Career Q&A: Entomologists Melissa Sanchez Herrera & Akito Kawahara

By Melanie Gasmen-Fleck
Ever dream of becoming an entomologist, a scientist who studies insects? We chatted with two entomologists who gave us the scoop on what it’s like to study different insects as a career. Let’s learn more about their work!


Melissa Sanchez Herrera is an entomologist originally from Bogotá, Colombia. She moved to New York City to follow her dream and get her doctorate degree in biology. Melissa then moved back to her hometown in South America to teach other scientists and do important insect research. 


What type of entomology work do you do? 

Since I became an entomologist, most of my work focuses on understanding the diversity of dragonflies and damselflies across the world. To do this, I look at their genes! I am using molecular biology and DNA to figure out why insects are living in one place and not in another, why they are so colorful, and why they behave the way they do.


How did you know you wanted to be an entomologist? 

I’ve wanted to study insects since I was six years old! During the rainy season in Bogotá, beetles are everywhere. Sometimes they get stuck upside down. They wiggle around and try to get upright so they can fly away. I always tried to help as many as I could by picking them up off the ground.  


What subjects should you study to become an entomologist?

I recommend that you get into math, physics, and chemistry to start. But I think all classes you take, even the ones that you might not like as much, are important for whatever career you want to pursue. 


What does a typical day in the life of an entomologist look like?

It depends on the season. During the dry season, I travel. I find and collect bugs in exotic places, like cloud forests or savannas. During the rainy season, I am in the lab identifying the insects that I collected on my field trips or doing molecular biology experiments to extract their DNA. Otherwise, I am writing up what I have learned on my expeditions and preparing my classes to excite young students about bugs. 


What is your favorite thing about being an entomologist?

The tiny world of insects always brings me to a place of amusement and curiosity.


What is your favorite insect?

Damselflies are my love and go-to insects. My favorite insect in the US is the ebony jewelwing damselfly. My favorite insect in the tropics is the helicopter damselfly—it can have a wingspan of up to seven to nine inches! 


What is something you want kids to know about the world of insects?

They are amazing! Isn’t it incredible that ants can carry almost 50 times their weight? That a bee and a butterfly can perceive more colors than humans? That flies can flap their wings more than 200 times in one second? That there are dragonflies that can migrate like monarch butterflies and birds? I mean, amazing!


What can kids do now if they’re interested in becoming an entomologist?

If you are interested in entomology, go out and explore! Don’t be afraid to move a rock from the ground outside or from a river bed. Try making your own insect net, creating your own collecting envelopes, and learning how to safely spread and pin insects so that your collection can last forever! Practice observation and pay attention to how insects move and behave. 


Who is someone you’re inspired by?

I have been inspired by many mentors over my life. As a child, my biggest inspirations were my teachers and documentaries. Now, I admire and respect my advisor and dearest friend, Dr. Jessica L. Ware. She is a curator of invertebrate zoology at the American Museum of Natural History. Her passion and strength have shown me that every dream can be possible in the tiny world of insects.


What is something brave you’ve done?

I left my home country to follow my dreams! Then I felt brave when I moved back to Colombia to help students follow theirs.


What does being brave mean to you?

Taking a leap of faith into the unknown despite all your fears.

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Akito Kawahara is a professor of entomology from Florida. He received his doctorate from the University of Maryland. He teaches university students and other scientists about insects, and does important insect research out in nature.


What type of entomology work do you do? 

I study the history of insects. There are more than five million insect species on Earth (the most of all animal groups) and we don’t know much about how they became the way they are. Insects are important to how we live—most of our food in our grocery stores would not be there if it weren’t for insects! Did you know that if it weren’t for a fly, chocolate wouldn’t exist?


How did you know you wanted to be an entomologist?

My dad. He got me interested in insects when I was young. I started just looking at insects. They are so cool! Some of them have amazing vision (dragonflies can see nearly 360 degrees), and some insects fly faster than rockets! They are beautiful and interesting to me. 


What does a typical day in the life of an entomologist look like?

I work at a university and run a lab. Sometimes we do fieldwork. I go to the tropical jungles often. It is an amazing experience. It’s beautiful, untouched, and extraordinary! We once flew across the Amazon jungle in a helicopter. It was incredible!


What is your favorite thing about being an entomologist?

It’s the discovery. Every day we discover something new. Did you know that luna moths spin their tails so bats won’t eat them? Bats use echolocation to find insects. The luna moth fools bats by spinning its tail like a propeller so the bats think that the food is actually behind the moth, not the moth itself. 


What is your favorite insect?

Moths. I think they are so cool. There are over 160,000 species on Earth. They pollinate, provide silks for our clothes, and can even eat plastic and remove plastics from our oceans. Butterflies are moths, by the way! We now know this from genetics research.


What is something you want kids to know about insects?

Love them. Many people think they are gross, but they’re not. Most insects cannot harm you. There are actually more plants that can harm you than insects that can. Also, there are thought to be 10,000,000,000,000,000,000 (10 quintillion) insects on Earth right now! We live in a world of insects.


What is something brave you’ve done?

When I was a child, I wanted to find a blue morpho butterfly. After graduating from college, I went to Costa Rica to find one. I stayed there for three months for a chance to see it! 


What does being brave mean to you?

Doing something that is outside your comfort zone.