It’s a bird! It’s a plane! It’s a … giant flying beetle? This summer’s blockbusters might be all about superheroes but let’s not forget one of the original hallmarks of science-fiction films: insects. Entomologist and Exchange consultant May Berenbaum knows all about insects’ cinematic achievements. Each year, she organizes the Insect Fear Film Festival at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, which highlights the best of Hollywood’s creepy crawlers. We caught up with Berenbaum to ask her a few questions about the festival, plus where bedbugs belong in cinema and what she would like to say to the next generation of scientists and filmmakers.

Tell us about your background. What inspired you to become an entomologist?

Actually, as a kid I loved nature, but I was profoundly entomophobic. I knew from an early age that I wanted to be a biologist, but the idea of becoming an entomologist did not occur to me until second semester of my freshman year at Yale, when, because I placed out of introductory biology with AP credit, I ended up in an entomology course that fit my schedule. I found insects to be so fascinating that I basically forgot to be afraid. 

Were there any films or television shows that sparked your interest in science?

I'm old enough that during my childhood there wasn’t much on television that was science friendly (aside from the occasional episode of Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom or Disney True-life Adventures, like Charlie the Lonesome Cougar). I confess that I was a big fan of Mister Ed (like a lot of preteen girls, I really liked horses) and still kind of wish that animals could talk. Another show I liked was The People’s Choice, which was narrated by a basset hound. 

A character in the TV series The X-Files, Dr. Bambi Berenbaum, was named after you. What did you think of the character?

Dr. Bambi Berenbaum rocks! How could anyone not admire her? Not only was she knowledgeable (Darrin Morgan, the scriptwriter, had consulted some of the books I'd written for background), but she was a total babe! No stereotypical thick glasses, frizzy hair, and mismatched clothing, which I think is great (even though the stereotype really does fit the namesake a little too well).

You’re famous for holding an annual Insect Fear Film Festival. What inspired you to create the festival?

The Insect Fear Film Festival basically began as an idea that I had as a graduate student in Cornell; upon reading a poster advertising a Godzilla festival, sponsored by the campus Asian-American Society, I thought a similar event, featuring insect fear films (a term I borrowed from my film buff brother), might be both fun and educational. When I pitched the idea to the head of the entomology department, he almost instantly vetoed the idea, fearing that such an event would be too undignified. He countered with a plan to host a series of documentary films about insects, but that wasn't really what I had in mind, so the idea more or less was shelved for a while. After a year as an assistant professor at Illinois, however, I worked up the courage to approach then-head Stanley Friedman with the same pitch. This time, the idea was enthusiastically embraced; Stanley thought it was such a good idea that he suggested charging admission in the hopes of getting another TA [teaching assistant] line out of it. The rest of the faculty and the graduate students embraced the idea as well. Campus regulations being what they were at the time, we stuck with the plan for a free event, sponsored in part by the Student Government Association; open not only to the university community but to the public at large. And now we’re planning for our 29th festival in February 2012.

You wrote a wonderful op-ed piece for the New York Times last year about bedbugs. How long do you think it will be before someone incorporates this latest plague into a storyline in a movie or TV show?

I’m sure it won’t be too long. Actually, my daughter, who is a sophomore at the University of Chicago, already worked bedbugs into a play she wrote this quarter for a drama class.

You’ve spent a lot of time promoting public understanding of science and have received several awards for your efforts. How can the science community be encouraged to play a larger role in fostering public understanding of science?

I think there have never been more mechanisms available for interacting with the public today – beyond traditional in-person visits to classrooms, service organizations, garden groups, herb societies, medical societies, girl scout and boy scout troops, nature and science centers, senior centers, nature centers, and museums, and beyond traditional media contributions to radio, television, books, magazines, and newspapers, there are digital meeting grounds (Facebook, Twitter, message boards, discussion groups, YouTube, and probably a few more that were launched since I started writing this response). I can’t imagine why anyone would be interested in my (lame) Twitter feed. I tweet intermittently about insects in the news but somehow I’ve acquired 200 followers.

What’s your favorite example of insects in television or film, and why?

My personal favorite insect fear film is Beginning of the End, a Bert I. Gordon film from 1957 that features radiation-induced rampaging oversize locusts who flatten Paxton, Illinois, on their way to Chicago and who ultimately, after scaling the Wrigley Building and marching down the Magnificent Mile, end up (spoiler alert) drowning in Lake Michigan. In addition to deathless dialogue and spectacularly unconvincing special effects, there’s the added attraction of local color – the action begins with the Champaign-Urbana police calling Rantoul, Illinois and there are some memorable shots of central Illinois with mountains looming in the background. Bert I. Gordon, by the way, was known as Mr. BIG not only because of his initials but also because, of his 20-some films, at least 10 involved oversized creatures of one species or other.

What characteristics do scientists and filmmakers share?

Good scientists and good filmmakers are all storytellers. Admittedly, scientists tend to tell their stories to a much smaller audience in a rather formulaic manner using for the most part rather arcane vocabulary but telling a story compellingly is an absolutely essential component of convincing reviewers to accept a manuscript for publication or grant panelists to fund a proposal. For that matter, storytelling is an important component in teaching science as well. The nice thing about being an entomologist is that there are at least a million characters to choose from!

Thinking of the next generation of filmmakers and scientists – what message would you like to share with them?

It would be nice if the next generation of filmmakers could give the “evil scientist” stock character a rest for a while. Really, when was the last time a scientist tried to take over the world in real life? Science as a profession does not really attract that many megalomaniacs. 

As for the scientists, it would be nice if the next generation of scientists could make an effort to embrace popular media with a little more enthusiasm. It is hard to reach out to television writers and producers if you cannot name a single program in any network’s primetime line-up (and take some sort of perverse pride in that ignorance).

Read more Scientist Spotlight interviews here.