My field of expertise is entomology. When I first graduated in 1978 there were few women entomologists. Attending my first professional Entomology Society Association (ESA) National Meeting two things were popular—smokers and women entomologists (there were so few of us). Today, at least half of the ESA’s membership is female. Applying for entomological jobs, I was given the application for secretary or told, sorry, yes you are qualified, but we want a man in this position. Fortunately, I found a home at the Illinois Natural History Survey where I have worked for over 35 years as a field biologist.
It is said that you stand on the shoulders of those present and past; many people have aided my journey in a traditional man’s field, but three women stand out. First, is my Grandmother, Lila Jeckel, who instilled in me a love of nature and the ability to tell a story (write). Second, is my mother Mary Post. She was a registered nurse and a working mother before it became “popular.” Not only did she work for the extras we had, but she also found time to be a room mother, 4-H leader, and an advocate for her children. She made sure we had any opportunity we desired and that I had the applications needed for admittance to the University of Illinois. The final woman is Dr. Cathy Eastman. In 1978, she had been hired by the Natural History Survey to lead a horseradish project for the state. Here was a woman entomologist working in the field. She had a strong work ethic and was not afraid to tell people what to do. Not only was she a mentor, but also the older sister I never had.
Growing up in a small agricultural community during the 1960s and 70s, everyone joined 4-H, sponsored by the County Co-operative Extension. I was no different, but this was before Title 9; there were activities for girls (cooking and sewing projects) and activities for boys (animal and gardening projects). Of course, I wanted to participate in the boys’ activities—they had better snacks and often played co-ed twister after each meeting—but first I needed a project. While we lived in the country, we did not have farm animals. I could garden, but I soon lost interest in that. When my mother suggested entomology, saying that it sounded interesting and I might learn something, my first response was the expected, girly, “EEUW BUGS!” After all, I was only 8 years old. But my desire to join the boys’ club outweighed the "yuck" factor, and soon our house was littered with jars, as one of the requirements of the project was an insect collection. The first year required 25 insects, with 25 more added each subsequent year of participation. I was in 4-H for ten years and had entomology as a project for nine of them.
I roamed my little corner of nature—our 2.5 acres and the woods across the road—looking for insects. My siblings were my partners, carrying nets, jars, and bags. While the woods and creek across the road was technically still 'off limits,' we would regularly sneak over there to collect. Of course, when asked if we had been to the creek our answer was, “No, of course not!” Yet I am sure we never fooled anyone as we always managed to fall in and came home muddy with a distinct odor. My youngest sister recently reminded me of our entomological exploits as she had found a picture she had drawn in the first grade of us examining cow pies for insects. This could be another source of our unique smell!
Over the years, my insect collection grew, as did my knowledge. Even during a summer abroad in northern Germany as an exchange student, I collected insects. The family I lived with bought me a bicycle, and I roamed the countryside looking for new species to add to my collection; insects were something familiar in a country where I did not speak the language. Imagine the chaos at U.S. customs when they asked if I had anything to declare. “Just this box of insects,” I said; I knew nothing about permits then. Someone shined a flashlight at my neatly pinned and spread specimens, confirmed they were dead, and waved me on.
I began my freshman year at the University of Illinois as an Animal Science major, with the goal of becoming a veterinarian. However, this aspiration was short-lived; once I had had a brief introduction to animal physiology, I decided I did not like it. What should I do? It was at that point that I decided to make an appointment with Dr. Donald Kuhlman, an Agricultural Entomologist at the Illinois Natural History Survey. Dr. Kuhlman had judged my 4-H insect collection at the state fair, and had written a letter that I brought along, congratulating me on my A rating. In the letter, he had stated that if I ever had any questions to look him up. During my meeting with him, he gave me advice on what some of the career options were for entomologists, and what classes I should take.
While the University of Illinois did have an undergraduate Entomology degree in the curriculum, what the course handbook did not tell me was that it was discouraged, and entomology “should be” reserved only for advanced degrees (MS or PhD). Fortunately, this small detail did not deter me, and beginning my sophomore year I was an Entomology major (one of only two undergraduates that year). One of my first classes, recommended by Dr. Kuhlman, was Agricultural Entomology. I fit right in. Who knew that 3 years after my meeting with Dr. Kuhlman we would be colleagues in Agricultural Entomology at the Illinos Natural History Survey.
As I was writing the acknowledgments for my recently published Butterflies of Illinois: a Field Guide, thanking my parents for all their encouragement and support, it dawned on me that exactly fifty years ago I had joined 4-H and began my entomological journey. I had no idea that I would become an author, photographer, or ever write a field guide (the goal of many an entomologist). Like Robert Frost, I, too, “took the road less traveled and that has made all the difference.”