RANDALL BENTON / rbenton@sacbee.com

UC Davis entomologist Matan Shelomi, adorned with a walking stick, has won an online Shorty Award, akin to an Oscar.

UC Davis entomologist gains notice with online answer to question bugging humans

Published: Tuesday, May. 1, 2012 - 12:00 am | Page 1B
Last Modified: Wednesday, May. 2, 2012 - 1:26 pm

For anyone who has accidentally stepped on an insect and faced the vexing question, "Should I kill it and put it out of its misery?" there is one answer better than the others.

The question, posted last fall on the online question-and-answer site Quora.com, garnered a burst of celebrity for UC Davis entomologist and Ph.D. candidate Matan Shelomi.

The 24-year-old Shelomi's answer was one of many posted, but his was the first by an entomologist. He answered dispassionately that insects don't have the same capacity to feel pain and suffering as do humans, or even lab mice.

"Even if insects could feel physical pain they cannot feel suffering because they can't feel emotion – they're too primitive," he said. "The animal cannot suffer, … so it does not have a misery to be put out of."

Shelomi believes it does not matter what decision is made if an insect has been injured. Once its outer armor is pierced, that insect will soon die or be eaten.

"That was a fun one to answer, and when I did I didn't think anything of it," said Shelomi, who has answered more than 170 Quora questions to date. "I didn't realize my answer would go viral."

Viral it went, and his answer was soon nominated as one of the best answers on Quora. (The other dealt with the best way to evade the police in a high-speed chase.)

Shelomi won a first-place Shorty Award for best Quora answer. The annual awards are given to the best producers of short social media content, with winners determined by popular vote. In the social media realm, a Shorty is like an Oscar.

Shelomi was invited to – but did not attend – the 2012 Shorty Awards ceremony held in New York City with the likes of Neil Patrick Harris and Conan O'Brien, who accepted awards.

Instead he opted for a regional meeting of the Entomological Society of America in Portland, Ore., and watched the ceremony online.

Still, he did not go without an award at the conference: He and fellow UC Davis entomology students Kelly Hamby, Kelly Liebman and Jenny Carlson took first place and $500 in a "College Bowl"-style event based on insect facts and trivia.

"I've been interested in entomology since as far back as I can remember," he said. "I always liked playing with bugs – ever since kindergarten.

"In fact, I've wanted to be an entomologist ever since I first heard the term," said Shelomi, who heard it when he was in the third grade in the Forest Hills section of Queens, New York City.

At UC Davis, which boasts one of the nation's top entomology departments, Shelomi is doing his dissertation on the digestive system of one of the more curious members of the insect world: the walking stick.

"It's one of the only insects that can regenerate its limbs," he said.

"He does not fit the mold," said Lynn Kimsey, head of the Bohart Museum of Entomology and professor of entomology at UC Davis. "He's already had three publications. … I've never had students publish papers the second year they're in grad school."

Shelomi turned to Kimsey for guidance about how to answer the Quora query.

So what did Kimsey think of his answer?

She was flattered by it.

"The answer he gave is something I certainly tell people," said Kimsey.

Like Shelomi, Kimsey also became obsessed with insects as a child. "I got my first butterfly net at age 5 – and that was all she wrote," she said.

At the Bohart, Kimsey oversees an operation housing 8 million insect specimens and a petting zoo of 30 species. But she admits humans are the most complex species.

Kimsey believes that Shelomi's Quora answer signals what she has been doing for the past 20 years at Davis has not been for naught.

"I'm glad to see that some of my students are actually listening to me," she said.

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Read more articles by Edward Ortiz

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