May Berenbaum Wins 2014 National Medal of Science

May Berenbaum
May Berenbaum, Ph.D. ’80, and Jerrold Meinwald, the Goldwin Smith Professor of Chemistry Emeritus, in the Oval Office after receiving their National Medals of Science from President Barack Obama.
Photo: provided.

May Berenbaum, Ph.D. ’80, is sympathetic to those who fear spiders, beetles and other creepy-crawlies. As a young person, she too fled from the sight of insects. But as an undergraduate biology major at Yale, she discovered one semester that the only course that fit her schedule was on arthropods, and so she dove in.

The scheduling snafu was a happy accident for the rest of us—Berenbaum has become a prolific entomologist, professor and department head at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, and a leading advocate of engaging with the public about insects.

In late 2014, President Barack Obama awarded Berenbaum a National Medal of Science in recognition of both her scholarly work and her “enthusiastic commitment to public engagement that inspires others about the wonders of science.”

“I think one of the reasons I was even considered for the national medal is that I work a lot with public engagement. And that’s in large part because I can totally relate to people who are afraid of insects,” Berenbaum said.

Her public engagement includes six books about insects for laypeople and a yearly “Insect Fear Film Festival” hosted at Urbana-Champaign. The festival showcases Hollywood’s use and misuse of insects in film, interspersed with her own video clips providing scientific education about arthropods.

Berenbaum’s scholarly contributions are also extensive: She has authored over 230 peer-reviewed publications and 35 book chapters, and she was researching honeybees and their interaction with pesticides a decade ago, just as colony collapse disorder devastated hives and the agriculture that depends upon them. 

“There’s really been a sea change in attitude in terms of reevaluating how pesticides are used,” Berenbaum said. “What was called colony collapse disorder still remains a mysterious phenomenon, but we’re definitely better off than we were 10 years ago.”

Berenbaum notes that her National Medal of Science continues a proud Cornell tradition. Since U.S. presidents began awarding the medals in 1962, four Cornellians have received the award for insect-related research: Professors Wendell Roelofs (1983), Tom Eisner (1994), and Jerrold Meinwald (2014), and alumna Berenbaum.