What do you do at the Museum?
I study the systematics and evolution of birds. What I do is use DNA sequences, morphology, and behavior to reconstruct how populations and species are related to one another.
Basically, these are a trees of life similar to trees people make of their ancestors, but instead of a family tree, the trees I make relate populations, species, and higher levels of taxonomic categories (genera, families, etc.).
These frameworks tell you interesting things about the Earth’s history, how the geographic and ecological places where birds live evolved. You also can study the evolution of behaviors, vocalizations, and other aspects of bird natural history.
What kinds of birds do you study?
Lately I have been studying a small family of Neotropical birds called Manakins. They are well known in the bird world because of their elaborate dances and displays. Males have bright and ornamented plumage, but females are duller in coloration (usually shades of green). These traits are commonly found in polygynous mating systems. In such mating systems, males have little or nothing to do with making nests or rearing their own offspring, which means that these responsibilities fall to female Manakins.
Despite describing displays in detail, there has been little research into the evolution of displays—the historical context. That’s what I’ve been doing for the last few years, making a tree of life for Manakins.
Do you see any ways that your work fits in with conservation?
I think conservation biology encompasses many different kinds of science. The protection of habitat is clearly a critical thing to do because habitats are under so much pressure, especially from human activities. However, I’m interested in where conservation biology is going as a science, what it does beyond habitat preservation.
I study genetic diversity. Preservation of genetic diversity is one of the goals of conservation biology, so my research has some relevance to conservation efforts. I’m especially interested in taking more community-level approaches to assessing genetic diversity. For example, do the parasites that live in and on birds have similar population genetic structures to the birds? What about the plants birds live in and whose flowers and fruits birds eat and disperse? How does genetic diversity in birds compare to other animals that live in the same areas, like mammals or butterflies, for example?
What do you love about what you do?
I love that I have the freedom to study many aspects of bird biology and evolution. Whatever captures my interests in a given period of time, I’m free to explore. That’s one of the great advantages of this kind of career. I don’t like being told what to do.
How did you get interested in this field?
By complete chance! I had taken a class at the University of Victoria on vertebrate natural history that included bird watching field trips, and I loved it. However, I was on my way to medical school when I got a summer job working in the bird collections of the Royal British Columbia Museum in Victoria. This job changed my life. We worked closely with all the bird specimens, putting them in order, getting information for computerization. I became intrigued by looking at birds close-up, which is something I had never done before. I could see there were lots of interesting things you could learn by looking at specimens.
While I was working at the museum, I was taking a biochemistry course at the University. One day the professor lectured about molecular evolution, and all my interests came together. I realized that I could combine studying DNA and looking at birds in the field and in collections and maybe make a living at the same time.
Have gender differences affected the path of your career?
Almost everywhere I go I’m the only or one of only a few women. For a while I was the only woman Ph.D. student in the Zoology Department at LSU. I still am the only woman to get a Ph.D. from their world-renowned Neotropical bird program. Life can be a little lonely in this kind of environment. Now, however, I have a few close woman friends who are both ornithologists and systematists. This makes life much more peaceful and stimulating for me.
My husband and I are in the same field of biology. In fact, we met in graduate school. Dual-career couples face some interesting challenges. We competed against each other for the job we currently hold at The Field Museum. However, we are grateful that The Field Museum was willing to try something new in splitting curatorial positions for the two of us. Having positions with equal stature has helped us in our careers and in our personal lives. I am lucky to have a husband that understands and supports my career. We are good partners and collaborators—making each other’s research programs better. I believe that the sum of the two of us together exceeds the individual accomplishments we could make separately.
My husband and I also had a baby in late 1996—right when I was supposed to be focusing on getting tenure. This situation seems pretty common for women. I think family issues and concerns are major factors influencing the career choices of women scientists, and I don’t think this is fully recognized or accepted by academic power structures. I think a lot of women drop out because they can’t reconcile how to have successful personal lives and scientific careers. They explore alternative career pathways to academic science or they drop out all together.
I struggle everyday with my ideals of the perfect mother and wife and how that fits with my career. There are many sacrifices that have to be made to have a family and a career. However, I would not trade the joy that having a baby has brought to my life for anything.
Do you think that situation is going to change?
I hope that more women get into higher levels of the academic hierarchy and more men and women speak out about the importance of their families. Maybe then there will be a strong movement to change, or at least evaluate, the strict regimen set up for academic success—the traditional tenure system. There is not only one very narrow way to academic success—the pathway set up mostly by men of a different era. I hope there is a recognition that there are lots of different measures of success and many different pathways to travel. Sometimes you have to do something different.
How do gender issues affect doing science in general?
I believe there are gender differences in how science gets done. These are gross stereotypes, but I think on average women are more concerned with conciliation than competition. This influences the kinds of questions you ask, how you answer them, and even what you think a successful result is.
I read an interesting book lately on women in science called Creative Couples in the Sciences. Historically, women could succeed only through the careers of their husbands. It was rare for a woman to achieve prominence in her scientific career on her own. Things are definitely different now—we’ve made tremendous strides in the last century. However, we have a way to go to completely break the glass ceiling that prevents more women from having fulfilling careers.
Did you have a role model when you were growing up?
I would have to say that my mom was a role model. She is very vocal about what she wants, and she went about getting it. Also, my Nona (Italian for grandmother) was a personal role model—not necessarily for what you want to do with your life but certainly how you live it.
My parents raised me to think that if I was interested in something and worked hard enough for it, I could succeed. I never felt that there were limitations on me because I was a woman. My parents treated my brother and me the same. I grew up in a community where women didn’t often expand their horizons. I was the first person in my immediate family to get a college degree, and I certainly did not grow up knowing about higher degrees. Unfortunately, there were few teachers in high school or university to point me to the diversity of careers that exist in science. I never thought, "Well, I can’t do that," I just never knew the possibilities.
Do you see yourself as a role model?
I tend not to think too much about that. There’s nothing special about me. If I can do this, then lots of other people can as well. They just have to be exposed to the possibilities. It was a chance event that sent me to this career, which is not really the best way to be educating young people.
I am, however, encouraged by the attention being paid to girls and science and by the research opportunities provided to young people.
I have both professional and personal goals in science. Professionally, I am driven to know all I can about the relationships of birds, tropical birds in particular. I believe that an understanding of historical relationships among species can shed light on the processes that have shaped biological diversity. I want to know why there are so many species in certain parts of the world, why animals and plants are distributed where they are, and why they look, behave, and sound the way they do.
Personally, I'd like to get a good night's sleep. But seriously, I have dreams that one day a person's gender, sexual orientation, or skin color will not be an issue. As a woman, mother, wife, and scientist, I work hard to see that dream become a reality.
What advice would you give to young people who are considering a career in science or exploration?
I would tell them to try to visit as many places as possible to see what scientists do, to figure out if this is indeed what they are interested in. Nothing is better inspiration than talking to people and hands-on experience.
I also tell people to envision your life in the future—career and personal. Plan out the small steps that will build on each other to make that vision a reality. It’s not easy, but I think that integrating career and personal goals will make people more peaceful and productive in the long run.