Growing up, Heidi Hopkins used to eye cockroaches as they stuck their long, thread-like antennae out from beneath her furniture. Wondering why these critters get so much disdain, she decided to study them.
“I’ve always been a fan of the underdog,” she said. “When I would hear that something was hated or maligned or had a bad reputation, I’ve always wanted to go and find out if that was actually true … So I started doing research on cockroaches, and it turns out that everything we know about cockroaches isn’t true.”
By the end of last month, Hopkins’ research bore new success as she discovered 39 new species of desert cockroaches called Arenivaga. Hopkins, 48, said that there were nine known species initially.
Hopkins, a Ph.D. candidate in UNM’s biology department, said she began her research more than four years ago. She said that she foresaw it at the time as only a minor part of her dissertation.
“These particular cockroaches live in deserts around the world,” she said. “They’re sort of considered extremophiles. Not thinking much about it, this was just going to be a little exercise in learning taxonomy, and it might have ended up as one chapter of my dissertation.”
After contacting national collectors of desert cockroach specimens, Hopkins wound up with about 7,500 samples, a number she found astounding. She said she had to inspect each sample’s genitalia to identify whether it was a member of a new species.
“The genus has not been revised since 1920,” she said. “It’s nearly been a century. People have been collecting all that time … We had a hint that at the end of that first year, this wasn’t going to be easy and this wasn’t going to be small.”
Originally from Rhode Island, Hopkins got her bachelor’s degree in history from Iowa’s Grinell College and her master’s degree in education from Chapman University in California. She said she then moved to New Mexico with her ex-husband and taught history and science in middle school for ten years.
As a nontraditional student, Hopkins applied for her doctorate in biology at UNM in 2009.
“I’m old enough to be the mother of most of the people that I’m studying with,” she said. “A lot of them are around half my age.”
Hopkins will head to Rutgers University in the fall for her post-doctorate studies.
She said she decided to take on entomology because it is an underrated field of biology.
“If you study mammals, it’s very rare that you find new mammals,” she said. “If you study birds, it’s very rare that you find a new bird. But if you study invertebrates, which are what insects are, there are millions of invertebrates that still have not been discovered and have not been described.”
Through her research, Hopkins said she aims to dispel negative myths about cockroaches. She said that only about 20 cockroach species of a total of 8,000 comprise domestic cockroaches that most people despise.
Research on domestic cockroaches in the United States is well-funded because of extermination companies, she added, but research on wild species, which she focuses on, is scarce, and there is no facility that conducts wild cockroach research in the country.
Throughout the course of her career, she said she aims to establish the first one.
“If I were fortunate enough, maybe I could start a wild cockroach lab somewhere so that I can provide a place for someone else to come and study,” she said. “I didn’t have any place to go … I’ve already had students, when I go to national meetings, ask if I’m going to be establishing a lab.”