This Halloween season, front lawns across the country are decked out with inflated spiders the size of SUVs, and spider webs draped down fences and trees.
Our love of Halloween spider décor and spooky scenes spotlight the fact that some of the things that scare us also intrigue us.
Part of entomologist and AAAS IF/THEN Ambassador Ronda Hamm’s mission, this holiday and year-round, is taking the sting out of the undeserved “terrifying” reputations of bugs, spiders and scorpions.
When she brings live animals to an outreach event, she says reactions are either ‘hey, that’s cool,’ or ‘never in a million years.’ Usually, a few questions with an expert can calm a lot of fears.
“Are you afraid that it's going to bite you? Sting you? Well, this particular creature doesn't have any way to do that. You talk through what people are scared of, then talk about all the cool, interesting things that it does. Why is this thing on the planet in the first place? The more people go through that discovery process, the more they're willing to say, ‘Okay, this isn't as scary as I made it up in my head,’” she says.
Growing up in California, Hamm was once in the “never in a million years” camp.
“If I saw an insect running across the floor of my bedroom, I would yell and scream until mom or dad came. It had to be carried out or squished,” she says.
Fast forward to them now being her co-stars as she engages the public about all the wonders of science.
“The hissing cockroaches are super easy. They don't move very fast typically, so they're easy to, in a crowd, to maintain control of. The whip scorpion, an arachnid, I like it just because it is so unusual and it looks out of this world.”
As a Global Academic Relations Leader at Corteva Agriscience in Indianapolis, Indiana, Hamm works with governments, farmers, museums, nonprofits and schools on education and agriculture issues, from food security to the threats of insect extinctions.
She’s also part of a biodiversity team for the Entomological Society of America, looking at how habitat fragmentation and urbanization, invasive species, and insecticides are affecting insects and their ecosystems.
“We are working on how to identify what we call marginal lands, that maybe aren't super productive. Can we somehow help with the conservation of biodiversity in those areas, so that we can increase that number? [We’re] looking at all the different players, all the different parts, even in our backyards.”
There are roles for the public, such as adding plants like milkweed, to manicured lawns to assist monarch butterflies on their migration path. And she says, scientists need to engage more with each other to understand and protect ecosystems. Entomologists need to work more with climate scientists, geologists and other experts to understand risks.
Hamm credits mentors at the University of California’s Kearney Agricultural Research and Extension Center for launching her scientific journey, starting with a high school internship. Her first project involved ants, which she calls “her gateway insect.”
“They treated me like a scientist from day one, not like a high school kid there to wash dishes and to be told what to do. They said, ‘This is going to be your project. We want you to make the decisions on what you are going to test.’ And so it was super empowering; they made me see myself as a scientist because they saw me as a scientist.”
Hamm’s career journey changed after getting her PhD in entomology at Cornell University, when she discovered entomology possibilities in industry. She first worked at Corteva Agriscience as a research scientist. The global company focuses on crop protection from pests, seeds, and digital tools, like drones, for farms.
Then came another important career choice to focus on science communication and outreach education. It took some serious soul searching, says Hamm.
It was her inclusion as one of 125 AAAS IF/THEN Ambassadors that put to rest any doubts, establishing her as a trailblazer among women scientists and engineers.
“The IF/THEN ambassador program legitimized that this is important. It's not just me thinking that it matters, but there's 125 that think it matters. That was very affirming to me, that we need to shout from the rooftops about the awesome work that each other are doing.”
Hamm recalled an interaction at the Smithsonian Institution, where she and the other ambassadors greeted the public next to their life-sized statues on the National Mall.
“This little girl walks up to me, [maybe] four or five, and she's got her pink coveralls on, and she looks up at me with these eyes of wonder and asks me what kind of science I do. ‘I'm an entomologist. I study insects.’ And her eyes get even bigger. And I have my insect net and I say, ‘Do you know what I use this for?’ And she's like, ‘You catch insects with that?’ ‘Yes.’ ‘Would you like to hold it? And I thought I was never going to get my net back because she grabbed hold of it. We talked about some of the bugs that she had caught. And that is why we do what we do.”