What is your scientific background?
After a B.S. degree at the University of Queensland I traveled for a year and then taught high school in the East End of London in England. During that time I also obtained a Master of Science in Entomology at the University of London, followed by a Ph.D. also in London. From there I became a British Government scientist working in developing countries on agricultural pests, while also researching basic biology of locusts and grasshoppers in London. After thirteen years I was appointed Professor of Entomology at the University of California Berkeley where I began more theoretical research on the evolution of plant-feeding insects. The rest of my career has been at the University of Arizona where I was Regents’ Professor in Entomology, with a joint appointment in the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology. The details of my passionate interest can be found on my website: elizabethbernays.com.
Why did you choose to become a scientist?
From an early age I was intensely excited by how things worked and how living things grew, and spent many happy hours chasing butterflies, but until I was a teenager I was considered too stupid to do anything academic. I was lucky that great teachers turned things around and I obtained a scholarship to university that set me on the path to becoming a scientist. A couple of gap years made me realize that indeed I truly wanted to study biology and one of my teachers at London University was responsible for my life-long engagement with the study of insects.
What is a typical day for you?
The first answer is about the time before I retired. No two days were the same but I usually began early with plans for the day’s research and prepared experiments, went to meetings and perhaps taught a class. A good part of the day was spent helping students and postdocs, discussing their work, and having group meetings about each person’s progress. I spent evenings on processing data and writing papers. Overseas work was very varied. In Nigeria I spent days in the field examining the behavior a pest grasshopper and devising ways to manage its pest status. In Mali and Niger I studied night migrations of grasshoppers in a team with radar scientists. In India I studied a pest caterpillar and figured out how to develop varieties of sorghum that would be resistant to their attack.
Since retiring I obtained a Master of Fine Arts in writing and have published essays and poems, as well as continuing studies of natural history. My days involve writing or hiking in the wilderness. Some of my writings may be found on my website: elizabethbernays.com, and a book that is an entomological memoir is forthcoming – Six Legs Walking, Notes from an Entomological life, Raised Voice Press. In it I provide a story of overcoming early impediments and enjoying the life of science, all around the world.
What (or who) motivated you in difficult times?
My mother was of first importance as I negotiated the problem of being a backward child, but later, two high school teachers actually showed me that I was intelligent and they were the ones who wonderfully changed my life completely. At graduate school in London I was lucky enough to find a lover and soul mate who for nearly forty years was my colleague and constant supporter.
What is the funniest or most memorable thing that has happened to you while working in science?
So many funny events: taking my clothes off in the field in Nigeria to get rid of army ants swarming over me, watching a colleague stand on his head in a scientific meeting to try and stop hiccups, listening to an older Berkeley professor tell me about the good old days of the free speech movement and at the same time refusing to allow that women could be good scientists. The most memorable thing was a meeting at the Pontifical Academy of Sciences at which I was awarded the gold medal for my agricultural work.
Do you come from an academic family?
No, I am the first person in my family to go to university, and I got a lot of enjoyment seeing the vicarious enjoyment I provided my parents.
In your opinion, which changes, if any, are needed in the scientific system to be more attractive to women in science and possible future scientists?
I believe that the most important factor is making science fun and accessible to young children, so that they are captivated by the never-ending fascination of all branches of science. To this end the training and rewarding of great teachers seems something that cannot be overemphasized. In addition I think there is great value in having role models – inspiring women in science who can encourage girls and young women.