During her 25 years at UPEI, entomologist Donna Giberson taught thousands of students and conducted research into aquatic insects and biodiversity.
Giberson recently received the 2022 Entomological Society of Canada Gold Medal, which recognizes outstanding achievement in Canadian entomology.
The award is given to one person each year.
Giberson retired from the university in 2015 and now lives in Sechelt, British Columbia. We asked her some questions about her work, and what kinds of changes she's seen over the years.
Q. What kind of insects do you study?
Giberson: I primarily look at aquatic entomology. So that's the things that live in streams, rivers, ponds and other aquatic habitats. And the way I got into that was that I've always loved rivers, I've always loved fishing. And when I decided to go back to grad school, I decided to see if there were any programs in aquatic entomology that I could get into ... Anybody who fly fishes would probably be pretty familiar with the mayflies, stone flies and caddis flies. They're the ones that most fly fishers try to emulate with the little flies that they they tie or buy.
Q. You also studied mosquitoes, right?
Giberson: The reason I got into that was P.E.I. is a small province and so it is possible to be sitting at your desk at UPEI and get a phone call from somebody in the P.E.I. government saying 'What kind of mosquitoes do we have here on P.E.I.?' And then I said, 'Well, nobody's really studied that since about the 1950s or '60s, so I couldn't tell you for sure.'
So we rounded up some field assistants and we went and did a survey of the mosquitoes on P.E.I. We found a lot of species, a surprising number, at that time we found 34 species. But of those 34 species, only about a third of them are common and not all of them actually even bite people.
Q. How do you feel about mosquitoes generally?
Giberson: Well, I spent a bit of time trying to come up with a reason for mosquitoes because it is pretty tough to understand why we would have them. They are important pollinators in certain areas, so yeah, they need to be there. But that being said, I don't like mosquitoes. Just like everybody else, I'm not keen on any kind of biting fly when I'm out working. And I have an added thing in that I'm quite allergic to most insect repellents. So I have all kinds of bug shirts that I use when I go outside.
Insects are often misunderstood
Q. What do you think the public doesn't understand about insects?
Giberson: "Well, I think the biggest thing is many people don't understand that the vast majority of insects out there are either really innocuous ... or extremely beneficial. So there's kind of a feeling that you see an insect, especially one in your house, you've got to kill it. But in fact the majority of insects out there ... are very helpful to us in their ecological roles, you know breaking down leaf litter and contributing to ecosystems."
Q. What was the biggest challenge you faced through your career?
Giberson: I've been pretty lucky in my career in that I have had great opportunities to work and do work I'm interested in. But I do have to admit that in the early days and this goes back to the 1970s ... it was pretty challenging and pretty difficult to be a woman trying to do field biology. It was hard to break in ... and it was quite challenging to try to get through that period.
Young women can look around and see that there are women doing the kind of work that they might be interested in. — Donna Giberson
Q. And what do you see now when it comes to women in the field?
Giberson: It's a lot better. There's a lot more mentors out there so that women, young women, can look around and see that there are women doing the kind of work that they might be interested in. There are still a lot of challenges that remain for diverse groups. So you know people who are trying to break in from various BIPOC communities and that sort of thing. But I think it certainly has improved at least for women in the field.
Q. What's the most dramatic change you've seen in the insect world during your career?
Giberson: Oh boy, I guess we would look at numbers. It's becoming a worldwide trend that we've seen quite a reduction in numbers. There's a lot of reasons — they range from habitat destruction, that's probably one of the biggest ones.
UPEI years pivotal to career
Q. What does it mean to you to be recognized with this award?
Giberson: I have to say that you when they called me to let me know, I was speechless. And anyone who knows me will say that that's a very rare event. I'm humbled and honoured all at once and I can't tell you how excited I am to to have received this recognition.
One of the things I would like to mention is that the years I as able to spend on P.E.I. working at the University of Prince Edward Island were absolutely pivotal in being able to develop my career. I can't tell you how lucky I was to land in a place that the primary mission is teaching so that I could interact with students and work with them, but also share their excitement and their ideas. It's kept me young over the years and the fact that UPEI has always let me pursue the areas of study that I wanted to, that was also extremely important.