Drexel University environmental science graduate Jackie Garcia had the opportunity to pursue an independent study during her senior year. She chose Academy scientist and Drexel professor Jon Gelhaus as her mentor. Together, the two set out to explore the complex field of forensic entomology. We talked with Garcia about learning a new field during an independent study, sharing her work with the public at Bug Fest and inspiring one high school student to pursue her own work in the field.
ANS: In your own words, what exactly is forensic entomology?
JG: Forensic entomology is the study of how insects and other arthropods are used in legal investigations. There are three types of forensic entomology: 1) medicolegal or medicocriminal, in which necrophagous insects assist in crime scene analysis; 2) urban, in which insects are studied in the context of human environment (such as pest infestations); and 3) stored product, in which insects are monitored in relation to edible food resources.
ANS: How did you become interested in forensic entomology?
JG: Interests in forensic entomology usually stem from its glamorous portrayal in popular TV shows like NBC’s Law and Order or even movies like Demme’s (1991) The Silence of the Lambs. While these are on my favorites list, my interest in forensic entomology actually grew from a number of separate passions of mine.
As an environmental science major, I quickly learned how fascinating and useful insects can be. Growing up with parents working in the medical and legal fields, my interest in forensics and anatomy has always been present. Over time, from personal research, I realized that I could wrap all of these interests up and study them at once with forensic entomology.
ANS: How did Academy scientist and Drexel professor Jon Gelhaus help you broaden your knowledge of this field?
JG: Because I was a combined BS/MS student in the BEES department, I spent most of my time at Drexel taking the maximum credit load. During senior year, I finally had the opportunity to pursue a free credit, but was in a unique position where no graduate classes were available to me as I had completed the ones running during Summer term. I quickly grabbed this opportunity to complete an independent study and I could think of no one more equipped to mentor me than Dr. Gelhaus.
From previous classes with him, I knew that he not only was an expert in entomology, but also patient, inquisitive and still an active learner himself. I had worked with Dr. Gelhaus in the past to write a paper for the honors program on the conservation of Monarch butterflies, so I knew his teaching approach fit my learning process. While Dr. Gelhaus informed me that he did not know much on forensic entomology, he still graciously accepted my proposal. Together, we settled on resources from which we both read and learned. Dr. Gelhaus was able to fill in any gaps I had in the field of general entomology, while what we read filled in the details of forensics. He guided me through my own field research project, research paper, and of course, encouraged me to attend Bug Fest.
ANS: What happened when you presented your research at Bug Fest (the Academy’s annual celebration of insects)? I hear you met a high school student at Bug Fest, and you later worked together on another project on this topic.
JG: At Bug Fest 2017, I held a small table with pinned specimens, carrion traps and specimens. To my surprise and delight, the table got a lot of attention from all age groups. The high school student was sent my way by Dr. Gelhaus. She did not have any previous experience in forensic entomology, but she had a general interest in entomology and was looking for ideas for her own science fair projects. She took an immediate liking to my table topic and seemed enthused about the project I had done. I happily spoke with her and gave her my contact information, should she have any questions on where to start.
During the next several months and into the new year (up to present), I have kept in contact with her via email and phone. With the information, resources and advice I’ve sent her, she has been successful in recreating my experiment and has won first and second place thus far in science competitions. I am extremely proud of her!
ANS: What sort of career might you have as a forensic entomologist? Do you intend to pursue this field now that you’ve graduated? If not, what are your plans?
JG: Forensic entomology is not really a career title in the USA just yet, where its study is a rather new field in comparison to countries such as the UK or Ireland. There are many entomologists who consult with forensic scientists, however. This knowledge is also studied by crime scene analysts, law enforcement officers, medical examiners and pathologists.
So far, I have been a student of forensic entomology. Beyond my independent study, I am self-guided through literature and backyard science. At the moment, I am changing career paths from environmental science to the medical field. I was accepted to the National University of Ireland, Galway medical school! I hope to tie in my passions for forensics and entomology as they apply to health.
ANS: Is there anything else you’d like to share with our readers?
JG: I would like to encourage all students to attend and participate in Bug Fest, whether their interest for entomology is casual or a passion. Holding a table gave me the opportunity to put a spotlight on a rather obscure topic and share my excitement for learning with others. I was able to interact with people who were just as awed by forensic entomology as me and change the minds of people who seemed wary of how bugs tell us about murders. It was a greatly rewarding experience. I left Bug Fest and went on to write a presentation on Medicocriminal Entomology for the City of Philadelphia Department of Public Health, mentor a student whose was inspired by me enough to continue where I left off and a sense that I truly triggered the academic curiosity of many.
Save the date! Bug Fest returns on August 11-12, 2018! This year’s event will coincide with our special exhibit, Xtreme Bugs! Starting May 26, you can come face-to-feet with nearly 20 massive, colorful, moving bugs! From a fluttering oversized monarch butterfly and a fluffy tri-colored bumblebee to a gigantic Madagascar hissing cockroach and a blood-sucking bed bug, these towering animatronics tell a rarely seen story of the behaviors and intricacies of extreme bugs. Get a bug’s-eye view of the world, explore critter calls, dig for ancient arthropods and play an Xtreme bug facts game! Tickets are now on sale for this buggy exhibit!
~Mary Alice Hartsock