When did you decide to devote your life to bugs?
I was keen on insects when I was quite small, and collected brightly colored creatures in my Queensland garden. I started identifying them properly as a teenager, and then I was influenced by good teachers and drifted into entomology at college. I didn't have an entomological career right away, because I wanted to travel the world.
Tell me about that.
Back in the '60s, Australians commonly took working holidays in Europe. I had all kinds of jobs--at stores, factories--and then I became a high school teacher. I ended up staying in England and did my Ph.D. at the University of London, which led to a research job in the British government working on pests in developing countries like Nigeria, Mali and India. In India, I studied a caterpillar pest, and to understand a basic reason why some plants resisted attack, I had to watch tiny, newly hatched caterpillars make their way from the egg at the base of the plant to the new leaves where they had to feed. ... The Indians were much amused to see a senior woman scientist lying in the mud watching something that couldn't be seen from where they stood.
How did you end up in Tucson?
Traveling was lots of exciting work, but I needed more intellectual stimulation and later got a job at the University of California at Berkeley, and immigrated to the United States with my husband. Eventually, I came to the UA as the head of the Entomology Department, and my husband came as a professor of neurobiology. It was a whole new set of things to learn in Arizona. At my interview, I had lunch with one of the older members of the Entomology Department, and I asked what problems cattle farmers faced. He replied, "holla belly," and I nodded without knowing what the hell he was talking about, while he smiled to himself. I didn't figure out that he meant hunger or starvation until that evening.
What's the most interesting thing you learned about bugs?
Some insects, called generalists, appear to like novelty--they're more exploratory in the types of plants they choose to feed on--while others, the specialists, are more timid and tend to stick to one plant. I think my favorite piece of work was to show that it's more difficult to be a generalist than a specialist, because you have so many choices, and it makes you more vulnerable to predators. ... A similar dichotomy occurs with people--some people like diversity, while some stick to their habits. For example, my husband had the same breakfast every day: corn flakes. I liked something different every morning, from cooked breakfast to yogurt to toast to fruit.
What first sparked an interest in creative writing?
I've always been interested in literature, and for 37 years, I worked with my husband, and we shared a lot of our ideas and were soulmates. So when he died, I decided to switch to another major interest, and that was literature--not just reading, but writing, too.
Have you discovered any similarities between science and writing?
In both cases, your imagination is really important. My success as an entomologist is related to a creative ability to connect information from different fields, and my writing involves creativity in a fairly similar way. And I build on intuition in both science and writing. You have a new book, and it's not essays or a memoir. It's a true story for children about a newborn cottontail rabbit whose mother got run over on the road. It tells how the bunny was reared, which involves quite a lot of biology, and how, eventually, the bunny was released and successfully made it in the wild. I collaborated with the photographer, Linda Gheen, who took amazing photos.
Did writing really help you deal with your husband's death?
It was marvelous. Yes. I was able to work through my past life to a new life by writing.