- Associated Press - Sunday, September 20, 2015

JUNEAU, Alaska (AP) - Sayde Ridling’s silver four-door stands out from all the other cars parking at the Juneau Police Department station. It’s covered with bright blue stickers of different insects, each of which tells a story meaningful to the bug-loving entomologist.

One the driver’s side of the car, for instance, are decals of a praying mantis, her first childhood pet, crickets, which she and her family raised to feed said praying mantis, and a spiny-looking silverfish, which she used to collect in college.

“I had a little Tupperware container of them and kept a bunch in there, but they escaped,” she said. She paused and added, “The tarantulas have never escaped. I should say that.”

There’s also an ant, for the time she did an ant survey, and a Madagascar hissing cockroach, which she brings into classrooms for educational purposes, much to the delight and horror of elementary aged school children.

“They’re really good outreach pets because they’re pretty much indestructible,” she said of the cockroaches. “You can hand them to a kid, and they can scare it, throw it, and it’s not going to hurt it. And when you poke them, they hiss, which is always really exciting for the kids.”

Her favorite, though, are the three beetles on the hood of her car.

“Weevils actually are my favorite insect,” she said. “They’re a kind of beetle.”

Before Ridling moved to Juneau and became a dispatcher at the JPD Communications Center, she helped collect, sort and identify beetles on Prince of Wales Island. She compared the DNA of the beetles on the Aleutian volcano Kasatochi before and after it erupted in 2008 for a research project. She helped identify a new species of beetles in Peru.

“They’re really cute,” she said, adding that finding a new species isn’t terribly uncommon because there are so many species of beetles. “They have little tiny horns, and it’s really small.”

The 24-year-old, born in Fairbanks, studied biological science at the University of Alaska Fairbanks. She volunteered and worked at the entomology lab there at the University of Alaska Museum of the North. She helped lead “bug camp” at the Denali Education Center and did “show and tell” presentations at elementary schools.

“My favorite part of doing entomology was doing outreach and going to classrooms and Girl Scout groups showing them tarantulas and these really awesome insects and showing that you really don’t have to be afraid of them,” she said. “They’re interesting and you can learn a lot from them.”

Her love of insects dates back to childhood. Her mom used to point out insects - including the weevil - to her in the garden. Her mother also encouraged her to take an entomology class in the sixth-grade.

“I didn’t even know what it was, and my mom was like, ‘Oh, you should sign up, you’d like it,’” Ridling said. “And so I was like alright. And after the first day, I came home, and I said this is what I want to do.”

“When I was a kid, I was also kind of contradictory,” she added. “If everybody liked the color red, I always liked green. So as a kid, everybody liked butterflies, and I was like, well, I like beetles. So that was my thing.”

While the insectophile was always interested in bugs, a dueling interest blossomed. She found herself taking CPR classes in college, then an EMT course, and then other emergency services courses.

It may seem like a stark contrast to collecting beetles, but it makes sense when considering Ridling’s upbringing. Her father, Mark Ridling, was an Alaska State Trooper, and her mother, Sherry, used to work at the Soldotna Communications Center. Her family moved all across the state - from Fairbanks to Glenallen, Seward, Wasilla, Nikiski and Soldotna - during the course of her father’s career in law enforcement.

“It was always kind of in the back of my head,” she said of working in emergency services. She said she found the team work aspect appealing, and the potential reward of helping people.

She decided to apply with JPD when she and her boyfriend moved to Juneau in January. It was a great decision, she said.

“I really wanted to kind of give this other interest that I had a chance, to see what it meant to me and if I would like it,” she said. “So (the career switch) wasn’t necessarily because there wasn’t (entomology) opportunities in Juneau, because I think there’s a couple here. I applied for one short-term one, but I held back because I really wanted to try dispatch.”

Ridling said she already loves being a dispatcher, despite the high stress and long hours. The law enforcement community is tight-knit, and the potential for helping people is high, she said.

“I think every day is a new challenge, that was one thing I liked about it, too,” she said in an interview this past week at the JPD headquarters. “No day is the same, every phone call is going to be different.”

That’s not to say that she’s given up entomology. In her spare time, she goes out in the field searching for and collecting beetles. She logs scientific data about the species and sends it back to the university for their database.

“Entomology is definitely still a part of my life,” she said with a laugh. She reached into her purse and pulled something out. “I always carry collection vials.”

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Information from: Juneau (Alaska) Empire, http://www.juneauempire.com

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