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Yale Honors Young Scientist Who Was the Subject of a Police Complaint

January 22, 2023
by Colin Poitras

Nine-year-old Bobbi Wilson was the subject of a police complaint in her hometown of Caldwell, New Jersey while she was working to eradicate the invasive spotted lanternfly from her neighborhood. The incident made national news and prompted a discussion about racial profiling.

Many students come to Yale with a dream of becoming a scientist, but few may have achieved the goal as quickly as Bobbi Wilson.

The 9-year-old affectionately known as "Bobbi Wonder" among her family and friends, visited the Yale School of Public Health last week where she was honored for her efforts in eradicating the invasive spotted lanternfly in her hometown of Caldwell, New Jersey.

The Jan. 20 ceremony also recognized Bobbi’s donation of her personal lanternfly collection to Yale’s Peabody Museum. The collection, which was officially entered into the museum’s database, will be forever associated with Bobbi’s name as the donor scientist.

“Yale doesn’t normally do anything like this … this is something unique to Bobbi,” said Yale School of Public Health Assistant Professor Ijeoma Opara, who organized the event. “We wanted to show her bravery and how inspiring she is, and we just want to make sure she continues to feel honored and loved by the Yale community.”

Friday marked Bobbi’s second visit to Yale. Opara invited Bobbi to tour the university last November after hearing about an incident in Caldwell on October 22 in which a neighbor reported Bobbi to police as a suspicious person. At the time, Bobbi was collecting lanternflies and using a homemade repellent (water, dish soap, and apple cider vinegar) to kill the insects that were feeding on trees near her home. Spotted lanternflies are extremely harmful to the environment and rampant in New Jersey.

News of Bobbi’s incident with police was picked up by national media outlets CNN and Good Morning America and prompted discussions about racial profiling. After seeing the reports, Opara contacted Bobbi’s mother, Monique Joseph, to invite Bobbi and her older sister, Hayden, 13, to come to Yale to meet other successful Black female scientists and to counter the horrible memories of that day.

“Dr. Opara, you have been a blessing. You are part of our testimonial and what it means to have a community of amazing, beautiful, Black, intelligent scientists and doctors, and more important than that is your heart and your passion for the work that you do…” Joseph said at the Jan. 20 event. “You helped us change the trajectory of that day.”

During Friday’s event, the Peabody Museum’s Entomology Collections Manager Lawrence Gall and the museum’s Assistant Director of Student Programs Nicole Palffy-Muhoray showed Bobbi her newly cataloged collection, which had been expertly mounted for display by museum staff. They then invited Bobbi to affix a label to one of her 27 specimens. The label identified it as Bobbi’s and reported where and when it was collected for future research purposes. Bobbi’s collection is already available for public viewing in the museum’s database.

We wanted to show her bravery and how inspiring she is, and we just want to make sure she continues to feel honored and loved by the Yale community.

Assistant Professor Ijeoma Opara

“We’re so grateful for all of the work you’ve done down in New Jersey and your interest in conservation and checking out the lanternflies’ advance,” Gall said. “We don’t have many of them in Connecticut right now. They are just starting to come up here. But I’m sure we’ll see them, so we’re very happy to have these specimens.”

Palffy-Muhoray said Bobbi is a wonderful role model for other students. And while the museum doesn't normally accept random outside donations of species collections,  the museum is proud to support her, as well as other young citizen scientists, and all students interested in the STEM fields – Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math.

Bobbi’s status as a role model and inspiration to others was evident in a short video shown Friday in which her friends, classmates, teachers, and family members praised her for her interest in science and learning. Those in attendance Friday included Professor Trace Kershaw, chair of the YSPH Department of Social and Behavioral Sciences who worked with Opara in bringing Bobbi to Yale; representatives of the Yale Black Postdoctoral Association who helped introduce Bobbi to Black scientists on campus; and Connecticut State Rep. Robyn Porter, D-Hamden, New Haven.

But it was Bobbi’s mother, Monique Joseph, who captured the spirit of the day in her eloquent remarks at the close of the proceedings.

“My heart is screaming, there are not words in the English dictionary that can really capture what my heart feels, what my mind feels, probably what Hayden and Bobbi feel, but this day for Bobbi and my family started out scary,” Joseph said, referring to Oct. 22. “The closest I can relate it to is the day we lost my mom. You know, you hear about racism; you kind of experience it in your peripheral if you’re lucky in your life. It doesn’t come knocking on your door. That morning when it happened, my world stopped.”

Joseph praised her eldest daughter Hayden for having the courage to step up and speak about the injustice of Bobbi’s incident at a local town council meeting. It was that interaction that propelled Bobbi’s story into national news.

Initially, Joseph said she felt conflicted about making a big issue of the incident when so many similar occurrences have ended in tragedy. But she realized that the neighbor’s call to police was intentional, and that racism is racism “no matter how you sugarcoat it.”

“I am aware this happened for us, not to us,” Joseph said. “The reason that Bobbi is here, and we are not grieving, is because someone above wanted us to be a part of changing racism in our town…It is because we have Bobbi that we are able to stand here and do something about it, to speak up for ourselves.”

“I don’t just speak up for Bobbi. I don’t just speak up for my daughters. I speak up for children,” Joseph continued. “I speak up for anyone that checks that “other” box, that has racism against them, biases against them.”

Joseph said her family will never forget what happened on that fateful day. And she said she was grateful for the overwhelming support she has received from people around the country, and from Yale, since news of the event broke.

Referring to Friday’s event, Joseph said, “This happened because of what happened to Bobbi, but it also happened because the whole community, the science community, got together and said ‘She’s one of us and we’re not going to let her lose her steam for STEM. We’re going to support the family, we’re going to support this girl, we’re going to make sure her big sister Hayden doesn’t lose that light.’”

Truly touched by the recognition of her two daughters, Joseph said: “I just appreciate it. It means the world. We will not let this be in vain. You guys will forever hear Bobbi because, between her dad, myself, my family, we are going to support her and make sure that she lives up to her fullest potential.”

Submitted by Colin Poitras on January 23, 2023