Professor engages

by Erin Ghere

Most professions don’t include the warning: “Wild predatory cats may attack during research.”
Susan Weller’s should have.
Weller, an assistant professor of entomology and a curator at the Bell Museum of Natural History, and her study of moth evolution are the focus of one of the museum’s feature exhibits designed for children, called “MORPHIN!”
It was on one of three research trips to Ecuador that Weller had an experience with the ferocious feline, possibly a bobcat.
“It was a moonlit night and I was walking down a road when I heard a growl,” she said. “I looked up and there it was in the tree, and it was not happy that I was there. I just started backing up. I walked backwards all the way to the farmhouse.”
She decided to quit working for the night.
Because caterpillars feed under the cover of darkness, Weller runs into many nocturnal prowlers.
For Weller, snakes are a common foe while researching moths in Ecuador. They crawl nearby on the jungle floor as she searches for her subjects.
And even dealing with the moths themselves is not always blissful.
“Once I accidentally touched a (poisonous) silk moth and my whole hand swelled up,” she said. “It was very painful.”
During a four- to eight-week period, Weller and her colleagues study the insects in their feeding environment, from egg to moth stage.
Through her work, she has also travelled to Mexico and Australia.
Weller held fellowships in England and at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C.
Specializing in the evolution of moths, Weller studies the molecular and structural changes of the insects over their lives and from generation to generation.
It sounds complicated, she said, so it has to be broken down for the children’s exhibit at the museum.
“It’s hard for kids to think in abstracts,” she said.
So the exhibit highlights basic genetic differences in the children to show them how genes and gene mutations effect change — with things like eye color, hair color and the ability to roll one’s tongue.
The exhibit began when the National Science Foundation awarded Weller and Kevin Williams, the curator of education at the museum, a grant for informal science education.
To develop it, a University course was offered to undergraduates on museum exhibits. The class, offered in winter quarter 1997, created and built the exhibit.
They did not do it alone. Working with high school students, faculty, museum professionals and Minneapolis elementary school teachers, the students designed the final product.
“The exhibit is children’s reflection of what Susan does,” said Nina Shepherd, spokeswoman for the museum.
“(The teamwork) was a very exciting component, because I enjoy teaching and I especially enjoy undergraduates,” Weller said.
Many of the students stayed on the project when the quarter was over to do volunteer work, internships or independent study courses.
The exhibit is designed to draw children to the sciences. Around fifth or sixth grade, elementary students — especially girls — lose interest in the subject, she said.
“The idea of the exhibit was to feature a woman scientist and show that science is fun and done by ordinary people,” Weller said. “I don’t look like I stepped off Mars. I have a family. I have a life.”
The exhibit tries to make science seem human and more approachable, she said.
Filled with bright colors, hands-on experiments and a maroon and gold “Gopher House,” the exhibit is designed to represent the Itasca State Park where Weller does much of her research … when she has the time.
And with two young sons, a husband who teaches ornithology and her University commitments, there isn’t much of it.
“(My husband) does birds, I do bugs. Our neighbors think we’re weird,” she said.
Her family is featured in a video in the “MORPHIN!” exhibit.
The exhibit will be available to the public until November 2000. During the spring of that year, another museum exhibit course will be offered, Weller said.