblage of agricultural entomologists in the world. The diversity of scientists in this agency continues to expand under her leadership. I recently re-watched the 2016 movie Hidden Figures. This biographical drama focused on three African-American women mathematicians who worked at NASA during the space race and beyond. Our second Plenary Speaker, Dr. Raymond Wheeler, comes from NASA as well. As Senior Scientist and Plant Physiologist at NASA, he and his team rely on a diverse workforce to meet objectives and solve problems. Entomology has been and continues to be important to NASA. For example, entomological samples made the return trip from the International Space Station in January for a NASA project in collaboration with ESA member Dr. David Shapiro-Ilan (USDA-ARS) and Dr. Fatma Kaplan (Pheronym, Inc.). 

As we celebrate Black History Month, allow me to take a moment to comment on a segment of our profession, African-Americans who have made or are making an impact in entomology for our stakeholders. Several African-American ESA members were featured in the 2015 ESA publication Memoirs of Black Entomologists (edited by Eric Riddick, Michelle Samuel-Foo, Willye Bryan and myself). Each of the 20 featured entomologists shared a story about their childhood, education, and career experiences. Four common threads were: following a passion for entomology, persevering through challenges early in life, having mentors, and having rewarding and impacting careers in entomology. I believe that the account of each is inspirational to students who may be considering a career in science or entomology. The oldest of these 20 entomologists, USDA-ARS Hall of Fame scientist Dr. Ernest Harris, passed away two years ago this month after a remarkable career that resulted in tremendous international agricultural savings from his fruit fly management innovations and techniques. 

Two African-American entomologists from earlier in history include Dr. Charles Turner (1867-1923), who was the first to report that insects can hear, cockroaches can learn, and bees can see color; and Dr. Margaret Collins (1922-1996), a termite specialist who was called the “Termite Lady” and who was the first African-American woman entomologist to receive a doctorate degree. She started college at age 14. Later in her career, Collins became president of the Entomological Society of Washington. Current history records me as the first African-American to serve as president of ESA; I also became the first person of color to serve as president of the ESA Southeastern Branch (2008-2009). 

I am excited as I hear about the continuing efforts by academic institutions to enhance diversity of students in their programs relating to entomology. By having a diverse pool, obviously, opportunities for employers to hire a diverse workforce can be enhanced. Anyone (including students) can submit a symposium proposal for Entomology 2020. I encourage you to submit a proposal and to consider in your proposal the diversity of the people and science that makes “Entomology for All.”

Alvin M. Simmons, Ph.D., FRES
President, Entomological Society of America
Charleston, South Carolina

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