Sophia Spencer hated it when classmates taunted her for her love of insects, but seeing them kill her pet grasshoppers for fun was even worse.
Her first-grade peers couldn’t understand what she found so fascinating about bugs of all sorts or why she’d devote spare time to catching them, reading about them, and generally carrying on like a budding entomologist.
As Sophia listened to schoolyard jeers that called her weird, or was forced to watch as her much-loved bugs were taken from her hands and stepped on for sport, she felt her confidence begin to wane.
Her mother, fearing her child would lose her independent streak, reached out to a national organization of insect researchers in search of a mentor for her daughter. Hundreds of entomologists responded, and now Sophia’s name appears alongside one of them in an international publication devoted to the study of insects.
She is listed as a co-author in a paper published in the Annals of the Entomological Society of America that explores ways social media can be used to engage the scientific community.
The story, held up for scientists as an example of social-media savvy used for the advancement of the profession, is a form of validation for the eight-year-old co-author.
“A lot of the kids saw it, and a lot of the kids knew that if they tried to bully me it won’t really matter because … I won’t really care,” Sophia said in a telephone interview from her home in Sarnia, Ont. “They just realize that I like bugs and I won’t stop.”
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Such confidence seemed impossible for Sophia back in August 2016, according to her mother Nicole Spencer.
Anxious after a year of bullying from schoolmates, the child had become more withdrawn and less inclined to play with insects as she’d done since she was a toddler.
Spencer said she wanted to find a mentor to help bolster her daughter’s flagging confidence and reassure her that her passion for bugs did not have to be a source of shame.
She wrote a letter to the Entomological Society of Canada outlining Sophia’s struggles and soliciting a penpal to help reassure her daughter.
The letter fell into the hands of Morgan Jackson, a PhD student at Guelph University who helped maintain the society’s Twitter account. Moved by the story, he posted a screen shot of Spencer’s letter along with a call for volunteers accompanied by the hashtag #bugsR4Girls.
I'm really proud of this piece, and am thrilled to share the publishing experience with Sophia, who I met & collected bugs with this summer pic.twitter.com/s7SiT7giIl
— Morgan Jackson (@BioInFocus) September 6, 2017
The tweet got an almost instantaneous response. Would-be mentors began messaging their willingness to support Sophia within seven minutes of the tweet going live, according to the paper, and the post itself was shared thousands of times in the following weeks.
The call to action then found its way into newspapers at home and abroad, cementing it in journal editors’ minds as a prime example of social media outreach done right.
When publishers planned a special edition on the issue of communication, Jackson said he was asked to contribute an account of his efforts on Sophia’s behalf. He said it seemed natural to include a section recounting the campaign’s effects written from the perspective of the person it was meant to help in the first place, which is what led to Sophia’s byline on the piece.
“After my mom sent the message and showed me all the responses, I was happy,” reads Sophia’s section in the paper. “I felt like I was famous. Because I was! It felt good to have so many people support me, and it was cool to see other girls and grown-ups studying bugs. It made me feel like I could do it too, and I definitely, definitely, definitely want to study bugs when I grow up, probably grasshoppers.”
The paper concluded that when offered a stage with an audience of a million people, entomologists can use it to make a positive impact.
“By encouraging a young girl’s love for insects and entomology through an outpouring of community support made possible via social media, entomologists and insect enthusiasts not only made a difference in the life of that one girl, but spread their influence and enthusiasm across the globe,” it said.
Jackson said Sophia shows a natural aptitude for science that bodes well for her future as an entomologist.
“She’s literally going through the scientific process and making her own discoveries about insect behaviour in the process of playing with them,” Jackson said. “That really struck me as being something special.”
Sophia said the bullying has tapered off considerably since last year, a fact that’s as much of a relief to her as it is to her mother.
“It’s fantastic for a kid to see that it’s not going to last, that the bullying’s going to stop and she can be who she wants to be,” she said. “That’s all I want for her.”
Michelle McQuigge, The Canadian Press