Education

Bullied For Loving Bugs, A 7-Year-Old-Girl Is Now A Co-Author Of A Scientific Publication

Kids can be cruel, especially when your passion is something they don't understand. Eight-year-old Sophia Spencer absolutely loves bugs, and her friends at school teased her about her hobby. Concerned, her mother reached out to an entomological society for help. One viral tweet later, little Sophia is now a junior author on her first scientific paper.

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Entomologists, Assemble!

In August of 2016, Sophia's mother Nicole emailed the Entomological Society of Canada (ESC) asking for advice on how to nurture her daughter's interest in insects amidst the teasing at school. The ESC tweeted a screenshot of her message:

"I have an eight year old daughter who loves to learn and explore the world of bugs and insects," Spencer wrote. "She is often teased at school by her peers because she will proudly display her current bug friend on her shoulder.

"She has asked me for over a year if this is a job she can do one day, exploring and learning more about bugs and insects. I have told her that of course she could; however, I am at a loss on how to continue to encourage her in this field of science.

"I was wondering if a professional entomologist would speak to her over the phone to encourage her love and explain to her how she could make this into a career. I am constantly looking for articles and information on the species and how to recognize them, but find the lack of answers to her questions unhelpful.

If someone could maybe talk to her for even five minutes, or who won't mind being a penpal for her, I would appreciate it so much. I want her to know from an expert that she is not weird or strange (what kids call her) for loving bugs and insects."

The tweet and its accompanying #BugsR4Girls hashtag went viral, garnering more than 175,000 views with an 8.5 percent engagement rate — dramatically higher than the 1.6–2.2 percent engagement rate of other environmental nonprofit organizations, according to the paper written about the saga. Direct messages and replies flooded in with volunteers and suggestions, and numerous media outlets picked up the story. All in all, it's estimated that Sophia's story reached upward of a million people in some form.

In Her Own Words

The tweet was so successful, in fact, that it inspired the tweet's author to author something else: a scientific article about science communication published in the Annals of the Entomological Society of America. PhD candidate Morgan Jackson delved into the numbers and strategy behind the tweet as a lesson in using social media to spread a scientific message. It's important information, but the best part is the section entitled "Outcomes and Benefits for Sophia, in Her Own Words" — that's right, Jackson invited Sophia to be a junior author on the paper.

"My favorite bugs are snails, slugs, and caterpillars, but my favorite one of all is grasshoppers," her heartwarming report begins. Last year in the fall I had a best bug friend and his name was Hoppers. ... I really like being a bug expert, but a lot of kids at school, they're killing grasshoppers, especially the big kids at my old school."

She recounted how the media attention made her feel at the time. "It felt good to have so many people support me, and it was cool to see other girls and grown-ups studying bugs. It made me feel like I could do it too, and I definitely, definitely, definitely want to study bugs when I grow up, probably grasshoppers," she wrote.

"My mom says I'm back to being my funny old self with my confidence after seeing all the girls who like bugs. And now I have a microscope somebody sent to me, and when I bring it to school, the kids in my school, whenever they find a bug they come and tell me and say "Sophia, Sophia, we found a bug!" After I was famous, sometimes people in my town would come up and say "Hi, you're Sophia the Bug Girl!" and it makes me feel good, even if I'm not supposed to talk to them because they're strangers."

"I think other girls who saw my story would like to study bugs too," she concluded.

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