By Kathy Keatley Garvey
“If you injure a bug, should you kill it or let it live?”
It’s a question that bugs a lot of people, but entomologist Matan Shelomi, a doctoral candidate at the University of California, Davis, answered it so well that he tied for a first-place Shorty Award, the social media-equivalent of an Oscar. The Shorties are given annually to the best producers of short content on social media, as determined by popular vote.
The question, posted on Quora, the popular question-and-answer website which engages worldwide users, drew scores of answers, but Shelomi's answer went viral and resulted in an invitation to the fourth annual star-studded Shorty Awards ceremony in Times Square, New York City.
“I’ve been posting on Quora for a few months now after my sophomore roommate from Harvard, who works there, invited me to it. Not to question a website with employees from Harvard, I signed up. I occasionally go on there and post answers to entomology questions, especially if I get an e-invite to answer a specific question. I’ve answered 94 questions so far so far.”
"I saw this one question on ‘If you injure a bug, should you kill it’ on Nov 30, 2011 and was dissatisfied with the answers, which mostly answered from a religious or philosophical standpoint. I looked up insect pain receptionbriefly and answered it. I had no idea my response would be so popular! Apparently it's a question a lot of people had. It was popularized on Gawker as one of the 'most demented questions on Quora.' "
“They liked my answer, though. That was surprising enough, and later I got an email out of the blue saying I had been nominated for a Shorty, 'The Oscars of Twitter.' "
This was the first year Quora, founded in 2009 by two former Facebook employees, has been included in the Shorties. In the past, all the Shorty Awards were Twitter-based.
The question the Quora member posted in November 2011 on whether to let the insjured bug live or die, included this additional information: “This happens to me all the time. I accidentally step on a bug and injure it. It sits there struggling and I'm always confused over if I should kill it to relieve it of pain or let it live in hopes that it may survive.”
Shelomi's prize-winning response:
“Looks like the philosophers and theists have made their cases. As far as entomologists are concerned, insects do not have pain receptors the way vertebrates do. They don't feel ‘pain,’ but may feel irritation and probably can sense if they are damaged. Even so, they certainly cannot suffer because they don't have emotions. If you heavily injure an insect, it will most likely die soon: either immediately because it will be unable to escape a predator, or slowly from infection or starvation. Ultimately this crippling will be more of an inconvenience to the insect than a tortuous existence, so it has no ‘misery’ to be put out of but also no real purpose anymore. If it can't breed anymore, it has no reason to live.
“In other words, I have not answered your question because, as far as the science is concerned, neither the insect nor the world will really care either way. Personally, though, I'd avoid doing more damage than you've already done. 1) Maybe the insect will recover, depending on how damaged it is. 2) Some faiths do forbid taking animal lives, so why go out of your way to kill? 3) You'll stain your shoe.”
Shelomi's answer drew a flood of responses from Quora participants, including:
“This, by far, is the funniest answer I have read on Quora. Not only the funniest answer, but also the funniest show of authority on a subject. You have to love the casualness of it and the mockery aspect. Funny and yet not frivolous. Well done. 10/10. I will read it again now.”
“Great answer, the shoe comment is what really sold it.”
"Additionally, if the insect does not recover, it may hobble along and further benefit the food chain by being a source of food for another creature, insect, bird or otherwise, if it is allowed to live.”
--“I prefer not to intentionally kill or harm any innocent living organism only because that would cause me to suffer.”
Shelomi's response was subsequently nominated for “best answer on Quora," a new category of the Shorties. Another commitment prevented him from being at the Times Square award ceremony, held March 26, but he posted his "equally short" video acceptance speech. He earlier recorded it at the Bohart Museum of Entomology, UC Davis, where he studies insect physiology.
As it turned out, Shelomi shared the first-place award in the Quora category with former police officer Justin Freeman, now an evangelical pastor in Mountain Grove, Mo., who answered “What’s the best way to escape the police in a high-speed car chase?”
Shelomi, who received his bachelor’s degree in organismic and evolutionary biology from Harvard, is an insect physiologist studying for his doctorate in entomology with major professor Lynn Kimsey, director of the Bohart Museum of Entomology, UC Davis, and a professor in the Department of Entomology. Shelomi is researching the digesting system of the Phasmatodea, an order of insects that includes walking sticks. His future plans? A career in academia.
March 26 was a triple-award day for Shelomi. At the same time that the Shorties were being awarded, Shelomi was in Portland, Ore., participating in another question-and-answer session, the Pacific Branch of the Entomological Society of America’s Linnaean Games, a college-bowl type competition. Shelomi and his UC Davis teammates, Kelly Hamby, Kelly Liebman, and Jenny Carlson, all graduate students in entomology, went on to win the regional championship. They now will head to the international Linnaean Games at the 60th annual ESA meeting, set Nov. 11-14 in Knoxville, Tenn.
The third honor? While participating in the Linnaean Games, Shelomi received email notification that he is the recipient of a 2012 National Science Foundation East Asia and Pacific Summer Institutes (NSF-EAPSI) fellowship. In July and August, he will be in Taiwan working with Chih-Horng Kuo of the Institute of Plant and Microbial Biology at Academia Sinica. This is the second consecutive year he has received a NSF-EAPSI fellowship; last summer he studied in Japan.
Shelomi is also a NSF Graduate Research Fellow, an award that covers part of his graduate school expenses.
(Editor’s Note: see http://entomology.ucdavis.edu/news/matanshelomishortyaward.html for website links to Quora and the Shorty Awards.