It’s tough being different – especially when you’re an 8-year-old who absolutely loves bugs and brings them to school as friends.
Sophia Spencer’s fascination with insects didn’t go down well with her peers until a crowd of professional entomologists stepped in for support. Now she has just become the proud junior author of a paper in a scientific journal.
It all started last year when Sophia’s mum Nicole reached out to the Entomological Society of Canada (ESC), looking for advice on how to encourage her daughter’s interest in the field of insect study despite teasing by other kids.
“She is often teased at school by her peers because she will proudly display her current bug friend on her shoulder,” wrote Nicole.
“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.
“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.”
The good folks at ESC took to the task wholeheartedly, sharing Nicole’s email on their Twitter account with a new hashtag #BugsR4Girls, and inviting entomologists to connect with Sophia.
Immediately, direct messages and replies started flooding in with expressions of support, offers to send Sophia entomology research tools and books, and suggestions for like-minded pen pals.
As both the tweet and hashtag took off, media picked up and amplified the story even further, and the message ultimately reached an estimated audience of more than a million people.
We know that number because the success of this tweet has now been analysed in a study published in the Annals of the Entomological Society of America, for a special edition on science communication.
The lead author is entomology PhD candidate Morgan Jackson who created the original tweet for ESC. He invited Sophia to be his co-author, and she wrote an absolutely delightful section on the outcomes of her newfound fame thanks to the viral story.
The paper goes into detail on how the original tweet and the #BugsR4Girls hashtag contributed to science communication and public perception of entomology, and as a case study it also summarises several helpful social media lessons for other science communicators.
There’s solid analysis there, but our favourite section is still the one where the results are directly described in Sophia’s own words.
“My favourite bugs are snails, slugs, and caterpillars, but my favourite one of all is grasshoppers. Last year in the fall I had a best bug friend and his name was Hoppers,” she starts off in the paper.
“After my mom sent the message and showed me all the responses, I was happy .. 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.”
The outpouring of support, especially from many female entomologists all around the world, really has made a difference in Sophia’s life. She now has more confidence to pursue her passion.
Best of all, she’s even managed to change the minds of her peers at school.
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!'”
“I told my best friend and her sister about bugs, and now they think they’re cool, and her sister will pick up any bug,” she writes in the paper.
“I think other girls who saw my story would like to study bugs too.”