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UC Davis Magazine

Volume 25 · Number 3 · Spring 2008

Dirty Work and Dream Jobs: William Yuen

William Yuen

(Photo: Karin Higgins/UC Davis)

Senior in biochemistry and molecular biology from Arcadia
Job: Insect handler at the Bohart Museum of Entomology

Before last summer, most of what William Yuen knew about bugs came from his childhood days of capturing them and putting them in a jar. Now after several months of sorting and identifying insect specimens and caring for a variety of live bugs, Yuen knows enough to lead tours of schoolchildren and adults through one of the nation’s largest insect collections. As part of his half-time job, he cleans cages and feeds three species of cockroaches, five types of walking sticks and about a half-dozen arachnids, including tarantulas and scorpions.

Lessons learned from roaches: At first, Yuen said he worried about handling the bugs because they seemed fragile and he didn’t want to hurt them.  “After a while, you learn how durable most of them are — especially the cockroaches. . . . You don’t really handle roaches in the real world. They carry disease. But here, we grow them in culture, so they’re clean. . . . The cockroaches, we feed them just about anything. After lunch, if we have anything left over, we throw that in there too.” He prefers handling the Madagascar hissing cockroaches over the death head roaches, which emit an odor when frightened.

Spikes and bites: Yuen says he tries to avoid handling the New Guinea walking sticks because of skin-piercing spikes on their legs. And the Indian ornamental spiders are hands-off because their bites are painful. “You just kind of open their cages, feed them and then shut their cages as quickly as possible. They are pretty aggressive, and they are very fast.”

Career training: Yuen applied for this job in part because it required manual dexterity — a useful skill for an aspiring dentist. “You don’t want shaky hands,” he says. But working with insects has him also considering, as an alternative to dental school, graduate programs to study the biochemistry of insects. “Maybe there are some chemicals they produce that might be beneficial.”

Perk of the job: He always has a conversation topper. “You go hang out with your friends. They ask, ‘What did you do today?’ I say, ‘Oh, I was cleaning the cockroach and the tarantula cages.’ It’s something cool to talk about.”


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