Entomologist Gail Kampmeier joined INHS as a student in 1978, and went on to have a long career in biodiversity informatics and plant virus epidemiology. She organized the Entomological Society of America's Women-in-Entomology Network (video), and is a huge proponent for diversity in entomology. Though Gail retired in 2010, she is still active in a number of spheres.
How old were you when you first became interested in science? What sparked your interest?
A. Some of my earliest vivid memories are nature-related: filling a mayonnaise jar with Japanese beetles with my grandfather from the peach tree in the backyard, and realizing that we'd barely made a dent. Later, when we moved to a new house, there were tiny toads to watch and try to imitate how they swam. I remember looking forward to camping in Girl Scouts, as well as earning a tree badge, identifying winter trees from shape, bark, and buds. As for the term "science," I'm not sure when the true meaning of that word sunk in, even though you would think this would be fundamental.
What is your field of study, and what made you decide to pursue that field?
A. I am an entomologist, but did not arrive there via a direct route nor was my career path a straight one. I have a B.A. in French, but after coming to Illinois, decided to study for a B.S. in agricultural science in the hopes of finding a job. I had a lot of basic science courses to make up (chemistry, physics) and I also took agricultural entomology and introductory plant pathology, loving both. They opened new worlds and Dr. Stan Friedman (one of the team teachers of Ag Ent with Marcos Kogan and William Ruesink) recommended that I seek student employment at INHS. I worked for John Bouseman in the museum pinning soybean insects from Brazil, honing my nascent skills from Ag Ent. That's where I met Michael Irwin, with whom I would work for the next 30+ years. His research on aphids as vectors of plant viruses melded my two favorite courses, and I was hired as a student worker for that next summer. The following fall, I decided to take an insect taxonomy course from Ellis Macleod, and I was hooked for good. I applied to the University of Illinois' Department of Entomology graduate program and was accepted, pursuing my degree part-time while accepting a job to work full time with Mike. I had a lot of catching up to do.
Who has been a mentor to you in your science career?
A. I've had many persons who have inspired me, but the two most important would be Michael Irwin and my husband, Dan Kampmeier. Mike recognized my potential and we grew into a collaborative team that would include students and researchers from around the globe. I gained the confidence to volunteer and take advantage of opportunities beyond our lab group, including becoming involved and taking leadership roles in the Entomological Society of America, NCR-148 Migration and Dispersal of Biota of Agricultural Importance, and Biodiversity Information Standards (TDWG). From my husband Dan, I truly learned what being a scientist and doing science meant. Over the years, his support and our discussions on various topics have been a continuing joy and intellectual challenge in our lives as we strive to figure out how and why various ecosystems work.
What is the focus of your research?
A.The first half of my career involved aphids as vectors of plant viruses, sampling methodologies to detect aphids in the field, and scales of movement of aphids from within plant to long distance migration. Although my love of aphids continues, beginning in 1995 the focus of our lab and funding turned to systematics of Diptera, particularly the fly family Therevidae, and I found my niche in developing a database system called Mandala, to store all the information about specimens and the events surrounding their collection, taxa and their history along with associated literature and images. The desire to ultimately share this information led to my involvement as one of the first zoologists in the Taxonomic Databases Working Group (started by botanists; now Biodiversity Information Standards).
What is the best part of your job, and what work are you most proud of?
A. The best part of my job was contributing my expertise to team efforts towards understanding and sharing the science behind the work we did. I've met and worked with people from around the world. The work of which I am most proud would be the development of Mandala, a database system supporting four major realms of data acquisition and management for systematics and biodiversity studies: specimens, literature, taxonomic names, and illustrations. In 1995, when I began development, nothing else like it existed. Its design was open and modifiable and supported by the robust commercial engine, FileMaker Pro, which ran on both Macintosh and Windows platforms. Not being a "real" computer programmer, all this was important to me, as well as the availability of a supportive community of database developers. As for subject matter, Mike Irwin assembled a team that would evolve over the next 10+ years, including F. Christian Thompson, the guru of Diptera taxonomic names and expert in the intricacies of the International Code of Zoological Nomenclature. Mandala was eventually adapted for use in a large scale arthropod trapping study in Fiji (tracking batches of specimens and loans to specialists for further identification) and the Diptera Tree of Life. As these projects were evolving I became increasingly involved in TDWG and was review manager on the Darwin Core standard, whose terms facilitate the sharing of information on biological diversity.
What advice would you give to other female scientists?
- Volunteer and become involved in your professional society and some form of outreach;
- meet people outside of your primary area of interest and from cultures different from your own;
- be flexible when possible, and open to opportunities to take a chance and stretch yourself;
- seek environments that are supportive and confidence building and attempt to provide that for others;
- get as much formal education as you need to pursue the type of career you think you want, but never stop learning and thinking;
- share your love, knowledge, and enthusiasm for your subject with others and encourage them in turn;
- listen and ask questions: it's likely others are just as confused or curious as you but afraid to ask;
- you don't have to be employed as a scientist to think/act like one; science is portable and shareable.