The Colgate Scene
September 1999
Table of contents
A gathering of dragonflies
by John D. Hubbard

A catch prompts a lakeside discussion.

Philip S. Corbet signs a copy of his landmark dragonfly book, one of many publications available at the conference.

Organizers Janet Rith-Najarian '81 and Vicky McMillan

Kiyoski Inoue stalks a Taylor Lake dragonfly.

A computer drawing, created by Vicky McMillan's husband, Professor of Biology Rob Arnold, of Plathemis lydia, the meeting's mascot
"In the shimmering of the
setting sun, red dragonflies.
When did I first see them,
carried along on her back?"

With the singing of Akatombo, a lovely Japanese folk song, the 1999 International Congress of Odonato-logy and the first Symposium of the Worldwide Dragonfly Association (WDA) got underway on campus.

     The congress was sponsored by the WDA and Colgate and organized by Vicky McMillan, department chair of interdisciplinary writing and a research associate in biology, and Janet Rith-Najarian '81.

     With support from the biology department, division of natural sciences, division of university stud-ies and the dean's office, McMillan and Rith-Najarian oversaw six days of science and activity.

     While on a freshman orientation tour of the Chenango Valley with Frank Farnsworth '37 in 1978, Rith-Najarian saw McMillan near the ponds just across from campus, not far from Sigma Chi.

     "Oh, she's out there all the time chasing dragonflies," explained Farnsworth, who was then teaching in the economics department. Rith-Najarian, who was interested in environmental studies, thought she'd like to meet the young woman she assumed was a junior or senior.

     On the first day of classes, Rith-Najarian settled into her scientific writing seminar and in walked McMillan, who was teaching the course. Despite the surprise, it was the beginning of a long friendship and academic collaboration that all took wing with the dragonfly.

     Rith-Najarian became McMillan's field assistant, went on for her PhD and now lives in Minnesota "chasing dragonflies and teaching when it's not dragonfly season."

     The germ of the idea of hosting the congress took hold at the 1995 international conference in Germany. Rith-Najarian remembers staying up all night with McMillan imagining how the congress could work at Colgate and then putting together a proposal.

     "It seems I was working on the congress non-stop during the spring semester," said McMillan, who wanted a conference at which people felt comfortable and that had been personally tailored to a world of different requirements.

     "There were thousands of details. Everybody had legitimate requests and needs. I don't know how people organized these events before computers," said McMillan, who leaned heavily on e-mail as a planning tool.

     "Sharing it with Janet, who was one of my first students at Colgate and has become such a treasured friend, was special, too."

     Rith-Najarian put together many of the field trips and when she arrived on campus "immediately saw what needed to be done and stepped right in," according to McMillan.

     Vicky McMillan remembers always wanting to study insects. She tells the story from her childhood that helped plot the course of study that has led to her life's work. One late afternoon she found herself in a feeding swarm of dragonflies. "It seemed like a miracle, with dragonflies of every size and color.

     "I've always felt they were beautiful."

     Aesthetics play a major role in the allure of the dragonfly. Not unlike most scientific conferences, the real heart of the congress was the paper sessions, but odonatologists aren't entirely objective.

     "These people study dragonflies partly because they love the way they look and move. They take an almost spiritual pleasure in them," said McMillan. And it wasn't just professionals discussing "flight-related morphology of some nearctic odonata," "phylogenetic relationships, biogeography and speciation patterns of North American damsel-flies of genus Ischnura" and "modeling larval dragonfly seasonal mortality."

     "Dragonflies have been a hobby of mine for 40 years," said Hal White, who described himself as "a dedicated amateur," near Taylor Lake during a break in the scholarly lectures.

     White, a biochemistry professor at the University of Delaware, was one of the 85 participants attending the congress and, like many of the others, he was not only gathering information but collecting specimens, too. With his net poised close to the water's edge, he snared insects and labeled his catch.

     "It's the lure of finding something interesting. My normal occupation doesn't get me out that much."

     Fred Sibley from Yale moved his microscope out of a lab to a picnic table near Case Library to catalog his catch.

     "I spent 40 years studying birds and I've switched to dragonflies. I find them much more interesting. There hasn't been as much study -- some say it's a hundred years behind birds -- so there's a lot the amateur can do."

     Rith-Najarian concurred. In addition to teaching the geography of natural resources at Bemidji State, she works with schoolchildren. "Dragonflies haven't been well studied, especially in Minnesota, and the kids are becoming citizen-scientists." Of course, some of the appeal is the wonderful places the subjects live, and the thrill of the hunt.

     "Catching dragonflies is an athletic event. I love tracking them -- it's as close to safari as I'll ever get. It's such a treasure hunt, especially in Minnesota," said Rith-Najarian. And around Taylor Lake. Throughout the week it was common to see conference participants from all over the world peering through the loosestrife and lilies hoping to bag a rare find.

     The Japanese came armed with exceptionally long poles and the Austrians would net a species and then finish with a flourishing follow-through.

     "This is the fun part," said one conference participant as he slipped a dragonfly into a glassine envelope. "What people don't see is the hours spent compiling research in the lab."

     Kat Weibrecht '98 returned to campus to lend a hand. "It has been amazing to meet people from all over the world who share a common interest and it's great to see scientific interest isn't limited to gorillas, pandas and the big cats and that people can be excited by insects, the creepy-crawlies."

     Michael Wolyniak '98 and Jann Vendetti '01, who have both done summer dragonfly research with McMillan, were on campus too.

     Karen Froloich, a graduate student in biodiversity, conservation and policy in Albany's Department of Biological Sciences, was excited to meet experts "who wrote seminal books on odonata."

     Pramote Saiwichian, a retired forest officer, introduced Amnuai Pinratana, a teacher who operated a college in Bangkok, as owner of one of Thailand's best collections -- more than 10,000 butterflies, moths and beetles. They both purchased teacups from among the numerous items decorated with dragonflies that were for sale.

     This year's congress -- the 2001 event will be in Sweden and the 2003 gathering is slated for Australia -- also included less formal poster sessions, an arts and crafts exhibition, a swing concert, sightseeing tours and field trips.

     A flotilla of canoes navigated Nine Mile Swamp, while other participants headed for Rogers Environmental Education Center, Cooperstown and the Oneida Nation's Shako:Wi Center. There were post-conference tours of the Adirondacks and to Minnesota as well.

     Always, there was the exchange of ideas on the study of dragonflies -- formally, unstructured, in lecture halls and over a beverage.

     "A lot of the value comes from getting to know colleagues whose work you've read," said McMillan.

     Long after the visitors had left campus, Vicky McMillan was busy tying up loose ends and still giving thanks to a support staff that included her colleagues and family, all who were adorned for the week in dragonfly clothes.

     "The highlight for me was very personal and it involved my kids. Seeing them in their outfits, talking to people from all over the world. It was wonderful, and when Jennifer sang the opening song, accompanied by Laura, that was special, too."

In the gleaming of the
setting sun, red dragonflies.
See them so still
atop the bamboo stalks.

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