Badass Scientists, part 2: Corrie Moreau

Ants are everywhere in the small office. They march on shelves with tiny plastic legs, up arms in faded black ink, across the spines of books in Times New Roman. They live larger than life on countless posters, and life-sized in tiny labeled jars.

Needless to say, Corrie Moreau is a fan of ants. She is also a world-leading expert on them— she holds a PhD in biology, earned under the guidance of legendary evolutionist E.O. Wilson. Her current institution is the Field Museum, where she runs an entomology lab and heads the museum’s women in science program. Her lab does research in many areas, all ant-related, but also focuses on supporting the next generation of scientists through various internships and opportunities.

Moreau created the Field Museum’s women in science website in 2011 with no prior clearance from any supervisors; for a while the women in science program existed only between Moreau and the IT department. From there, it has snowballed into one of the museum’s most active communities, offering many internships for high school and undergraduate girls, hosting monthly seminars and yearly symposiums.

“It’s a really fun way to sort of make sure that girls are seeing that careers in science are viable options, and that there are lots of ways of being a scientist,” Moreau says. “That it’s not just a university professor or somebody in a lab.”

Moreau doesn’t fit into any aspect of that outdated “somebody in a lab” stereotype. She’s bubbly, down-to-earth, and tattooed from wrists to shoulders. She grew up in New Orleans, raised by two blue-collar parents. Insects turned out to be the most accessible form of wildlife to the curious 8-year-old Moreau.

“I spent many years as a kid collecting spiders in jars, looking at ants on the sidewalk, anything I could find,” Moreau says with a smile. “Unlike finding a really pretty beetle, with ants, you find one and you’re gonna find the rest of the colony. Even as a kid you could do simple experiments, like put cookie crumbs out and see how many would come to it.”

Today, she has come a long way from leaving cookie crumbs on a sidewalk. Moreau worked towards her undergraduate degree at the University of San Francisco, where she studied alongside many influential professors whom she says helped inspire her to continue her education.

After a master’s degree in collaboration with the California Academy of Sciences, Moreau was off to Harvard to study under E.O. Wilson, even if she didn’t know it yet.

The moment Moreau got the email from Ed, as she affectionately calls him, was a pivotal moment in her career. She wasn’t even aware she had been accepted to Harvard when she received the email from Wilson offering to be her mentor and urging her to consider Harvard.

“Who’s gonna say no to that?” she asks with a laugh. “I remember almost falling out of my chair reading this email.”

She took Wilson’s advice, and he coached her through a PhD and on to her current position at the Field Museum.

One of the upsides of Moreau’s current gig? Travel. On average, Moreau spends a cumulative three months out of the year in the field, and this year is especially jam packed. Over the summer she’ll be visiting five continents in under three months collecting and studying her favorite species of ant (yes, she has a favorite): turtle ants.

Her eyes light up when she talks about them— her beloved turtle ants. She describes the way that the soldier ants fit their bizarrely Reese’s cup-shaped heads perfectly into the entrances to their colonies, gesturing enthusiastically and using several posters on her walls as references.

When she’s in office at the museum, her day-to-day routine is… well, not a routine at all. Some days she sits in her office, replying to emails and setting up appointments, other days she’s constantly on the move, meeting with students, dissecting new specimen, and jaunting from lab to lab.

“On those days when I do dissections I can’t have coffee,” she says. “And I am a coffee fanatic. That means I’m very grumpy on dissection days.”

The reason for the coffee ban is because of the shake it can cause in your hands, a shake that is far too destructive when you’re dissecting a .5 centimeter ant with watch forceps.

Believe it or not, dissecting the gut bacteria of turtle ants is not the most nuanced part of her job. That comes with the territory of dealing with people, which Moreau does plenty of through her role as a mentor and creator of the women in science program.

Jessica Ware, a fellow biologist and a current professor at Rutgers, met Moreau through mutual work when she was in graduate school. She remembers being star struck when she first met Moreau, and continues to admire the “infectious enthusiasm” and unique approach she takes to her science.

“I think she’s been a really strong voice and advocate for women in science,” Ware says, rather proudly. “[It’s] an undercurrent to everything she does, including her research. She encourages a diversity of approaches, a diversity of opinions. It’s wonderful.”

People are something that Moreau is very passionate about. As Ware says, she advocates strongly for diversity in the STEM fields, both in terms of women and people of color. She practices diverse hiring in her own labs, and meets with every single employee in her labs at least once a week to stay connected and up-to-date on their discoveries.

“It’s that moment where they accomplish something really big, and watching their faces light up. Just seeing that joy when they discover something on their own,” Moreau says. “It’s really a rewarding part of my job.”

With the sun hanging low in the sky, Moreau departs from her ant-dominated office to head to the lab. It’s at this point that she runs into one of her students in the hallway, a fresh-faced girl looking for her once-a-week meeting, and everything else can wait— the sample, the emails, the turtle ants. All of that is irrelevant as she waits for this girl’s face to light up with discovery.