My #Sciencehero is Evelyn Cheesman






We all have our Science heroes that we look up to and draw inspiration from. Men & women who give us concepts and tools to make sense of our complex world. Tell us who your science hero is, and we will share Your Story with the world. #ScienceHero




Story by Marwa Shumo

I had left my parents’ home at a relatively young age and to a country I have never visited before and never spoke a word of its native language. My passion for learning and desire to find my own thing motivated me, but every now and then and especially when my journey seems confusing to me, I think of my science hero and remind myself of what she endured for the sake of her passions knowing that the contributions she left behind were worth the struggle.

I honestly feel that my science hero is extremely underrated. You do not hear much about her on TV neither do you get to see her photographs in popular magazines, she does not wear a cape and she cannot fly over your skyline at midnight. However, I managed to know her many years ago while on a day visit to the Natural History Museum in London. I was immediately mesmerized by the scientific legacy she left behind which is today well preserved, documented and displayed in an entire section dedicated to her contributions to the fields of entomology, zoology and ecology.

The life of Evelyn Cheesman was a breakthrough and a break out of the molds, norms and customs associated with women of her time. Evelyn wanted to become a veterinary surgeon; however, the application she made to the Royal Veterinary Society in the year 1906 was declined because of her gender. Determined not to let go of her passion for wildlife, Evelyn found alternatives to fulfill her dreams and desires.

Many new positions opened up to women during the First World War and she landed up as an assistant curator of insects at London Zoo in the year 1917. Surprised by the limited collection found in the Insect House at the zoo, Evelyn used a net and a billycan to collect new stocks with the aid of local children.

After impressing her superiors, Evelyn was the first female appointed as the Insect House Curator in the year 1920. She made a great advantage of her new position and walked all the extra miles to collect and identify exotic insect species. She authored many books and scientific articles on entomology and her expeditions.

At a time even men refused to uptake such a challenge on their own, Evelyn was the first woman to undergo a solo trip around the South Pacific. Throughout her career and until the age of 73 and even after undergoing a hip replacement surgery, she led eight expeditions to the South Pacific. She also contributed to the understanding of the living conditions and cultures of local Pacific tribes whom she befriended and lived together with and learned a lot from their guidance and local knowledge.

As a young millennial female scientist who is passionate about insects and waste, I get infuriated every time someone asks me how or why a girl would ever want to work with dirt and insects and I wonder how much critiques and harsh judgments Evelyn Cheesman went through at her time. Perhaps this is what makes me admire and adore her very much, because she was a breakthrough herself not only with her science but also in her choice of leading a life that not many at her time thought would fit for a woman and thus she created a new trail for us to walk along following her footsteps.


Marwa Shumo is a Falling Walls Lab Finalist 2016, a junior researcher at the Center for Development Research (ZEF) in Bonn and a Fellow at the International Center for Insect Physiology & Ecology (icipe) in Nairobi. Her research focuses on the utilisation of insects in organic waste decomposition and livestock feed production.

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