An Interview with a Budding Scientist

Teach 'em young, they say. Encourage them to learn about insects, spiders and other critters at a young age.

When you first meet Brandon DeGroot, 6, of Vallejo, he'll tell you "I love spiders and snakes" and he'll flash a big smile. 

He's the kind of youngster that arachnologists, including Professor Eileen Hebets of the University of Nebraska and Professor Jason Bond, of the University of California, Davis, welcome to their fold.

Bond, associate dean of the College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences, and the Evert and Marion Schlinger Endowed Chair in Insect Systematics, UC Davis Department of Entomology and Nematology, is chairing the American Arachnological Society's meeting June 26-30 at UC Davis with Lisa Chamberland, postdoctoral research associate, Department of Entomology and Nematology, and Joel Ledford, assistant professor of teaching, Department of Plant Biology, College of Biological Sciences.

An open house, "Eight-Legged Encounters," set from 1 to 4 p.m., Saturday, June 25 at the Bohart Museum of Entomology, will kick off the conference. Hebets is co-hosting it as part of a U.S. National Science Foundation grant, “Eight-Legged Encounters,” that she developed as an outreach project to connect arachnologists with communities, especially youth. It's free, open to the public, and family friendly.  

The open house promises to be one of the biggest events--if not the leggiest!--of the year on the UC Davis campus and beyond. A powerhouse of arachnologists, Bond said, will be at the open house.  “There will be everything--spider specimens, live arachnids, activities, artwork, etc."

Some 20 exhibits and activities will be set up in the hallway of the Academic Surge Building, said Tabatha Yang, the Bohart Museum's education and outreach coordinator. A popular activity at the Bohart is its live petting zoo, comprised of Madagascar hissing cockroaches or "hissers," stick insects and tarantulas. Youths, especially, delight in holding the hissers and stick insects.

Hebets, as a scientist, a mother, and an educator, says she "often sees the disconnect between youth and the world around them; between problem solving skills, observation skills, critical thinking, natural curiosity and the more traditional formal teaching programs experienced by many students. Youth are innately curious and tremendously creative and my aim is to leverage these traits for their own educational advancements in a fun and engaging manner."

But back to Brandon.

"Brandon has always loved spiders, insects and snakes, starting when he was a toddler looking for bugs in our yard," said his mother, Heather DeGroot. "Brandon was always in the dirt, and my other son, Mason, now 8, was always in the grass." Last Tuesday, June 7, while Heather kept busy coordinating the Solano County Fair exhibits at McCormack Hall, in preparation for the June 16-19 fair, Brandon kept busy looking for critters outside. When he'd find one, he'd excitedly announce his treasure, and even more excitedly, show it to all.

So, in between his bug hunts, we thought we'd interview Brandon.

Bug Squad: "What's your name?"

Brandon: "Brandon."

Bug Squad: "How old are you?

Brandon: "I'm six and I go to kindergarten at Vallejo Charter School. I'm almost in the first grade." (He graduated from kindergarten June 9.)

Bug Squad: "Brandon, how long have you loved spiders and snakes?"

Brandon: "A long time."

Bug Squad: "Cool! Why do you love spiders?"

Brandon: "I like the poison and how they eat."

Bug Squad: "What do you want to be when you grow up, Brandon?"

Brandon: "I want to be a scientist about animals. See my snake tattoo on my arm?" (He displayed the washable tattoo that tattoo artist Jason Meyers of Concord created just for him.)

Bug Squad: "Fantastic! What makes you happy?"

Brandon: "Looking for snakes and spiders. Spiders eat flies and some of them make a circle (web). Some of them jump. I've held a snake at my friend's house."

Bug Squad: "Does your brother Mason like snakes and spiders?"

Brandon: "No, he only likes BMX." (Mason will be competing as part of Team USA at a BMX competition in Nance, France in July. The entire family will be there to support him.) 

Bug Squad: "Why doesn't Mason like spiders and snakes?"

Brandon: "He doesn't want to get hurt by them."

Bug Squad: "Do you like bees?"

Brandon: "I like bees. They pollinate the flowers and make them change colors. I like ladybugs and I like letting them crawl on me. I like walking sticks. I saw them on YouTube and they look just like sticks."

Bug Squad: "Do you like ants?"

Brandon: "I like ants but I don't like fire ants." (He sees fire ants on family trips to Houston, Texas.)

Bug Squad: "Do you like butterflies?"

Brandon: "I like them because of their colors."

Bug Squad: "Do you like dragonflies?"

Brandon: "I like how fast they fly and they nibbled on my family at the Yuba River but they didn't nibble on me."

Bug Squad: "Brandon, do you like sports or play sports?"

Brandon: "I played basketball and I'm going to learn to play tennis."

Bug Squad: "Do you like girls?"

Brandon (raising his eyebrows): "No, I like dogs." 

Bug Squad: "Do you have a dog?"

Brandon: "No."

Bug Squad: What's your favorite food?"

Brandon: "Strawberries and chocolate."

And with that, he opened his lunch box, picked out a strawberry, and shared it with a bug that he had just collected in the McCormack Hall gardens.

"Here you go," Brandon told the bug, later identified by Lynn Kimsey, director of the Bohart Museum of Entomology, UC Davis, as an aphid. "I'm feeding you so you won't get hungry."