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Brown Insect

Writing Portfolio

As a freelance writer, I've contributed stories for many news organizations, including WIRED, Washington Post, Science, Entomology Today, and more. I am a member of the National Association of Science Writers.


Because the web is a fluid and evolving thing, I have archived some of my work here, in order to have a permanent record. Also, please note that writers usually do not control the headlines on their stories; those are chosen by editors.

You can find a full list of all my science writing in chronological order here.

Gwen's Greatest Hits

Dark Data, Amber, and Attenborough

WIRED — When Sam Heads started his new job at the Illinois Natural History Survey (INHS) in 2009, he heard rumors of buried treasure. As a paleoentomologist, his research focuses on insects of the past. While Heads ramped up his research on the evolution of insects as recorded in fossils, he also started digging around in random closets and cupboards. He was looking for a treasure in amber.

Silent and Deadly: Fatal Farts Immobilize Prey

WIRED — While adult beaded lacewings are delicate and lovely, they begin life as ferocious tiny predators lurking in the nests of termites. These larvae live unmolested in their nest, silently striking down termites from behind — and for one species, with their behind.

Glowworms harness a surprising ingredient to keep their threads sticky

SCIENCE — This isn’t a photo of the Milky Way; it’s a deep, dark cave in New Zealand. And those blue things aren’t stars; they’re maggots. A chemical reaction in their Malpighian tubules–structures analogous to kidneys–makes their posteriors glow.

New technique unlocks the mystery meats used to make ‘uterine vellum’ for ancient books

WASHINGTON POST — The beautiful medieval illustrated manuscripts of Europe were carefully inked on parchment; animal hides crafted into something resembling modern paper. Called “uterine vellum,” records hinted it might be made from the hides of calves, sheep, or maybe squirrels and rabbits. And did it really come from a uterus?

Cases of these horrifying, 31-inch parasites are dropping sharply

WASHINGTON POST — The CDC and the Carter Center released some great news about Dracunculiasis this Halloween season. It’s not victory over sparkly vampires, though; cases of guinea worms ( Dracunculus medinensis) decreased by 85 percent in 2015. The Latin name of “Little Dragon” refers to the fiery burning pain of these yard-long worms that live under human skin.

Want to repel mosquitoes? Don’t use citronella candles

SCIENCE — Citronella candles are great for setting a mood, but they’re not so great for the very thing they’re advertised to do: repel mosquitoes. That’s one conclusion from a new study that tested 11 types of repellents on Aedes aegypti mosquitoes-the vectors of Zika, yellow fever, dengue, and other diseases.

You’re Worrying About the Wrong Bees

WIRED  “Save the Bees!” is a common refrain these days, and it’s great to see people interested in the little animals critical for our food supply around the globe. But I have one quibble: you’re talking about the wrong bees. Honey bees will be fine. They are a globally distributed, domesticated animal. The bees you should be concerned about are the 3,999 other bee species living in North America, most of which you’ve never heard of.

Pesticides and Bees: It’s Complicated

WIRED — Bees are weird. A honey bee hive is an entire insect society dedicated to stealing plant sperm (some of you call that pollen). The consensus among bee scientists is that honey bee declines are the result of multiple factors.

Tick season is here, and it’s time to learn how to stop the suckers

WASHINGTON POST — Worried about ticks? There are good reasons. Ixodes scapularis, the blacklegged or deer tick, transmits Lyme disease. But there are a host of other tick-borne diseases as well, and in some cases, they can make you pretty sick.

You’ve Got Face Mites

WIRED — Every single one of you – 100 percent of you reading this right now – has face mites. Before you break out the exfoliating scrubs and disinfectant, it’s completely normal to have little animals living on your skin.

Royal Jelly Isn’t What Makes a Queen Bee a Queen Bee

WIRED — For decades, scientists thought an excess of something special, a substance called royal jelly, elevated a regular honey bee larva to a queen. New research suggests we had it backward: It’s what future queens aren’t fed that matters.

Will We Still Have Fruit if Bees Die Off?

WIRED — A photo has been circulating for a while that suggests our grocery stores will look like this in a world without bees. Is that true? Will our food choices be radically limited, come the future Beepocalypse?

