Entomology professor receives National Medal of Science


May Berenbaum

By Estefania Florez

Professor May Berenbaum, department head of Entomology, was awarded the National Medal of Science, the nation’s highest honor for achievement and leadership, for her research with insect-plant interaction.

This award, which is administered by the National Science Foundation, was established in 1959 as a Presidential Award given to recognize individuals who advance the fields of science and technology by contributing outstanding knowledge in the physical, biological, mathematical or engineering fields of science.

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Berenbaum has been a faculty member for the Department of Entomology since 1980, serving as a department head since 1992 and as Swanlund Chair of Entomology since 1996. 

Notably, she has taught two graduate classes in entomology, Insect Ecology and Chemical Ecology. Currently, she teaches a general education course called Insects and People. She received her undergraduate degree from Yale and received her graduate degree from Cornell University.

In 1980, Berenbaum came to the University and began her research with plants and insects. She believes that coming to work at the University was one of the best decisions she’s made.

“Nothing beats this place in terms of collaboration, collegiality and expertise,” she said.

Berenbaum believes her research, which studies the chemical mechanisms underlying interactions between insects and their host plants, has made a great impact not only for the campus, but for many others. 

“I didn’t set out to study insects of national importance, but as it turns out, insects, especially plant-fed insects, ended up being connected to any environmental crisis you can think of because they’re everywhere,” said Berenbaum. “My interest in insect-plant interactions has led me into work of global climate change, effects of elevated carbon dioxide, stratospheric ozone depletion and genetically modified crops, among others.” 

She has written over six books about insects for the public and founded the Insect Fear Film Festival, which is now in its 32nd year.

“I want to help people understand why insects are important; understanding their biology is really the best way to share the planet with them,” said Berenbaum. 

Her current work focuses on honeybees, specifically regarding how they process pesticides and how the food that honeybees eat regulates every aspect of their life. 

“Thirty four years ago, I couldn’t have told you, ‘yes I will be studying pesticide metabolism by honeybees at the molecular level’ — and here I am today,” Berenbaum said.

Mami Randrianandrasana, graduate student and teacher’s assistant, has worked for Berenbaum since 2008. She said Berenbaum has helped her tremendously with her research in the conservation of forests in Madagascar, where she received a degree in entomology. 

“She is very helpful, and whenever you talk with her about a problem with your research, she always has solutions,” Randrianandrasana said. “She has a lot of knowledge and is very inspirational.”

Berenbaum said she is delighted to have won the National Medal of Science, which will be presented to her sometime in November, but she said shares her achievement with the University. 

“I won’t say it takes a village, it takes a university … it’s a great environment here, resources, wonderful colleagues,” Berenbaum said. “I can’t imagine having done better anywhere else, and I’m so grateful for that and I hope to stay here and be helpful to other people.”

Estefania can be reached at [email protected]