Not many people are a fan of creepy-crawly bugs, but Abby Lehner can make you appreciate them.
Abby is an entomologist, a scientist who studies insects and their relationship to humans, the environment and other living things.
She holds a bachelor’s degree in biology and a Master of Science in Biology with a focus in entomology, and she is pursuing her PhD this fall.
Abby is especially proud of completing her master’s during the pandemic, which was a challenge for many students.
Abby’s specific focus is in the realm of pollinator ecology, the study of the interactions between flowering plants and pollinators, especially bees. Abby focuses on the conservation of these insects.
Many people may not know how important bees are to our environment and our lives. Bees pollinate plants, many of which we eat, and this pollination allows plants to produce seeds, which means more crops.
Without pollinators, we could not survive, yet bee populations continue to decline due to pesticide use and climate change. Entomologists like Abby work to aid in the conservation efforts of bees and other pollinators.
Recently, Abby has been finishing up a project at Pinnacles National Park in Central California, studying how the bee community in the park has changed between the 1990s and now. She spent about nine months living at the park, working in the field, hiking, collecting bees and gathering data to determine what resources the bees are relying on in the park.
Now she and the research team have been analyzing this data, and they are hoping to publish the project at the end of this year or early next year. This project will aid the conservation efforts in the park as well as in other natural areas in the future.
Abby was first intrigued by insects in her high school biology class. She was assigned to do an insect collection project. Abby enjoyed being able to identify and learn about each insect, spurring her fascination with entomology.
Entering college, Abby studied biology and began taking classes about plants, conservation and entomology. She had the opportunity to work in a fruit fly laboratory, where she studied the evolution of a particular fruit fly species.
Though evolution was fascinating, Abby was more drawn to working with bees.
For her senior thesis, Abby completed a project about bees in a wildlife preserve in New York. She studied at two different bee communities — one living in a site that had been restored from an invasive plant species and the other living in the native habitat. She found that the restoration was effective, as there were no differences between the two bee communities.
What Abby loves most about her job is seeing the diversity of bees that exist on earth.
“Bees come in every color of the rainbow,” Abby says. “They nest in all sorts of materials. They have really cool behaviors that I had no idea about before becoming an entomologist and working with bees myself. Some are parasites, some are solitary [and] some nest in old snail shells. Every day I still feel like I’m learning things about them, which I love.”
If there is one thing to know from an entomologist herself, it is that a majority of insects are either harmless or beneficial for the earth. They do many good things for us that we may not even know about.
“Without insects, we wouldn’t have a lot of the food we eat,” Abby says. “We wouldn’t have clean water to drink. They are helping to maintain floral communities by being pollinators, which is really necessary for our lives.”
When Abby is not spending time with the bees, she is a science communicator speaking at virtual and in-person events to educate people about entomology.
She has given lectures to students ranging from kindergarteners to high schoolers about how to become an entomologist and what she does in her career. She also speaks about her own research and the diversity of bees.
Abby started posting on Instagram and TikTok under the name @entomologyabby as a hobby during the COVID-19 lockdown. She wanted to share her passion for science with others, and her videos began to gain traction.
She has stuck with it, gaining popularity and even receiving a sponsorship from John and Hank Green, well-known vloggers and entrepreneurs who run an educational media company.
Abby now has 42,300 followers on TikTok and a growing 5,000 followers on Instagram.
In Abby’s opinion, more scientists should become science communicators because science is often inaccessible to the average person. Most research is not freely available to the public, as scientific journal articles are often behind paywalls.
It is important for Abby to make scientific information available to people and communicate it in a way that anybody can understand, even if they are not well-versed in science.
“What’s the point of doing the science if nobody’s going to know about it?” Abby says.
Being a voice for women in STEM is another reason why Abby speaks out online. She wants to show people that “not every entomologist is an old white man,” she says.
Being a woman in STEM has its struggles. Entomology, like many other scientific fields, is male-dominated.
“In government positions, something like 80% of these positions are held by men even though 50% of entomology PhD and master’s candidates have been women in the last five to 10 years,” Abby says.
Abby hopes that she can help create a better environment for entomology students, especially women. This hope and her love for bees helps keep her going.
Abby will be working on her PhD for the next four or five years, and after she finishes, she would love to do a postdoctoral fellowship — guided research with a professor.
She will continue with her science communication work and educating others about entomology. She adores teaching and is thinking about becoming an entomology professor in the future. Abby also hopes to start a family one day with her husband.
“You’re not going to have a fulfilled life if you’re doing something because someone else told you to,” Abby says. “You should do things in your life for you.”
To Abby, “she can be both” reveals the multiple layers we all have.
“‘She can be both’ means a lot to me because I’m not a one-dimensional person,” Abby says. “Being a scientist isn’t the only part of my life. I love theater and makeup. I have sisters and a family who I adore. I love to go hiking. There are lots of other activities and aspects in my life that are important and what make me me.”