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Ask A Scientist: An Insect Edition With Dr. Corrie Moreau

By Marielle Shaw in Arts & Entertainment on Sep 27, 2014 4:00PM

Just one year ago, the New York Times examined the issue of women in STEM fields (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics), pointing out that even now, only 1/5th of the physics Ph.Ds. awarded are to women.

It took LEGO until this year to put out female figurines that were more than interconnective, Brat-esque stereotypes. It’s things like this that make it so important that women have a voice in science, and that their voice is heard.

As a young girl, I was a tomboy with an ever-expanding rock collection who wanted to be a geologist. I built forts, got muddy and had a specific fascination with catching garter snakes and showing them to my mother. I liked to catch (and release) butterflies and ladybugs and I loved knowing how things worked. And I wasn’t a special case.

There were, and still are, little girls all over the world who love to explore, read, examine things and interact with the world around them. That scientific curiosity in their heads needs to be encouraged and developed, so they know they have a place in these fields just as much as their male counterparts.

Our next scientist was once one of those girls, and is now one of the Field Museum’s Women In Science. Her name is Dr. Corrie Moreau, and she’s the Associate Curator in the Integrative Research Center (Insects) in the Department of Science and Education.

We invite you to get to know Dr. Moreau with this month’s "Ask a Scientist" feature, and then ask some questions of your own! You can post questions in this article’s comment section and we’ll choose some of the best for Dr. Moreau to answer for you in a later installment.

CHICAGOIST: How long have you been with The Field?

Dr. Corrie Moreau: I started at The Field Museum in 2008, although I was technically hired in 2007. In 2007, I was finishing my Ph.D. at Harvard University and applied to an open position of Curator of Insects. It is highly unusual for graduate students in my field to be offered academic jobs (like my curator position or as a university professor) straight out of graduate school, but it seemed like such a great opportunity and I had to give it a try.

When I was invited out to interview, I was completely amazed by the physical building, the outstanding exhibitions and the size of the scientific collections. I knew then if offered the position I would accept in a heartbeat. In the meantime, I was awarded a prestigious postdoctoral fellowship at U.C. Berkeley as a Miller Fellow. Eventually, The Field Museum agreed to let me go out to U.C. Berkeley for a year to gain additional training before starting my position. In the six years I have been at The Field Museum, I have never regretted that decision I made while still in graduate school and still think I have one of the best jobs in the world!

C: What does your job entail?

Dr. Corrie Moreau: The Field Museum has over 26 million specimens and artifacts, with less than 1 percent on display in the public exhibitions. Most of these specimens are held behind the scenes in the scientific research areas for scientists here at The Field Museum and from around the world to use to conduct original research. The insects alone make up more than 50 percent of the 26 million specimens, so as a curator of our insect collections, I am responsible for both overseeing staff to care for these collections, participating in field work to continue to add to these collections, and doing research using the collections.

My specific research focus is on the evolution and diversification of ants. I want to understand why are there so many species (there are over 15,000 ant species with scientific names and another 15,000-30,000 waiting to be discovered), why they are found where they are (i.e. why are there more species in the tropical regions of the world), how long have they been on the planet (the oldest known ant fossil is 100 million years old!) and how do the bacteria in their guts help them process food and shift diets. Although I study ants and the bacteria associated with their digestive tracts using DNA and genomics, I am ultimately interested in understanding how the information we gain from studying ants can help us understand broader questions in biology.

C: How did you get into your field of research?

Dr. Corrie Moreau: I always loved insects, and ants in particular. Growing up I kept insects in jars in my room and ant farms on my bookshelves. I also really liked how evolution provided the framework to understand the diversity of life we find on the planet currently and through deep time. I knew when I went away to college that I wanted to find a way to unite these two passions and have been lucky enough to continue to do both throughout my career.

C: What's your favorite specimen at The Field?

Dr. Corrie Moreau: That is a really difficult question to answer and changes almost daily. Although I should pick an ant since I have dedicated my career to studying their evolutionary history, I realize that without a microscope many people have a difficult time seeing their beauty—and trust me they can be quite beautiful. I guess if pressed to pick a favorite, today it would be one of the many amazing trilobites on display in the Cambrian Explosion section of Evolving Planet. Not only are they dazzling in their shapes, sizes and spines, but this period of evolutionary time saw the origin of most of the animals, shapes and groups that are still around today.

C: What are you working on today?

Dr. Corrie Moreau: One of the most rewarding parts of my job is mentoring students. I have had the opportunity to have high school and college interns work in my lab and I also currently serve as the major thesis advisor to three Ph.D. graduate students at the University of Chicago. Today, I am working on a scientific publication with one graduate student and a grant proposal with another. The scientific publication we are working on is really exciting, as we are comparing the genomes of seven ant species we sequenced to address questions regarding the evolution of mutualistic behaviors. We are hoping to have this published in the near future, so stay tuned to see what we find!

Do you have any questions for Dr. Corrie Moreau? Submit your questions in the comments section below, and we'll pick a few for her to answer.