Photo courtesy of Michael Bartlett Smith.
Michael Bartlett Smith, who grew up in St. Paul, Minnesota, will graduate with his Bachelors in Entomology and Biochemistry in December 2022. In this Q&A, he describes how he found his passion for insect farming, the value of human relationships, and his graduate school plans to continue studying insect farming – to support global food security and environmental sustainability.
How did you decide on your fields of study?
While I’ve always had an innate curiosity about the outdoors, I’ve been fortunate to have had that curiosity nurtured throughout my upbringing by a diverse array of educators, supporters, and role models. Looking back on my education as a whole, my passions have always mirrored those of the teachers who are most passionate about what they had to teach. It goes back to my elementary school science teacher – shoutout Tom Altman – a man whose classes were saturated with excited energy about the subject at hand.
As I was choosing my courses during Freshman Orientation, a freshman interest group (FIG) called “Insects and the Sixth Mass Extinction” caught my eye. In this 15-person classroom, I first found passion at UW in the form of a quick-witted Beetle enthusiast — say hello to Dan Young. It wasn’t long before I fell in love with by far the most biodiverse group of multicellular organisms on the planet and declared myself an entomologist.
Two years after graduating with an entomology degree, I realized I was blowing through my courses much faster than I thought I would and decided I needed a second major. After I was interested in the career of Dr. Thomas Eisner, the father of chemical ecology, I decided that biochemistry was the natural fit, so I added that as a second major.
What have been the most valuable/meaningful college experiences you’ve had?
During my sophomore year, Peak Covid, I got a research position in the Department of Entomology. While everyone else was wasting away in quarantine, I sat alone in a roach-infested basement lab and spent hours battling crickets, weighed and gendered. I worked for then masters student Martin Ventura, who was investigating the effectiveness of novel feeds for cricket farming. I met Martin months after I started the job in his backyard, where I stood six feet apart and wore masks. Over time we became friends and we are still in touch today. While this was just one of many labs I would eventually work for, it was by far the most influential. Not only was it my first exposure to insect farming, which has since become my passion, but it also helped me find meaning during a global pandemic when feelings of loneliness and aimlessness took hold.
What are you proud of when you think back to your student days here?
When I think back to my years at UW, I have a lot to be proud of. As President of the Undergraduate Entomological Society, I helped triple our club’s attendance. As a student researcher, I have designed and performed three of my own experimental protocols in three separate laboratories, with publications in progress. In Spring 2022, I led the planning of Swarm-to-Table, a community-focused event aiming to destigmatize and inspire enthusiasm for insects as a sustainable food source. We worked with a local chef to create a seven-course tasting menu featuring 15 different species of insects – and sold out 150 tickets in just under two hours.
After all, what I’m actually most proud of is the connections I’ve made along the way. Being involved in all of these things has allowed me to develop relationships with countless friends and mentors, including colleagues, graduate students, faculty, staff, chefs, and even bug farmers. These are people I can lean on in times of need, people I can always count on for advice, and future associates as I advance my education and career. My undergraduate experiences were defined not so much by the things I did as by the people I met along the way.
What are your future academic and/or professional plans?
My immediate plans are to begin my master’s degree at Indiana University – Purdue University Indianapolis at the Center for Environmental Sustainability through Insect Farming, where I will study the genome of the black soldier fly. As for my long-term plans, I hope to play an important role in integrating insects into our food and farming systems, reducing global food insecurity, and creating a more sustainable future. More importantly, I never want to lose sight of the importance of close friends and find time to play in the mud.
Do you have any advice you would like to share with CALS students?
Don’t let anyone convince you that they figured it all out, we’re all work in progress, some of us are just better at pretending than others.