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Scientist finds professor who supported her love for bugs when she was 4

Rebecca Varney met Vernard Lewis who let her hold a hissing cockroach, and told her she could get something called a PhD and spend her life researching insects

At age 5, Rebecca Varney had a pet snake that she named Beverly Crusher. (Mary Jo Grothman-Pelton)

Rebecca Varney needed Twitter’s help to find her “bug man.”

Almost 30 years earlier, Varney had been a bug-obsessed 4-year-old living in El Sobrante in the Bay Area. She had started a bug collection and asked her mom if other people had bigger collections. Her mom suggested nearby University of California at Berkeley, and Rebecca wrote a letter to the school, asking for insect insight.

“My name is Rebecca and I have a bug collection. I read about yours and it is bigger than mine is. Can I see it? Also, I have a question. Do walking sticks have knees? Sincerely, Rebecca,” Varney recalled writing.

Although the envelope was only addressed to “University of California-Berkeley,” it made its way to the entomology department. A professor replied and invited Varney and her mom to visit the Essig Museum of Entomology. He let her hold a hissing cockroach and a live scorpion, and explained how walking sticks have knees, Varney recalled. He told her that college had “whole classes” where she could learn about bugs, and that she could get something called a PhD and spend her life researching them.

“And then he shook my hand and said ‘It’s been a pleasure to meet another scientist,' ” Varney said.

This spring, she posted her story on Twitter and asked if people could help her find the professor who took her young scientist self seriously.

Twitter did.

A love for all things bugs

It was Vernard Richard Lewis, the first Black entomology professor at UC-Berkeley and one of several faculty members who gave tours of the Essig Museum. Now retired, Lewis, who received a PhD in entomology from Berkeley in 1989, has clearly not lost his love for teaching and for all things bugs.

“Do you want to see some live insects? I have them right here!” he said over a Zoom video call, showing off a termite display at his home office in Hayward, Calif. He said he still finds himself catching one insect or another several times a week and keeps live hissing cockroaches at hand.

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Lewis, 71, grew up in Minnesota but ended up at UC-Berkeley or “Cal” in 1972 as an undergrad student because, he says, a high school teacher told him it was the best school in the country. From undergraduate to graduate school and then to becoming a professor and now a retired adviser, Lewis has been there since.

As a termite specialist, he has fond memories of a 30-foot termite mound in Australia, and he was a founding member of the United Nations’ Global Termite Expert Group, which traveled around the world helping people grow food without being affected by termites.

But despite his busy schedule, Lewis said he made sure to find time for children such as Rebecca.

“Do I remember meeting her specifically? No. I talked to thousands of kids, and I visited schools, and made sure to give them time,” Lewis said. “Why? Because my grandfather was the one who instilled in me the love and passion of nature. He had that infinite patience, he never told me ‘no,’ and I was a wild kid, bringing all the bugs back home — black widow spiders. I was nuts.

“So all those kids, Rebecca included, when they get all excited, I see me.”

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Hissing cockroaches

When Varney posted her story on Twitter, many people got in touch with UC-Berkeley. It took a while to identify the professor, Lewis said, because the meeting happened in the days before email. Everyone was trying to “rack their brains” to figure out who could have been working at the Essig Museum during that time, he said. Two of them aren’t alive anymore. Another said it wasn’t him. Lewis wasn’t sure until he read Varney’s comment about how she got to pick up hissing cockroaches and scorpions, and thought, “Oh, that was me, I always had those around.”

It was Varney’s mom, Mary Jo Grothman-Pelton, who confirmed it. She didn’t remember that the professor was Black, but she said when she heard his voice on a video, she knew it was Lewis. Grothman-Pelton was a substitute teacher and her husband, Varney’s father, fixed computers. Neither of them was a big outdoors person and didn’t know anything about bugs.

When Rebecca was 3-years-old, “I just remember her coming in with this thing, and she opened her hand it was this huge cricket, one of the really big ones, perhaps a Jerusalem cricket, and she was so excited to show me,” Grothman-Pelton said. “I didn’t want to show her I was afraid or that I wasn’t happy about it, but I did say it would probably be happier outside.”

After visiting the museum and meeting with the professor, whenever someone would ask Varney what she wanted to be when she grew up, she would tell them she was going to get a PhD and be a scientist and study bugs. And she did, getting her PhD in 2021 from the University of Alabama in biological sciences and now working with aquatic invertebrates such as crustaceans as a postdoctoral researcher at the University of California at Santa Barbara.

“What I remember most from that visit was that the professor really talked to Rebecca, he took her very seriously,” Grothman-Pelton said. “That made such an impact, and encouraged that love of nature and science.”

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Nearly 13,000 people on Twitter noticed her post and tried to help Varney track down her earliest mentor. As they did, many scientists shared similar stories — moments when some adult took the time to talk about the wonder of science and answered their questions seriously. Sometimes they were that person who showed “dinosaur poo” to a class and changed someone else’s life.

Varney, in addition to keeping walking sticks in her room growing up, had millipedes and a corn snake named Beverly Crusher.

“She used to sit on my head when I got home from school because my head was warm from walking from the bus stop,” said Varney, now 33.

She contacted her childhood mentor through email, and he told her that now that she has a PhD., it was her turn to pass on that love of bugs. She was a little disappointed that he didn’t remember her personally, but said it felt “incredible” to be able to thank the person who started her on her career journey.

“I think for any of us who are scientists, and perhaps for any of us who do something we love, there was some formative experience with another human being that kind of brought us to be the people that we are,” said Varney, who now has a crawfish named Clawdio.

“The thing that I’ve enjoyed the most is having hundreds of people reaching out to me to tell me their own stories of a visit with some person who took the time to talk to them when they were a child, and it totally changed their life.”