By Mitchell Zimmer
Brent Sinclair doesn’t think of himself as an entomologist, “the reason is, if I call myself an entomologist people expect me to be able to identify stuff,” he says. “Whereas I’m interested in how insects work.” Lucky for him the nominating committee in the Biology Department and the Entomological Society of Canada disagreed. It turns out that Sinclair is this 2012 recipient of the Society’s prestigious C. Gordon Hewitt Award.
Recipients of the award must have made an outstanding contribution to the study of insects in Canada and must be under 40 years of age. “We try to focus on insects and low temperatures and we manage that reasonably well but I think it is such an open field right now,” says Sinclair. “There is really a lot of opportunity to spread out in different directions and in Canada, it is pretty much a no-brainer to look at cold tolerance in insects because we do have interesting winter conditions.”
Yet, the award does more than recognize research. “You have to do more than write a lot of papers,” says Sinclair. The award also looks at practical applications for the recipient’s work. Sinclair studies the over wintering biology of insects such the Emerald Ash and other pests that come in from south of the border. “So the question is ‘How will they do when they get into Canada?‘ and ‘How far will they go?’” he says. “London is sort of a natural laboratory for that, because we’re pretty mild compared to everywhere else.” The reality of milder winters in recent years has altered the insect populations in the area. There are insects here now that weren’t present ten years ago, so now farmers have to deal with crop losses when insects turn up and persist. “It’s a very exciting time to work on insects and a slightly depressing time.”
“The nice thing about doing what we do is that our lab is known as the place that does this stuff on cold tolerance,” adds Sinclair. “That means that there are lots of opportunities to get involved in lots of interesting things. At the moment, for example, we have projects in California and New Zealand and other things crop up from time to time.”
Even though Sinclair doesn‘t consider himself an entomologist, the opportunity to identify species does come up. “On the outreach things we do,” says Sinclair, “we will turn up and people will come along and bring us things and so it’s just extraordinary to see the kind of diversity even in somewhere like here where there’s huge number of insects.”
The Hewitt Award was established in 1975 yet it has only been presented 29 times. One of the early recipients is Western’s own Jeremy McNeil who was given the prize in 1979. Keeping in mind the relative scarcity of these awards across the country, Sinclair thinks that the addition of another Hewitt prize for Western is an opportunity to raise the profile of the Biology Department. “We haven’t traditionally been known as an entomology department,” says Sinclair. “We’ve always had very strong insect biologists such as Michael Locke, Stan Caveney, John Steele and Jeremy McNeil, who is probably the most prominent entomologist in Canada right now…We’ve got a lot of people who work on insects, actually a really strong department.” This strength has the potential to attract top graduate students. “One of the things that’s really unique about the grouping of people we have no one would really sticks up their hand and says ‘I’m an entomologist.’ We’re figuring out how insects work and how they interact with the world“ says Sinclair. “We’re really one of the best departments in Canada that people don’t know about. I think that this will be a really good recruitment tool for increasing the profile of everyone here.”