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‘Change the Trajectory’: Yale Names 9-Year-Old Black Girl ‘Donor Scientist’ Months After Neighbor Calls Cops on Her for Conducting Experiment

An Ivy League university took time to celebrate a 9-year-old girl for her outstanding work in science.

The honor comes months after she was allegedly racially profiled as a suspicious person while collecting insects for an experiment she was proposing to do with them at home.

Bobbi Wilson, affectionately known as “Bobbi Wonder,” was recognized by Yale University’s School of Public Health on Jan. 20 for her work to stop the flourishing of the destructive lanternfly pest in her hometown of Caldwell, New Jersey, and for donating her personal 27-specimen collection to the institution’s Peabody Museum, the school reports through a press release.

The girl was even invited to affix a label to one of the specimens.

Yale Honors Black Girl
Bobbi Wilson was honored by Yale University for her efforts in eradicating the invasive spotted lanternfly in her hometown of Caldwell, New Jersey. (Photo: Courtesy of Yale University)

With the donation, Wilson is now considered a Yale donor scientist and her prized work has been entered into the museum’s prestigious database under Lycorma delicatula, the scientific name for the winged bug. In the description tab, the young girl is listed as the collector and now, the display is available for public viewing in the museum’s database.

Assistant professor Ijeoma Opara at the Yale School of Public Health organized the event and said Wilson inspired many at the school.

“Yale doesn’t normally do anything like this … this is something unique to Bobbi. 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,” Opara said.

Wilson dropped onto Opara and the rest of the Yale community’s radar after news about her being stopped by police on Oct. 22 made national headlines.

The young entomologist was collecting spotted lanternflies, harmful insects that plague New Jersey, using a homemade repellent (water, dish soap, and apple cider vinegar) to kill them as they fed on trees near her home. While she was searching, one of her neighbors called law enforcement on her, reporting her as a suspicious person.

The mom spoke about what this incident did not just to Wilson, but to the entire family.

Remembering the day, she spoke in real-time as if she was currently experiencing the trauma all over again.

“My heart is screaming,” Joseph said. “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.”

She said the racism her family felt that day was unexpected.

“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 said.

Originally, Joseph said she was inclined to not make a big deal out of the matter, but once she realized that the “neighbor’s call to police was intentional,” she supported her older daughter Hayden to speak about the incident at a local town council meeting.

The neighbor was not just anyone, but a former New Jersey Councilmember Gordon Lawshe, who called the authorities on the young Black girl because he said he was “scared,” of a “suspicious Black woman.”

Lawshe told the dispatcher, “There’s a little Black woman walking and spraying stuff on the sidewalks and trees. I don’t know what the hell she is doing, but it’s scaring me though.”

“I don’t know what she’s spraying on the sidewalks and the trees,” Lawshe continued, before describing her as “real small” and “real tiny.” He mentioned she had a hood on and that the police would not be able to miss her.

When the police arrived they didn’t miss her. The bodycam captured Wilson wearing a light pink hoodie and an olive-green coat jacket, with a hood on it. She also had a large, black spray bottle in her hand that she used to spray.

During the city council meeting, Wilson’s big sister blasted those who pegged her as doing something wrong.

“She was not only doing something amazing for our environment,” Hayden Wilson said to the room filled with elected officials. “She was doing something that made her feel like a hero.”

When Opara heard about the incident, she also believed Wilson should be made to feel like a hero. She called the young girl’s mother and invited her to come to Yale University in Connecticut, one of the oldest institutions of higher learning in the country.

Bobbi arrived with her mother Monique Joseph and older sister Hayden, 13, in November, and met with other Black female scientists. The Yale Black Postdoctoral Association also sent representatives to the event to help introduce Wilson to other Black scientists on campus.

As Wilson was honored, her mother shared that Opara has made an impact on her family in a major way.

She said, “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… You helped us change the trajectory of that day.”

Gall shared that the institution was “grateful” for Wilson.

“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. 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,” the collections manager said.

His colleague Palffy-Muhoray, who works with students, said Wilson is a role model for other “young citizen scientists” interested in STEM.

Joseph said that she and her daughters are looking at this experience as something that “happened for us, not to us.”

“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,” Joseph added. “It is because we have Bobbi that we are able to stand here and do something about it, to speak up for ourselves.”

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