Professor Geraldine Wright appointed Hope Professor of Entomology

Many congratulations to Professor Geraldine Wright, who has been appointed as the Hope Professor of Entomology.

The chair of Hope Professor of Entomology was founded in 1860, and Professor Wright is the first woman to hold the title. Previous notable Hope Professors include John Obadiah Westwood, inaugural Hope Professor and prolific entomologist who worked on Hope’s collections at the Natural History Museum, and Charles Godfray, population biologist and current Director of the Oxford Martin School.

We’ve asked Prof Wright some questions about her career and research to date, and what she hopes to achieve as Hope Professor.

When did you first come to Oxford, and why you wanted to work here?

I was awarded a Rhodes Scholarship in 1994 and started in Zoology. I originally started with Martin Speight to study tropical herbivores of Central American mahogany, but later switched to study insect nutrition using locusts with Steve Simpson and David Raubenheimer. I chose to return to Oxford as an academic to be closer to collaborators in London and in Oxford and to improve my beekeeping facilities.

What sort of research do you and your lab focus on?

My lab’s work is making important contributions to bee nutrition. We currently have a collaborative project funded by the BBSRC with Sharoni Shafir’s lab (Hebrew University of Jerusalem) and with Phil Stevenson (Jodrell Lab, Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew) to study the honeybee lipidome. Phil and I are also collaborating on a NERC funded project to study the fats found in pollen and to discover their role as essential nutrients in the diets of wild bee species.  In addition, my spin out company, Apix Nutrition (now Apix Biosciences) has received private investment and is currently trialling our pollen substitute food for honeybee colonies in California.

My lab also studies the bee’s sense of taste. We have found that bees have the greatest acuity for differentiating sugars of any animal yet described. They also have a depauperate sense of bitter taste - bumblebees have a very poor sense of bitter taste, honeybees can detect some compounds but only a few. We know they cannot detect neonicotinoid pesticides, and are trying to find compounds they can detect, so that they might be used to repel bees from plants protected by pesticides.

In addition, we have just recently been funded to study addiction in bees. We have preliminary evidence that they can become addicted to certain compounds like nicotine and caffeine in floral nectar. We are now pursuing a comprehensive series of experiments to define the conditions under which we observe addiction and compulsion in bees.

What does being appointed Hope Professor mean to you?

It is a major milestone in my career. When I first came to Oxford, I met Steve Simpson (previous Hope Professor). He is a great speaker, very smart and engaging, and always had an answer for every question I posed. I knew then that I wanted to be an academic like him. It means a lot to follow in his footsteps, and to have this opportunity. There was a time when I did not think I had what it took to make it in academic science. Here I am.

What do you hope to accomplish during your tenure as Hope Professor?

We are living at a pivotal moment in the Earth’s history. We must take action, or risk losing the Earth’s biodiversity and our own livelihood on this planet. Insects are the most diverse group of organisms. As Hope Professor, I feel I must do as much as possible to alert the public and Oxford at large to the impending disaster caused by the loss of insect biodiversity, and biodiversity in general. Only by our rapid, collective action will disaster be averted.

Watch Jeri's Hope Chair lecture here: