Corrie Moreau grew up a city kid in the South. In middle school, she was on the dance team and marched in Mardi Gras parades while looking for ants in the cracks of the sidewalk outside her apartment. Read on to learn how she took her childhood love of ants and turned it into her full-time career, how she engages girls in science at The Field Museum and how her parents fostered confidence and creativity in her from a young age onward.
Lea: Where were you in middle school?
Corrie: I grew up in Louisiana. For me, the most awesome part of growing up in the South was there were bugs everywhere and they were big. I think that’s sort of where my fascination with bugs started. I always liked ants the most. I can look back on it now and know that every ant that I probably ever saw was a fire ant, which is invasive, stings you and isn’t great for the local ecosystem. But as a kid I had a lot of fun watching them do whatever it was they were doing… giving them breadcrumbs and watching them drag those around. I just loved being outdoors and playing with whatever I could find. I grew up in the city, so it’s not like there was a ton of wildlife. Whatever I could find in the cracks of the sidewalk was always exciting.
I grew up in the city, so it’s not like there was a ton of wildlife. Whatever I could find in the cracks of the sidewalk was always exciting.
Did you collect anything when you were younger?
I used to keep things like jars of spiders. I would try to have ant farms in jars in my bedroom and then I used to just collect any trinket of animals I could find, figurines. When I was a little older, I had a lightbulb collection. All the nerdy stuff kids had.
Do you still have anything, a memento, from middle school?
I don’t think so. We moved a lot as kids, so I didn’t really keep a lot. I’m also the type of person that likes to collect and purge, at least in my home stuff. It’s great for my research, because I get to collect and then keep it. All of my collections get integrated into research. You don’t feel quite as tied down and having to move all of those things across the country four times.
What did your parents do? You said you moved around a lot.
We moved around a lot mostly because I came from a family with not a lot of financial means. It was one of those things that happens… we’ve never owned a home, I’ve only lived in apartments my whole life. My dad was in the restaurant business. He either owned restaurants or ran restaurants. My mom had a lot of odd jobs, but a lot were involved in law enforcement.
Do you have any siblings?
I have a younger brother and he’s awesome. We grew up together and spent a lot of time together – we were really close growing up. We were five years apart and I think that’s just the right number of years — we were close enough that we wanted to hang out, but not so close that it was always competition or fighting.
What were some of your favorite subjects?
I obviously loved biology. I think it was more that I liked the teachers rather than the subjects back then. So if I had a really great teacher they could convince me that whatever subject I was taking was really exciting. I think that’s a skill. I was always drawn to the sciences and I grew up watching PBS. I wouldn’t be a scientist if it wasn’t for watching documentaries on PBS. Back then they didn’t have Animal Planet, so I was glued to PBS growing up. I had some really amazing teachers along the way. Social studies, speech, literature … classes that I wouldn’t have necessarily thought I was interested in, I was really smitten with for a year while I had that teacher. Whoever was the most enthusiastic teacher that year would gain my attention.
What was the first concert that you ever went to?
I think it was probably all of the local punk rock bands in the towns I grew up in. Those were probably the first. They were usually at a Putt-Putt golf facility. It’s pretty funny when I think back on it.
[The first concert I went to was] probably … [a] local punk rock band… usually at a Putt-Putt golf facility.
Did you play any instruments or were you in a band?
I never did. I certainly wouldn’t have minded, I just wasn’t very musical.
Did you do any clubs after school?
I was in the French club and the science club. We didn’t have a lot of that in my school. In Louisiana the public school system wasn’t flush with funds, so we didn’t have as many opportunities as my friends that I now know did. I always wanted to be in band, but I wasn’t.
I was on the dance team, though. We danced to bad ‘80s music. Growing up in Louisiana, the cool thing about being in the marching band or on the dance team was that you got to dance in the Mardi Gras parades. So every year we would be able to do our dance with the marching band in the Mardi Gras parades – by the end we were covered in beads, it was great.
Growing up in Louisiana, the cool thing about being in the marching band or the dance team was that you got to dance in the Mardi Gras parades.
What was your favorite Mardi Gras memory?
It’s just that it’s such a fun, festive time of the year. Especially when you’re a kid. One, you get off of school, which every kid loves. Two, you get all of these trinkets, doubloons, beads and toys. It’s just really fun. You’d always have your favorite beads by the end of the Mardi Gras season. We’d get to eat King Cake… all of these great things that came along with Mardi Gras.
Did you ever think that you would become a scientist and what did you think that scientists did all day?
I didn’t come from an academic family, so I didn’t really know any scientists growing up. I didn’t really know that many people who had gone to college. To be honest, I thought that when I graduated college I would teach school because those were the only people I knew who had college degrees. I didn’t really think I’d be a scientist. I sort of always assumed that there were 20 or 40 of those and they were all on PBS and that was all they needed; I hadn’t actually thought it through. If you had asked me to speculate wildly on what I wanted to be, I would have totally wanted to be one of the naturalist explorers on PBS. That would have been so cool running around the rainforest doing research, but I didn’t really think you could do that. Not until I was well into undergrad did I come to the realization that I could become a scientist. It wasn’t that there were only 20 or 40 of them, there were thousands and thousands, and scientists could take on may different forms, from a researcher to a forest ranger.
Where did you end up? What role do you play as a scientist?
I guess I kind of got to be exactly what I wanted to be. My job is to run around rainforests collecting bugs and then do evolutionary biology research on them in a DNA and genomics lab. How much cooler could that be? I get to train the next generation of scientists to become the next explorers. I just love it.
My job is to run around rainforests collecting bugs and then do evolutionary biology research on them in a DNA and genomics lab. How much cooler could that be?
If you could give your younger self some advice, what would you tell yourself?
Dream big. Don’t be insecure or intimidated. Just follow your passion and don’t care what anybody else thinks. It’s a hard thing to tell somebody in junior high. Ignore the peer pressure you’re feeling. In 20 years you’ll probably not be in touch with many of these people and you will have moved on. You can just let go of your hangups when you’re in junior high and follow your passion. I think a lot of people would be a lot happier at that age if they followed that advice.
Why do you think that would be hard advice to take?
I think it’s because of world experience. Essentially your world is your peers and your school. Maybe you went on family vacations, but it’s not like you had this perspective of going through undergrad and doing independent research and meeting people from all over the world and traveling to do research all over the world. Those things open up your eyes to how big the world is. Sometimes it’s also very small. You meet people over and over again in the most obscure places, which is really fun. It’s perspective… and getting old.
How do you teach perspective?
I don’t know that you can teach perspective, you can just empower students to have confidence. That’s especially true for girls. Unfortunately, our school system is not conducive to girls feeling smart and successful in the sciences. Sometimes when they are actually quite good at those things… we use adjectives to describe them that we wouldn’t use for men. The one that’s in vogue right now is that guys that are assertive or in leadership positions are “the boss,” or the “leader.” Where, if girls do lead, they’re “bossy.” I think empowering girls to feel strong and confident without the negative connotations could go a very long way, for boys and girls, for them to all seek those leadership qualities.
I think empowering girls to feel strong and confident without the negative connotations could go a very long way, for boys and girls.
What are some ways that you have facilitated those opportunities for girls?
There’s a few different ways. One, being conscious of our language choices and also taking ownership of it. Having women mentors and role models is highly critical. Having mentors and role models that are not ashamed to say, “yeah, I’m the boss.” That’s ok. I also think that providing opportunities to girls early on is critical. One of the things that we’ve been doing at The Field Museum is that we started a Women in Science group. We have an internship opportunity where both high school and undergraduate students come and get paid internships with us. Just so they can gain those hands-on experience working alongside a scientist conducting their own research. They begin to feel confident and know that they can go forward and be a scientist in the future.
