Canadian Museum of Nature honours Sarnia’s ‘bug girl’

Original article by Paul Morden at
Publishing date: Nov 26, 2020

An 11-year-old Sarnia author and insect enthusiast is the winner of the Canadian Museum of Nature 2020 Youth Nature Inspiration Award.

Sophia Spencer, who co-authored The Bug Girl (A true story) with Margaret McNamara, was named the winner Wednesday during an online ceremony.

“I was, like, over-the-moon thrilled,” her mom, Nicole, said about the award. “Her story is really inspiring, and it’s helped a lot of people follow their dreams.”

Submissions for the youth prize are always extraordinary, said Meg Beckel, the Ottawa museum’s president.

“Those of us on the jury are always inspired and humbled – we really are humbled – by just how much these young people accomplish in a very short period of time.”

Sophia fell in love with bugs after a butterfly landed on the then two-and-a-half-year-old’s shoulder while she was visiting the Niagara Falls butterfly conservatory.

Her interest grew in pre-school and kindergarten, but she stopped talking about bugs for a time after some Grade 1 classmates bullied her and stomped on a grasshopper she brought to school.

Sophia’s mother, Nicole, wrote to the Entomology Society of Canada, hoping one its members might offer her daughter, then seven years old, some encouragement.

Morgan Jackson, a society member and doctoral student at the University of Guelph, answered and asked permission to share Sophia’s story on Twitter, adding the hashtag #BugsR4Girls.

It went viral, with scientists tweeting hundreds of times to encourage Sophia to keep up her interest in bugs. She ended up appearing on Good Morning America, The Today Show and NPR.

Jackson made the impact of the Twitter post the subject of an academic article, with Sophia as co-author, that was published in the Annals of the Entomological Society of America in 2017.

Around that time, the family moved to Sarnia, her mother’s hometown, where they were contacted by McNamara, the pen name of Brenda Bowen, a New York-based author of more than three-dozen books for young readers who had heard about the girl’s story.

Bowen travelled to Sarnia to record an interview with Sophia that became the book that was launched with a full house at The Book Keeper in Sarnia in February for a reading and signing.

Nicole said the book has sold about 7,000 copies, so far, in North America.

“With Sophia, what was really inspiring was that here was this young girl who was genuinely interested in nature from a very young age and she continued to pursue that love of nature and share it with her friends, even after being bullied and made fun of,” Beckel said.

“I think it was a combination of inspiring girls in science, following your passion and doing what brings you joy, but also leading by example by writing that book – these are all the things we look for in the Nature Inspiration Awards.”

The museum said the annual awards began in 2014 to recognize individuals, groups and organizations whose leadership, innovation and creativity connect Canadians with nature and the natural world.

Winners receive $5,000 they can designate to a nature-related program of their choice. Nicole said Sophie is still considering which program to receive the prize, but that it will likely be in the Sarnia area.

The museum said Sophia was part of an online session following the announcement, where she answered questions from some of the about 100 people who were logged on.

“During the break-out session, it was wonderful to see her poise,” Beckel said. “We’ll all be watching what’s next.”

The museum said Sophia has been invited to visit the museum’s national research and collections facility in Gatineau once the pandemic restrictions are lifted.

Nicole said a trophy is also expected to arrive in the mail.

She said Sophia still loves insects and would like to someday be an entomologist or a veterinarian.

“She’s overall just an amazing kid,” Nicole said. “I couldn’t be more proud.”