Matt Bertone has an encyclopedic knowledge of insects and arthropods as well as an eye for photography. Most of his passion for insects and, ultimately art, stem from his desire to share with others what he has found. His ability to communicate science to others is rooted in his experiences as a middle school student growing up in Pennsylvania.
Lea: Were you cool?
Was anyone cool? Tell us what made you a cool student in your middle school.
At the time there were obviously kids who had a finger on the pulse of popular culture. They would wear the flip-up sunglasses, Umbro shorts and real slap bracelets. I was not one of them. I usually failed to adopt these things, or did so only when their popularity reached a critical mass. I was busy drawing scorpions and looking at puddle water under the microscope to care about fashion and pop music. I did naturally do some things considered “cool”, for instance play video games. But mostly I was a nerd.
“I was busy drawing scorpions and looking at puddle water under the microscope to care about fashion and pop music.”
What were your favorite subjects in middle school?
Science and Art
Why? What made those subjects so special??
My first love was always nature and my second was drawing. I really didn’t like reading fiction and writing reports, so English was my least favorite. Now I love writing, but only because it helps me convey ideas to people who I cannot talk to face to face. It also took years of having to write to become more comfortable with it.
Were you in any clubs, have hobbies or extra curricular activities?
I played some sports, baseball and golf, but they weren’t my main interests – maybe more the “thing to do” as a young man. I was a Boy Scout, which introduced me to some great things and some of my best memories. Building fires and cooking on them, carving sticks with knives and exploring nature were some of my favorite things. I am glad my parents made me stick it out through high school to earn my Eagle Scout. As a naturalist, I also enjoyed keeping (though sometimes unsuccessfully) exotic pets or animals I found outside.
What were your favorite books?
I was never much into fiction, though I loved Jurassic Park and other sci-fi and horror. My favorite book at the time was the MacMillan Illustrated Animal Encyclopedia. It had tons of great animal drawings and descriptions. My sister and I would flip each page during road trips and pick our favorite animal on the page. There was also the prehistoric animal version that was great. I loved the Guinness Book of World Records, too. For some reason I was really attached to a 1982 hardback edition I got at a yard sale. Basically any book with facts or cool stuff about nature was on my shelf, most of them paid for with allowance money. I distinctly remember being in the mall with my friends and they would be buying some “cool” thing and I would be salivating about the bookstore.
What did your parents do?
My mother was a nurse who was head of the occupational health department of her hospital. My father was a chemical engineer who was in sales at his company. My parents also owned a daycare center in Norristown, PA, where I spent many summers helping out. I even had an insect week for the older kids where I would draw little things for them to color.
How often did you say you were bored as a kid? What did your parents do when you said this?
I was rarely ever bored. I would entertain myself with Legos, Construx (bet you don’t remember them!), books, drawings, video games, and typical activities from messing around outside to watching TV.
“I was rarely ever bored.”
Did you go to a school dance?
Not in middle school since I was pretty shy. Asking a girl and actually going were pretty terrifying to me. And dancing? No way.
What was your biggest worry in middle school?
Fitting in and traversing the strange relationships between friends and the scary possibilities of interacting with the opposite sex.
Did you ever think you would become a scientist?
Yes, though I had no idea what it really entailed. For as long as I can remember I wanted to be an entomologist. In middle school I wished I was in college so I could take courses specifically on insects, spiders, reptiles, etc. I didn’t think of what would happen after college, but I thought I would mainly be learning things about insects. Research was an obscure idea to me then. I also thought I would teach what I learned to people.
“For as long as I can remember I wanted to be an entomologist.”
How did you get into science?
I guess I was naturally a scientist from an early age. I was always drawn to animals, especially the less popular and creepy things. I loved looking at them in books and would try to find whatever I could observe outside.
What did your parents want you to be when you grew up?
Happy and hard working.
What was science like for you in middle school?
What made science so easy?
It was easy because while others were making mixed tapes of New Kids on the Block songs, I was reading science books and looking at animals. So I already had a head start, especially in biology subjects. I do remember making my science teacher mad by correcting him a few times, so I was a kind of a know-it-all. I don’t know how I would judge my actions these days.
“…[B]ecause while others were making mixed tapes of New Kids on the Block songs, I was reading science books and looking at animals.”
What did you collect?
I collected coins and rocks, but not feverishly. I also collected insects, but not as much as you would think for a budding entomologist. I made my first insect collection in Boy Scouts for my insect study merit badge where we pinned insects into a plastic clam-shell container like the ones used for salad bars with cork board glued in the bottom. I remember collecting a wheel bug and a regal moth, but also remember stepping on the whole thing and crushing it while cleaning my room. I later made Riker mount insects collections that I still have today. If you asked my parents, they would say I collected many consecutive, non-overlapping pets.
What types of pets did you “collect?”
We had a family dog, but I was also the king of trying to keep exotic pets – something my parents reluctantly put up with. My pets included snakes, lizards, turtles, frogs, salamanders, hamsters, mice, rats, fish, scorpions, tarantulas and many others. Some I captured from in or around my house, while others were from pet stores or exotic pet shows. I kept some alive for a while, but others weren’t so lucky. I feel bad now, but as a kid responsibility wasn’t my strong suit. I keep that in mind now when my daughter asks for pets.
How would you hope that middle school is different for your own children or the current generation?
I would hope [middle school students today are] more accepting of people’s differences.
If you could give your middle school self some advice, what would it be?
Don’t worry too much about this time of your life. You are on the right track, so have fun and I guarantee things will get better (but not before getting a little worse in high school).
What do you think your middle school self would be most surprised about, considering your life?
I would be completely surprised about having an amazing, beautiful wife and two lovely little girls. I would have never guessed I would be living in North Carolina. I would also be surprised by some of the things I have been able to do throughout my career and life: going to wonderful places such as Australia, Japan and Costa Rica; becoming a decent photographer and having my work published in interesting places; interacting in fun ways with huge names in entomology (and realizing they are just people too). I wouldn’t have believed it at the time, but I would have been excited.
Dr. Matt Bertone is an Entomologist with the NCSU Plant Disease and Insect Clinic. He specializes in insect and arthropod identification, taxonomy and evolution. When he’s not looking into a microscope, he’s behind a camera lens photographing beautiful insects.