Not so long ago, Dr. Rebecca Varney was a bug-obsessed 4-year-old living in El Sobrante, Calif. She started a bug collection and asked her mom whether other people had bigger collections. Her mom suggested asking someone at the University of California at Berkley, so Dr. Varney wrote to the school, asking about insects.
“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,” Dr. Varney recalled writing, according to The Washington Post.
Although the envelope was only addressed to “University of California-Berkeley,” it made its way to the entomology department. A professor replied and invited Dr. 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, Dr. Varney recalled. He told her that college had classes where she could learn about bugs, and that she could get a Ph.D. to spend her life researching bugs.
Thinking about biological collections lately I’m reminded of the time that somehow at age 4, I got a personal tour of the @UCBerkeley entomology collection (Essig?) from a kind scientist (anybody know who?!). Asked my parents how on earth THAT happened, and it turns out…🤯
— Rebecca Varney (@RebeccaMVarney) January 17, 2022
Almost 30 years later, Dr. Varney posted her story on Twitter in search of the “bug man” who took “her young scientist self seriously” according to The Washington Post.
Twitter helped her find Dr. Vernard Lewis, the first Black entomology professor at UC-Berkley, and one of several faculty members who gave tours of the Essig Museum. Now retired, Dr. Lewis, who received his doctorate in entomology from Berkeley in 1989, has not lost his love for teaching and for all things bugs. He is also a Pest Management Professional Hall of Famer (Class of 2016).
Dr. Lewis, 71, studied at UC-Berkley for undergraduate and graduate school and then became a professor and now a retired advisor at the school. As a termite specialist, he is 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, Dr. Lewis said he made sure to find time for children such as Dr. Varney.
“Do I remember meeting her specifically? No. I talked to thousands of kids, and I visited schools, and made sure to give them time,” Dr. Lewis told The Washington Post. “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.
When Dr. Varney posted her story on Twitter, many people got in touch with UC-Berkeley. It took a while to identify the professor 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 told The Washington Post. Dr. Lewis wasn’t sure it was him until he read Dr. 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.”
After visiting the museum and meeting with the professor, whenever someone would ask Dr. Varney what she wanted to be when she grew up, she would tell them she was going to get a Ph.D. to be a scientist and study bugs.
In 2021, Dr. Varney graduated form 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,” Mary Jo Grothman-Pelton, Varney’s mom, told The Washington Post. “That made such an impact, and encouraged that love of nature and science.”