Job involves reaching out with a lot of exotic insects
By Kevin Miller
Catherine Terrell has thought a lot about the dream job she has at Purdue. Sometimes, her work involves managing a terrarium full of Madagascar hissing cockroaches and showing someone the proper way to handle a tarantula.
“It’s thrilling for me when I see the look on a child’s face as they interact with exotic insects for the first time,” said Terrell, a sophomore entomology major from Orestes, Indiana. “It’s absolutely priceless and the opportunity to educate them is rewarding.”
Terrell works in the Boiler Bug Barn, which is a room that houses a robust variety of insects. The Boiler Bug Barn has a long tradition of public insect education — the outreach Terrell loves. She also works for the Purdue Entomological Research Collection (PERC), the largest comprehensive insect collection in the state.
One facet of Terrell’s outreach is coaxing people to overcome their innate fear of big furry spiders — something Terrell described as chaos in the best way possible.
“There is anticipation building for the one person in the room who has chosen to hold the tarantula,” Terrell said. “It’s so powerful that everyone goes quiet and once it’s on the person’s hand everyone else is filled with wonder and happiness.”
When the person returns the spider to her, Terrell said everyone in the small room seems to collectively release their tension. It’s a process Terrell has come to enjoy.
Events like the annual Bug Bowl at Purdue Spring Fest provide an opportunity for the Bug Barn staff to showcase their hard work. Caretakers like Terrell spend months feeding and caring for the unique needs of several different insect species in preparation. Over the course of a weekend, thousands of children will visit campus to participate in educational activities such as an insect petting zoo, insect face painting, insect cuisine, and even a cricket spitting contest.
“It’s a really fun weekend,” Terrell said. “Giving kids a reason to like bugs is my favorite aspect of the work I do.”
In addition to caring for insects and educating children, Terrell has also worked with researchers to preserve insects in the research collection.
“Hundreds of years of collecting were sitting behind me,” she said. “The amount of work and history in the room with me every day was heartbreaking knowing very few people are aware of the existence of PERC. These amazing specimens sit in cabinets for years on end.”
Entomology, she said, lets her connect to others, but she feels the community has connected with her, too. Her work with PERC helped her develop a lasting bond with the entomology community.
“All of the professors I’ve had really care about learning and not just tests,” she said. “It really helps you see the value in teaching others.”
Joining that community is just as important as the learning opportunities, she said. The community has a long-standing tradition that reaches back to those who preceded her.
“There was such a freedom and I appreciated it so much,” Terrell said. “Working with fragile specimens, working in an actual lab, and knowing I got to help with a big project that will help entomologists for who knows how long. . . . It honestly blows my mind how complicated entomology really is.”