Sophia Spencer hated it when classmates taunted her for her love of insects, but seeing them kill her pet grasshoppers for fun was even worse.
Her first-grade peers couldn’t understand what she found so fascinating about bugs of all sorts or why she’d devote spare time to catching them, reading about them, and generally carrying on like a budding entomologist.
As Sophia listened to schoolyard jeers that called her weird, or was forced to watch as her much-loved bugs were taken from her hands and stepped on for sport, she felt her confidence begin to wane.
Her mother, fearing her child would lose her independent streak, reached out to a national organization of insect researchers in search of a mentor for her daughter. Hundreds of entomologists responded, and now Sophia’s name appears alongside one of them in an international publication devoted to the study of insects.
She is listed as a co-author in a paper published in the Annals of the Entomological Society of America that explores ways social media can be used to engage the scientific community.
The story, held up for scientists as an example of social-media savvy used for the advancement of the profession, is a form of validation for the eight-year-old co-author.
“A lot of the kids saw it, and a lot of the kids knew that if they tried to bully me it won’t really matter because … I won’t really care,” Sophia said in a telephone interview from her home in Sarnia, Ont. “They just realize that I like bugs and I won’t stop.”
Such confidence seemed impossible for Sophia back in August 2016, according to her mother Nicole Spencer.
Anxious after a year of bullying from schoolmates, the child had become more withdrawn and less inclined to play with insects as she’d done since she was a toddler.
Spencer said she wanted to find a mentor to help bolster her daughter’s flagging confidence and reassure her that her passion for bugs did not have to be a source of shame.
She wrote a letter to the Entomological Society of Canada outlining Sophia’s struggles and soliciting a penpal to help reassure her daughter.
The letter fell into the hands of Morgan Jackson, a PhD student at Guelph University who helped maintain the society’s Twitter account. Moved by the story, he posted a screen shot of Spencer’s letter along with a call for volunteers accompanied by the hashtag #bugsR4Girls.
The tweet got an almost instantaneous response. Would-be mentors began messaging their willingness to support Sophia within seven minutes of the tweet going live, according to the paper, and the post itself was shared thousands of times in the following weeks.
The call to action then found its way into newspapers at home and abroad, cementing it in journal editors’ minds as a prime example of social media outreach done right.