May Berenbaum

May Berenbaum and Barack Obama

2015 John P. McGovern Science and Society Award

Described in a 1997 article in The New York Times as “the most relentless creative insect advocate in the world,” May Berenbaum is the 2015 Sigma Xi John P. McGovern Science and Society Award recipient.

May Berenbaum grew up in the metropolitan Northeast, initially in Levittown, Pennsylvania, and subsequently in Williamsville, New York, and Summit, New Jersey. She graduated summa cum laude, with a B.S. degree and honors in biology, from Yale University in 1975 and a Ph.D. in ecology and evolutionary biology in 1980 from Cornell University. Since 1980, she has been a member of the faculty of the Department of Entomology at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, serving as head of the department since 1992 and as Swanlund Chair of Entomology since 1996.

Dr. Berenbaum is known for her contributions to the field of chemical ecology, particularly in elucidating the chemical mediation of interactions between plant-feeding insects and their hostplants, including detoxification of natural and synthetic chemicals. She is interested in the practical application of ecological and evolutionary principles toward developing sustainable management practices for natural and managed ecosystems. A member of the National Academy of Sciences, she has chaired the National Research Council Board on Agriculture and Natural Resources as well as two NRC committees, including the Committee on the Status of Pollinators in North America and has testified before Congress on issues relating to honey bee health and pollinator decline.

Among her accolades is election as a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and a member of the American Philosophical Society. In addition to research, she is devoted to teaching and fostering scientific literacy; she is the recipient of the 2006 Entomological Society of America Distinguished Teaching Award and has authored numerous magazine articles, as well as six books, about insects for the general public. She has gained some fame as the founder of the UIUC Insect Fear Film Festival, a celebration of Hollywood’s entomological excesses, now entering its 32nd year. With UIUC colleagues, she created the citizen science Beespotter project as well as the UI Pollinatarium, the first free-standing science center devoted to pollinators in the U.S.

In 2014, she was awarded the National Medal of Science, cited for “pioneering studies on chemical coevolution and the genetic basis of insect-plant interactions, and for enthusiastic commitment to public engagement that inspires others about the wonders of science.”

Photo: May Berenbaum accepts her National Medal of Science from President Barack Obama. 

Watch Sigma Xi's Google Hangout with May Berenbaum

Topics of this recorded interview include:

  • Her opinion on the first national strategy to help pollinators (1:17)
  • A description of what the world would look like if we run out of pollinators (7:30)
  • Her research into how honeybees metabolize toxins in their environment (9:09)
  • Her investigations into how the navel organgeworm can feed on an extraordinarily high number of host plants (16:31)
  • Her insight into what causes the Insect Fear Film Festival to be popular (22:48)
  • How a character on The X-Files was named after her (24:28)
  • How a cockroach species was named after her (27:42)
  • Her reaction to receiving the National Medal of Science (30:14)