“When I first started forensic entomology, there was no job, there was no career, it was just one of those weird things that no one had really heard about – so I have been incredibly fortunate in my career to be able to succeed in this area.”


Celebrating Gail Anderson: The journey behind two prestigious entomology awards

February 24, 2022

By Adriana González Braniff

Simon Fraser University’s School of Criminology proudly celebrates professor Gail S. Anderson, a specialist in the study of insects, as the 2021 Entomological Society of Canada (ESC) Gold Medalist – an award of the highest honour, recognizing outstanding achievement in Canadian entomology. The award was recently presented at the 2021 Entomological Society of Canada Joint Annual Meeting, joint with the Entomological Society of Ontario (ESO). She will give the Gold Medal Address at the 2022 Joint Annual Meeting of the Entomological Society of Canada, the Entomological Society of America (ESA), and the Entomological Society of B.C. (ESBC).

Additionally, Anderson received the Entomological Society of America's Recognition Award in Medical, Urban, & Veterinary Entomology, sponsored by S.C. Johnson & Son, Inc. A prestigious award given in recognition of her outstanding research, teaching, outreach, and service contributions. “To be recognized as a Canadian is huge,” she says.

Anderson stands out for her pioneering research accomplishments, her dedicated teaching and mentorship, her outreach contributions to scientific bodies and communities, and her service as a leader at the highest level in the science field.­­­­­ She has many notable achievements as a forensic entomologist, and in fact, she was the first and only full-time forensic entomologist in Canada until her former graduate student became the second at the University of Windsor.

Over three decades, she has built a high-profile research program, conducted entomological investigations of 250 homicides and other criminal cases, and played a key role in establishing SFU’s Centre for Forensic Research.

The journey to these awards, among many previous others, has been a long and rewarding one for Anderson. “I started in a little trailer at the back of the SFU Biology Department and that led to the Centre for Forensic Research – a state-of-the-art facility,” she says. “I feel very fortunate to do something that I love and feel is important.” Anderson had always wanted to do something useful with her understanding of insects, and she can’t think of anything more useful than trying to solve crimes. Among her greatest accomplishments is her involvement in Innocence Project cases, through which she managed to exonerate a wrongfully convicted woman after 16 years in prison.

Some of the major people that put Anderson on this path are her amazing mentors. She thanks her PhD supervisor, Dr. John H. Borden, who nominated Anderson for the two recent awards, for his mentorship and guidance. Other important mentors include her other PhD supervisor, Dr. Peter Belton, and professor Thelma Finlayson, her dearest mentor for entomology – who published her last paper at the age of 99, and volunteered in academic advising at SFU until the age of 95.  “Mentors like the ones I have had are amazing – you don’t even realize it at the time, but they guide you, lead you, and give you a direction,” she says. “When I first started forensic entomology, there was no job, there was no career, it was just one of those weird things that no one had really heard about – so I have been incredibly fortunate in my career to be able to succeed in this area.”

Anderson’s current interests and projects include an extensive amount of research around understanding body decomposition in the ocean, and a great part of her work at the moment involves miscarriages of justice using insects. Especially important is the timing of when insects actually appear or disappear in the winter, and if they are fertile or not. “This is a big deal because it helps find a time of death and prove wrongful convictions,” she says. “I think it is really powerful that we can teach our SFU Criminology students about forensic science. They don’t have to have a science background but if they can understand it enough to know the importance of calling a botanist, or an entomologist, or questioning the pathologist in certain cases – that can save someone from being wrongfully convicted.”

Anderson’s advice to students pursuing a career in her field of work is – go for it. “I was told I would never make a career out of it and look at me now. If you believe in it, if you want it – keep trying, keep going, don’t let anybody tell you that you can’t do something.”