Caffeinated Underpants Won’t Make Your Butt Smaller

WIRED — The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) issued an Enforcement Order this week: two brands must stop claiming caffeinated underwear will make your behind smoother and slimmer. What did they do to get the FTC’s knickers in such a twist?

Reindeer Bot Flies Are Not Particularly Festive

WIRED — Bot flies are not generally considered festive. This is especially true if you are a reindeer, which often have reindeer nasal bot flies, or snot bots, as they are affectionately known. The nasal bot fly life cycle is a marvelous example of evolutionary WTF-ery.

Just Give Up. It’s Impossible to Bug-Proof Your Home

WIRED — How many insects do you think are in your home? None? One? A hundred? Some new research suggests you need to step that number up by a factor of 10. Or more.

Remain Calm: Kissing Bugs Are Not Invading the US

WIRED — Kissing bugs are not invading North America. They’ve been here for at least 12,000 years, probably longer. The link between Chagas disease and kissing bugs (Triatoma) is real, and Chagas disease is a serious, disease you do not want to acquire. [This story was reprinted by University of Arizona Extension Service]

Pubic Lice: Still NOT Going Extinct

WIRED — Every few years an alarm is raised; habitat loss puts this species at risk. Will the noble pubic louse Pthirus pubis, which once grazed the rolling plains of our crotches in great herds, be driven into extinction? Do we need to erect habitat reserves for crab lice conservation in New Jersey?

6 Extra Pairs of Genitals Is Just Too Much of a Good Thing

WIRED — All the instructions to make an animal’s body are in each one of its individual cells. But how does an embryo know that a scrotum should be built in the groin, and not on your forehead? During fetal development, a complex dance of proteins turns genes off and on.

Glowing Tampons Help Detect Sewage Leaks

WIRED — “You do get people looking at you strangely, but the tampon is not that obvious.” That’s Professor David Lerner, explaining what it was like to conduct a research project where feminine hygiene products were inserted into streams and sewers around Yorkshire, UK. Why? It turns out tampons are an accurate and cheap way to sample water quality.

GMO Spider Venom May Be the Next Viagra

WIRED — Humans have been chasing longer and stronger erections for centuries. From ground-up ants and “Spanish flies” to modern drugs, men hope to bring back some magic into a cocked-up sex life. How far would you be willing to go for an erection? Would you take a drug made from genetically modified spider venom?

Bats Have Sparkly Poop

WIRED — Bats eat a lot of insects. This has unexpected consequences.

4-Acre Spider Web Engulfs Building

WIRED — How many spiders does it take to creep you out? 10? 100? How many spiders make an "extreme spider situation?"

Noah’s Extremely Bad Animal Husbandry Advice

WIRED — The Proposed Ark Park. Ark Encounter is a proposed creationist theme park centered around a 510-foot “replica” of Noah’s Ark to be built in Kentucky. The park is financed in part by state tax breaks and municipal junk bonds, and has some serious animal health issues.

Split Ends, Conditioners, and Head Lice

WIRED — Some newly published research found plain conditioner is as effective at removing lice eggs from hair. BUT, the research protocol doesn’t have a lot in common with what the average parent might do.

The Ants That Smell Like Blue Cheese – Or Is That Pine-Sol?

WIRED — When an insect has the nick-name of “odorous house ant,” you know it’s smelly. This ant’s scent has been described as blue cheese, rancid butter, or cleaning solution. Inquiring science minds wanted to know: What does it really smell like?

Let’s Nerd Out About Ants Before You See Ant-Man

WIRED — Insect-themed superheroes abounded in early comics, but they tended to lack a certain… gravitas. I mean, the Red Bee had poofy pink sleeves, yellow and green striped tights, and kept a bee named Michael in his belt buckle.

Planet of the Apps: Social Media, Outreach, and your Research

NATURE — The world of social media is just like the print and email worlds: billions of messages are competing for attention. How do you break through all that competition, and get the attention of the public? How can you mobilize and engage people to create a community of supporters (and possibly donors)?

Check out all my writing in chronological order

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