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MS Comm Alum Wins Fulbright and National Geographic Grants

Drexel MS Communication alumna Isa Betancourt ’19


May 5, 2020

Insects have a PR problem, says MS communication alumna Isa Betancourt ’19. The author of the book “Backyard Bugs of Philadelphia” and the face of social media initiatives like The Bugscope live broadcast on Periscope, Betancourt has spread insect appreciation with help from her role as Curatorial Assistant of Entomology at the Academy of Natural Sciences of Drexel University.

Her mission will soon take on an international component as she embarks on a 10-month Fulbright Study/Research grant to Indonesia, funded by the U.S. Department of State. Betancourt was also granted a supplemental Fulbright-National Geographic Storytelling Fellowship — one of just five students nationally chosen from a pool of over 230 applicants — and will receive media and storytelling training from National Geographic staff. We caught up with her to find out more about her plans for the grant.

You have a unique combination of skills at the intersections of science and communication. Can you tell us a bit about your professional/academic background?

I studied entomology and plant science at Cornell for my bachelor's degree, and since graduating, I have been working at the Academy of Natural Sciences in the Entomology Department. I took one break from working here in 2015, when I went to collect data on wild orangutans as a research assistant with a Rutgers Primatology lab, followed by an internship at the Entomology Collection at Penn State University.

I first connected with the Entomology Department at the Academy when I was a senior in high school! I chose to make an insect collection for my senior project and reached out for mentorship.

You received your MS in Communication from Drexel, but you’ve been part of the Drexel CoAS family for a long time! What led you to pursue the MS?

On top of being fascinated with bugs, growing up I was intrigued by the prevalence of a negative attitude toward insects in our society. It makes sense, because there are pest insects that eat our clothes, raid our beds and pantries, bite and sting. However, these pest species are dwarfed by hundreds of thousands of non-pest species. Insects serve critical roles in pollination and nutrient cycling. They are important members of the food chain. They eat plants and are food for birds, lizards and mammals (including people). They are even helpful in solving crime. There is a whole field of forensic entomology. I can go on and on about their importance in the environment.

It is easy to forget that bugs are overall good and necessary for a functional local and global environment. I decided to pursue the MS in Communication to develop my skillset so that I may be a more effective Bug Ambassador. I am on a mission to help insects with their PR. I want to influence people's perspectives, attitudes and behaviors toward insects.

Can you share a lesser known fact about insects?

As mentioned above, they play so many roles in the environment that are both known and unknown. They are diverse and beautiful, with all sorts of textures, structures, patterns and colors. Their natural history — the way they live their lives — vary from simple and straightforward to complex. They are full of delightful surprises. I find inspiration in them, and my life is enriched by them.

I believe that others would feel the same way if it was easier to access to them. While insects are accessible because they are found on every landmass in the world, their size and speed make them less accessible. This is why entomology collections and photography are important tools for studying them. I hope that one day everyone will have ready access to magnification devices. That will unlock access to the insect world that surrounds us.

What led you to apply for the Fulbright in Indonesia? For the National Geographic Storytelling fellowship?

Betancourt snapped this pic of two orangutans at the research station of the Tuanan Orangutan Research Project in 2015. Credit: @isabetabug
Betancourt snapped this pic of two orangutans at the research station of the Tuanan Orangutan Research Project in 2015. Credit: @isabetabug

There are so many reasons I have wanted to go back to Indonesian Borneo to do entomological work. During my work as a research assistant in Borneo in 2015, I learned that the insect fauna of the peat swamp forests of Borneo are both endangered and poorly studied. An overwhelming majority of the work on insects in Borneo comes out of Malaysian and Brunei territories in northern Borneo, which together is little more than a quarter of the island. I want to work together with Indonesian biologists to change this. I want to work with them to document, study and celebrate the peat swamp forest insect fauna. I know we will discover new, bizarre and beautiful new species in the forest. When I was there last time, I photographed a new species of spider!

It has been a dream of mine to connect with National Geographic. Their goals align well with mine.

Tell us about your plans for the grants. What do you hope to accomplish?

I’m going to a remote orangutan-focused biological field station in Indonesian Borneo and doing a survey of the insect biodiversity there, which has never been done before. The swamp there has been scarred by unnatural water drainage channels and also recent fires. I’ll be strategically sampling to see how the insect wildlife has been affected by these events and also how the insect community is responding to restoration initiatives by the local forestry and conservation organizations. I will collect data and document the insect life through photography and also through building an insect collection.

Indonesia is the fourth most populated country in the world (after the USA), yet they only have a couple of entomology collections and, as I mentioned above, most of the published work on Borneo comes from Malaysian and Brunei territories. In the process of all this, we will undoubtedly discover new species and shed light on the beauty of the largely misunderstood swamp ecosystem. I hope to form mutually productive, long-lasting relationships with my collaborators. I want to highlight the importance of insect collections and scientific collaboration, and to celebrate the incredible organisms that we share this planet with and that enrich our world! 🦋🐞🐛 🔍

Looking back at your time at Drexel, what stands out as memorable or impactful on your personal development?

I really liked my instructors in the communication program. They were approachable and supportive. I really liked how the instructors made many of the assignments so that I was able to fit them to my interests. For example, in my Environmental Communications class, I wrote a paper examining my own insect live-broadcasting channel. In the editing class, I applied class lessons to the editing of a manuscript I was working on with my coworkers at the Academy.

This is largely why I was excited to work through the MS Communication program part-time while working at the Academy full-time. Although it was difficult because I had little free time, it enabled me to actively apply what I was learning in the master's program to my entomology projects at work.

Anything else you’d like to share with the Drexel CoAS community?

If you are interested in applying for a Fulbright, go for it! While I have only just been notified about being selected, I have already grown and learned a lot about myself by writing out and assembling my application materials. I really appreciate the guidance and feedback from the Drexel Center for Scholar Development and campus reviewers.

Applications for the Fulbright U.S. Student Program are now open. Please visit the page of the Center for Scholar Development in the Pennoni Honors College for more information.