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Insect Ambassadors

a tarantula in an enclosure
The Entomology Graduate Student Association brings tarantulas and other critters to outreach events, including NC State's Packapalooza™.

Most people shy away from bugs, especially big ones. And those that make noise.

But Zachary Everson and Elizabeth Wiles aren’t afraid of bugs. In fact, they might say they’re obsessed with bugs. Everson and Wiles are doctoral students studying entomology —  the study of insects — in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. They’re also the outreach coordinators for the Entomology Graduate Student Association (EGSA).

Volunteers with the EGSA visit museums, schools and events, including Packpalooza and the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences’ BugFest, to talk about the importance of bugs, and give people a safe opportunity to conquer their fears of the creepy crawly organisms. The group’s outreach stars include a foot-long giant centipede named Captain Crunch, hissing cockroaches and tarantulas.

students smiling while volunteering
The EGSA attended the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences’ Bugfest in September.

“I think most people’s favorite is the hissing cockroaches because they can hold them,” Everson says. “They’re so slow and calm, and they make a unique hissing sound that either scares or intrigues people.”

Everson takes care of the bugs and coordinates their travel logistics, and Wiles plans the outreach events and schedules volunteers. The group is supported by Alumni Distinguished Undergraduate Professor Clyde Sorenson. Everson and Wiles are working to expand the opportunity to undergraduate students with help from Terri Billeisen, director of undergraduate programs.

Everson, a native of Cary, North Carolina, has known he wanted to work with bugs and outreach ever since his dad, who earned a master’s in entomology from North Carolina State University, brought bugs to his elementary school when he was a child.

someone holding a millipede at an outreach event
A volunteer holding a millipede at Packapalooza.

“As soon as I learned that a graduate student is allowed to run those events and take care of those bugs, I was like, ‘That’s going to be me.’ I just want people to feel as happy about stuff like that as I feel,” Everson shares.

Everson earned bachelor’s degrees in plant biology and biology with a minor in entomology from NC State in the spring of 2021 and started his doctoral degree soon after.

“It makes me happy to see kids learning about something that they never thought was possible.”

Wiles didn’t have experience with bugs during her childhood. She grew up in Princeton, North Carolina, and she first worked with bugs during her undergraduate research at Campbell University. Wiles earned bachelor’s degrees in biology and environmental science in 2022.

“Where I grew up, I didn’t have a lot of exposure to this kind of science,” she says. “It’s important to me to reach people who don’t have as many educational opportunities. It makes me happy to see kids learning about something that they never thought was possible.”

In addition to teaching people about bugs, Everson and Wiles promote NC State as a great place to study entomology.

volunteers talking to the public about bugs at a museum
Volunteers talking to visitors at BugFest.

“It’s a good opportunity for us to talk to the public about our graduate program or to talk about NC State if somebody is trying to find a college where they can work with insects and science in general,” Everson says.

While sharing facts about insects and NC State, EGSA volunteers also get to improve their communication skills.

“It benefits grad students because they get to improve their science communication skills by talking to all members of the public, not just other scientists,” Wiles says.

Everson adds, “It helps us as scientists. Being able to interact with the public is one of the most important things that we’ll ever have to do.”