Interview with a social insect scientist: Corrie Moreau


IS: Who are you and what do you do?

CSM: I am Dr. Corrie Moreau (@CorrieMoreau), Associate Curator/Professor at the Field Museum of Natural History. I oversee a very large scientific collection and run an active research program using molecular and genomic tools to study the evolution of social insects.

IS: How did you end up researching social insects?

CSM: Since a young age I have always wanted to study ants. Growing up in New Orleans, Louisiana, there were always ants everywhere and they completely fascinated me.

IS: What is your favourite social insect and why?

CSM: Ants! There are so many closely related species that look and behave differently and even distantly related species that have converged on their morphology and behaviors. These differences and similarities provide an excellent system to understand how and why these traits evolve.

IS: What is the best moment/discovery in your research so far? What made it so memorable?

CSM: For me there are two moments in my research so far that have stood out. One came when I inferred the first large-scale molecular phylogeny of the ants and found striking diversification that corresponded to the rise of the flowering plants. The second came when I started to realize the key role that host-associated bacteria can have on the ecology and evolution of social insects. For me what made these both so memorable is they helped explain the ecological and evolutionary success of the group of organisms I had been studying so intimately.

IS: If teaching is part of your work, what courses do you teach? Has your work on social insects helped to shape your teaching?

CSM: Being at a large natural history museum, I have the opportunity to share my research and educate a very diverse audience on a daily basis. This is really rewarding. Since everyone has at least seen an ant, this opens the door to be able to talk about cutting-edge research and how this informs other aspects of science. I have also taught a phylogenetics course at the University of Chicago and enjoy being in the more formal classroom setting too. Being able to share the theoretical framework and analytical skills that allow students to address their own research questions is very gratifying.

IS: What is the last book you read? Would you recommend it? Why or why not?

CSM: I am currently reading “Time, Love, Memory: A Great Biologist and His Quest for the Origins of Behavior” by Jonathan Weiner. It was sent to me as a gift from Dr. Hopi Hoekstra, behavioural geneticists at Harvard University. The book follows the research career of Dr. Seymour Benzer to tell the history of behavioral genetics. The book is very well written and provides insights into not only the scientific highlights of this field, but the opportunity to learn a little about the lives of several scientists that helped develop this field.

IS: Did any one book have a major influence in shaping your career? What was the book and how did it affect you?

CSM: One book that I consistently return to is “Ants: Their Structure, Development, and Behavior” by William Morton Wheeler. This book was published in 1910 and is still one of the most insightful and complete books on ants. Of course, many things we know about ants has changed in the last 100 years, but this book still has so many inspiring insights into ant biology. And the figures and diagrams on ant internal and external anatomy are excellent!

IS: Outside of science, what are your favourite activities, hobbies or sports?

CSM: Reading, running, yoga, hiking, and traveling the world for research and fun with my husband, Dr. Christophe Duplais.

IS: How do you keep going when things get tough?

CSM: I wish I had some words of wisdom here since I know everyone has difficult times or obstacles to overcome. For me I try to return to what excites me, which is often enough to help push me through the tough times.

IS: If you were to go live on an uninhabited island and could only bring three things, what would you bring? Why?

CSM: This is a tough question. I would bring an avocado seed to grow lots of avocados to eat. A hand lens to be able to try to identify all the cool insects I find. And, lastly, a field notebook (and lots of pencils – I know that is more than one thing, but you need pencils if you have a notebook) to record all my observations.

IS: Who do you think has had the greatest influence on your science career?

CSM: I don’t think any scientist can attribute their careers to one person and that is certainly true for me. My advisors and mentors from undergraduate, master’s, Ph.D. and postdoc all deserve very special thanks. In addition there are a myriad of teachers and scientists that have had a big impact on the way I think and try to solve problems. I thank them all.

IS: What advice would you give to a young person hoping to be a social insect researcher in the future?

CSM: Follow your passions. Working in science is really rewarding, and I believe it is important to do what you love everyday. So if you are passionate about some aspect of social insect science then you should absolutely go for it! There are more questions and species than people on the planet so we need all the social insect scientists we can get.



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