Eight-year-old Sophia Spencer loves bugs. She loves to pick them up and hold them, read about them, and study them. She even likes to let them crawl up and down her arm. At home, her mom thought her love of bugs was amazing. But at school, Sophia was bullied for it. So her mom reached out to entomologists for help, and they responded in droves. Now Sophia has friends from all over the world who encourage her passion. And she even has a byline in a scientific paper detailing her story.
It was just over a year ago that Nicole Spencer, Sophia's mom, sent an email to the Entomological Society of Canada asking for help for her daughter. At school, kids called Sophia "weird" and "strange" for her love of bugs, and Nicole could see that her daughter was becoming more withdrawn and confused because of it. In her email, she asked for the help of a professional entomologist who could talk to her on the phone or maybe even become a penpal with Sophia to guide her in her studies and assure her that she was neither weird nor strange for loving bugs.
The email came across the desk of Morgan Jackson, a a PhD candidate at the University of Guelph who is also the social media volunteer for the entomological society. Jackson posted Nicole's letter online, hoping to find a few members of the community who would be interested in supporting Sophia. He included the hashtag #BugsR4Girls in his post.
Jackson's post received more than 1,000 replies and more than 130 direct messages, all with notes of encouragement for Sophia and many with offers to send equipment, supplies, and knowledge to help guide her on her journey.
Sophia's story — and the viral response to Jackson's post — quickly became an example of social media done right, and how social media engagement can help build up not just one girl, but an entire professional community. As such, Jackson was asked to write a paper that would be published in the Annals of the Entomological Society of America detailing his efforts to support Sophia. He decided it was only natural to include a first-person account of the story from Sophia, and that's how shebecame the co-author of a paper published in a scientific journal.
"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," said Jackson in the paper.
But the really good news is that according to Nicole, Sophia is back to being her normal confident, happy, bug-loving self. Sophia explains why in her portion of the paper:
"After my mom sent the message and showed me all the responses, I was happy. 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."