What were some of your favorite books growing up?
I loved a lot of E. O. Wilson’s books, which you can imagine with me being an ant nerd. I also liked The Catcher in the Rye a lot. I liked that he was such a quirky, odd kid. I thought that was really endearing. I also spent a lot of time with the Life nature books. They had all the different animal books and every different ecosystem. I was obsessed with looking at those. You could be on a safari in Africa one day and you could be studying bats the next day. I loved looking through those books.
What’s been the most surprising thing about being a scientist? What do you think your middle school self would be most surprised about?
How much freedom and creativity you have as a scientist. I guess I sort of always thought that scientists went into a lab and followed a rigid set of protocols, where they started at A and ended up at Z. But here’s one of the really exciting things about science: you start off on projects and you don’t know where you’re going to end up. Even if you have a sort of inkling of where things will end up, the way you get there might be really odd. You may end up somewhere else entirely and the results might be a complete surprise. I think that’s one of the most amazing things about science. It’s a path to inquiry where you don’t know the end answer. You’re exploring. You’re not setting off with an agenda; you’re testing hypotheses that either you or someone else has generated. When you get an answer, that hypothesis might be totally wrong. That’s one of the things that’s really cool; it’s a really unique field where you have an opportunity to just let the data tell you the answer. You’re not looking for the answer.
[Science is] a path to inquiry where you don’t know the end answer. You’re exploring. You’re not setting off with an agenda; you’re testing hypotheses that either you or someone else has generated.
That’s a process that’s often very hard to communicate and very important for increasing scientific literacy and allowing space for that process to happen. Did you ever have a professional crisis and say, “I don’t want to be a scientist anymore.” And do something else?
There have certainly been times in my career where it’s been really challenging, either because I didn’t feel like I was proceeding as quickly as I would like or I was running up against hurdles. But, for me, I always wanted to do something that I loved for my career. I love doing science. I love studying evolutionary biology. There’s nothing more exciting to me than making a novel discovery or reading about other people’s discoveries. Then, every person I see, I want to tell them about something that I read. I don’t think I could do anything else now, but as a kid I didn’t even know it was an option. The best piece of advice that my mom ever gave me was to find a way to do the things that I love. That sounds so amorphous and vague, but I think my mom was also a realist. She always encouraged us to pursue the things we loved, but know that you have to be able to pay your rent. For me, luckily, I was never constrained by financial obligations. I didn’t know I’d be able to go as far as I did, which is the fun part of it.
The best piece of advice that my mom ever gave me was to find a way to do the things that I love.
How much of your successful discoveries were due to chance?
That’s a hard one. We often say “chance” or “luck” – even when those things happen, it’s because there was a ton of hard work behind that. I wouldn’t say chance, but I would say unexpected outcomes of the research. We start down one path knowing we have to collect some types of data, be it DNA-based data or genomic-based data, something about the geography or ecology of an organism. You might start to investigate those things because you are interested in a question, but you don’t know what the answer is going to be at the end. But, sometimes the answer at the end is surprising. It’s not something that you would have hypothesized at the beginning. I think that path to learning and discovery… I wouldn’t call it chance, I would call it hard work. It’s a hard one, because on the one hand we often say those things about our own research. Anyone who says, “Oh, I just got lucky.” If you actually went back and rewound time, you would see that they’ve been working really hard for a long time to get to that point.
How often did someone tell you when you were wrong? Any particular memories?
No, not really. I don’t think that in science we tend to do that. Any discovery that we make, it’s just a hypothesis to explain our data. If someone doesn’t agree with it, they can go and gather data to try to test that hypothesis. I never had anyone tell me that I was wrong. That’s not the way the culture of science works, maybe that’s how the culture of business works. I think that we’re fortunate in science because the research that we do is driven by a question. You may not get the outcome you expected or the outcome that everyone expected, but that doesn’t make it wrong. Maybe that’s amorphous and not that good of an answer.
