How Vernard Lewis inspired a 4-year-old to pursue a PhD

May 25, 2022

When Rebecca Varney, a postdoctoral fellow studying ocean-dwelling invertebrates at UC Santa Barbara, posted to Twitter in January looking for the UC Berkeley "bug man" that gave her a tour of the Essig Museum collections, thousands of people jumped in to try and help identify the mystery professor.

A "bug-obsessed 4-year-old" with her own budding collection of insects, in 1994 the El Sobrante resident wrote a letter to the "Entomology Department" at Cal to ask whether walking sticks had knees and if she could see their collection.

A professor responded and invited Varney and her mother to tour the Essig Museum, an experience she credits with spurring her decision to pursue a PhD in biology.

Now, after five months of searching for who gave her the tour, Varney has an answer: it was retired professor Vernard Lewis, Berkeley's first Black entomologist, who showed Varney and her mother around the Essig. 

Freelance science reporter Dawn Fallik interviewed both Varney and Lewis for a recent Washington Post story on the search.