Did you ever feel like you were bored as a kid? What did your parents say when you said you were bored?
“Go out and play.” That’s what my mom would say. As a kid, you’re sometimes bored, but I think that being bored is important. I think that’s where a lot of mind development and creativity comes from. I think we’re in a culture now in the U.S. where we never want our kids to be bored — to always be entertained with soccer, Tae Kwon Do or dance. I think that kids being bored is how they learn to “entertain themselves” … we use that term, “entertain themselves” but I think it’s more sophisticated than that. It’s where they learn to become introspective and find what they actually enjoy instead of what they’re told by society that they should enjoy.
[Boredom is] where they learn to become introspective and find what they actually enjoy instead of what they’re told by society that they should enjoy.
Did you ever feel like you were somehow different from other kids?
I think every kid thinks that. Yeah, sure. I was always a little quirky… my mom still says I am, which is fine. I was never an outcast, I was just sort of always marching to the beat of my own drum. In some ways I think that was really good. Maybe that’s what gave me the confidence to pursue my passions. Instead of saying, “Most of the girls from my school are doing X, so I should do X.” it was more like… I had hippie parents that instilled in me a desire to be my own creative person. I think that was really helpful to me to feel confident in my career choice to be a scientist.
Were your parents surprised when you said, “This is my major. I’m going to be a scientist.”?
I don’t think they were surprised, but they still don’t understand what I do. My mom says, [throwing up her hands and doing her best “Corrie’s mom” impression] “What do you do every day?” I think she just still can’t believe that I get paid to study the evolution of insects. Every now and then she’ll ask, “But, how is that helpful to humans?” There’s that little bit of lack of understanding that basic research just for the sake of basic research is something that we should and do invest in. That’s surprising for my parents.
Did you ever get into trouble when you were in school?
Who didn’t? Of course. I used to get in trouble a lot when I was young because I talked too much in class. I think it was because I was pretty outgoing and always wanted to share whatever I had. My mom, almost every year of middle school, would get called in to have a conversation with me to talk less in class. I couldn’t help it. I was never disruptive, it was just that I was excited and excitable. My teachers really always liked me because I tried really hard and I wanted to understand what was happening in classes. I rarely just memorized something for the sake of memorizing, if I learned something I wanted to know why and I think teachers really appreciated that… most of them… the good ones.
Did your parents have any rules that bugged you or were annoying?
No… I think I didn’t because I had hippie parents and my mom was a very practical person. If there was a rule, there was a reason, and my mom would explain it to me. Maybe it’s my personality: I love rules, I follow rules. I think that for kids rules are critical for development. I think as long as they’re explained, I might not always like it, but I think that helped me accept it. It wasn’t ever, “Because I said so” – I was rarely ever told that. It was more, “These rules are in place because of these reasons.” I would accept those rules because they had meaning.
If you could any super power, what would it be, why would you want it and what would you do with it?
Time travel. As an evolutionary biologist, if I could turn back the clock and go see things as they’re happening… that would be remarkable. If I could turn back time, I’d go back to the Burgess shale as it’s forming and see all of those crazy invertebrates. How cool would that be? I would love to be able to go back and see what the environments were like as the first angiosperm or flowering plant forests were blossoming. What was happening with all of the insects that were taking advantage of all of these novel habitats? Time travel would be a super power I’d love to have.
Are you able to time travel in your research?
I am able to time travel in my research because all of that information I’m interested in is locked inside of the DNA of the organisms that are found on the planet today. We can also look at the fossil records to get an idea of what the communities were like and what species were dominant on the planet at particular times. We can unlock those secrets using the fossil records and DNA of modern organisms. But it’s still not the same as actually being there… but it’s pretty close.
Dr. Corrie Moreau is an evolutionary biologist and entomologist at The Field Museum studying ants. She’s so cool, that you can even read a comic about her childhood. Follow her on Twitter @CorrieMoreau