Meet the Woman Making Ants the Next Big Thing in Biology

Corrie Moreau is reshaping our view of insect evolution—and confronting gender discrimination in the process.

This story is part of Women of Impact, a National Geographic project focused on women breaking barriers in their fields, changing their communities, and inspiring action. Join the conversation in our Facebook group.

It’s a raw Tuesday evening in early April. Rain clouds darken downtown Chicago, veiling the night sky. But in a roped-off exhibition room at the Field Museum of Natural History, the stars are plain to see.

Jane Goodall is here, on her 84th birthday, chatting amiably with museum staff and patrons. The iconic primatologist is in town for tonight’s gala event: the screening of a new feature-length documentary (produced by National Geographic) about her decades of immersive fieldwork among the chimps of Gombe, Tanzania.

But Goodall is not the only trailblazing scientist in the room. Another woman—wearing brown bangs and a black dress—is also holding court. As cocktail glasses clink and hors d’oeuvre platters drift by, she mingles with guests who are visibly thrilled to meet such a rock star of science.

Corrie Saux Moreau is an evolutionary biologist, an entomologist, a curator at the Field Museum, a faculty member at the University of Chicago, and a National Geographic Explorer. Her specialty is myrmecology—the study of ants. Like Goodall, her work has altered our understanding of the natural world—and our sense of what a scientist looks like.

Moreau’s research has redrawn the ant family tree, showing that the ubiquitous insects are at least 40 million years older than previously thought. She and her colleagues have also demonstrated that the microbiomes of ants play a major role in their diets, their social interactions, and their evolutionary success. More broadly, Moreau’s work might indirectly help us develop tools to answer bigger biological questions: how to control pests, how to promote helpful species, how to improve digestion and nutrition.

Yet groundbreaking research is only part of Moreau’s story. A leading advocate for women in STEM fields (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics), she co-founded the Field Museum Women in Science in 2011. With monthly meetings and a speaker series, the group actively promotes gender parity through fellowships for female doctoral and postdoctoral candidates and paid internships for young women in high school and college.

Earlier in the day, Moreau moderated a Q&A discussion with Goodall and called it “a privilege and a personal career highlight.” Goodall might have said the same. For anyone in the room that day, the symbolic torch-passing was hard to miss. Indeed, the continuum of game-changing women in science—from Elizabeth Blackwell and Marie Curie to Rachel Carson and Jane Goodall to Corrie Moreau—continues apace.

Ant Power

It’s Monday morning at the Field Museum. Moreau is sitting at her desk. A giant turtle ant is looming over her shoulder.

The framed watercolor is hanging on the wall in her new office, painted by the museum’s longtime artist-in-residence, Peggy McNamara. Recently promoted to be the director of the Integrative Research Center, Moreau now oversees the institution’s three core divisions—life sciences, earth sciences, social sciences—and its academic research center, which includes faculty curators, scientific laboratories, and associated staff. That’s in addition to running the 12-member Moreau Lab and doing her own research, collection management, and fieldwork, including annual ant-gathering trips to the equatorial belt.

Somehow Moreau still makes time to give personal tours of the Field Museum. After leading a visitor to the insect collections in the building’s mothball-scented bowels, she points out a few of her favorite species. One is the leaf-cutter ant, which gleans nutrients from a plant-based diet by growing polymer-dissolving fungus in its nest. Another is the green tree ant of Australia, which uses larval silk to stitch together its nest “like a mini sewing machine.”

But her favorite of all may be a turtle ant called Cephalotes varians. First described by Darwin, these neotropical tree-dwellers live in holes bored into the bark by beetles. To protect their nests, female soldiers use their heads—shaped like Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups—to plug the holes and stave off intruders. Moreau and Shauna Price, a postdoc in the Moreau Lab and a Women in Science committee member, have a multiyear National Science Foundation fellowship to study the evolution of these perfectly adapted “living doorways.” (When attacked, the Colobopsis explodens ant will rip itself apart to scare off predators and protect its colony.)

One thing that sets Moreau apart from other scientists is her ability to convey wonder and enthusiasm—to make whoever she’s talking to care about ants. While most people see them as pests to be endured or eradicated, Moreau sees an endlessly fascinating group of social animals brimming with evolutionary insights.

“Ants are like other insects because they have six legs and three main body parts—head, thorax, and abdomen,” she says. “But unlike a lot of other insects, they’re highly organized; they’re super strong; they can ‘listen’ without ears [by sensing vibrations through their feet]; and they can communicate with each other chemically. It’s amazing.”

They’re also one of the only species where females rule the roost.

“Almost every ant you’ve ever seen is female,” says Moreau. “They’re the workers that go out and gather food. They’re the soldiers that battle other colonies. They’re the caregivers for young ants. People think of toughness and industriousness as male traits. With ants, it’s just the opposite. I love that.”

Fittingly, Moreau upends the stereotype of the stodgy male scientist in a white lab coat. She smiles frequently and laughs warmly. She wears only red and black. And she’s heavily tattooed, with a constellation of insects emblazoned on her legs and upper body. (Her favorites, naturally, are the intricate, scientifically accurate ants on her arms: an army ant, a harvester, a leaf-cutter, and an ominously named Dracula ant.)

Her story, too, has an unusual start. Moreau was born and raised in urban New Orleans, where there was just barely enough biodiversity for the budding biologist to glimpse her future—in the cracks of the sidewalk.

“I think the reason I was drawn to ants is that wherever you found one, you know you’d find more,” she says. “I could put out breadcrumbs and watch what they’re doing. Or see two colonies having a battle. I could observe real biology, in real life, in real time.”

But she didn’t know she could have a career in scientific research until college. Studying entomology at San Francisco State University and working in Greg Spicer’s molecular phylogenetics lab, she was asked what she wanted to do after graduation. Without thinking, she blurted out that she wanted to get a master’s degree.

“And that was that,” she says. “I’m from the South, where you’re all about your word. So because I’d said it out loud, I knew I was going to grad school.”

At Harvard, Moreau had two notable advisers. One was E.O. Wilson, the renowned evolutionary biologist and, as Moreau puts it, “consummate ant idol.” The other was Naomi Pierce, one of the world’s foremost authorities on butterflies. (Perhaps surprisingly, about half of the butterfly species in the Lycaenid group—Vladimir Nabokov’s favorites—have symbiotic relationships with ants.)

Moreau’s dissertation, on the evolution and diversification of ants, was highly ambitious. She and her colleagues used 43 fossils from the ant family tree to calibrate a “molecular clock,” then sequenced six genes each from 139 genera, comprising 19 of the world’s 20 ant subfamilies. With their findings, they were able to redraw the ant family tree, push back the insects’ origins by millions of years, and prove that ants’ astonishing global bloom—there are now over 15,000 named species—coincided with the rise of flowering plants about a hundred million years ago.

Harvard is also where Moreau began her research on the microbiome—the trillions of bacterial organisms that live inside all living bodies. Like humans, ants are a highly social species that spread both helpful and harmful microbes. Working with then-postdoc Jake Russell—now a microbial ecologist at Drexel University (and still a frequent collaborator)—Moreau used targeted bacterial and genomic sequencing to show, among other things, that some ant species evolved to become vegetarians thanks to their gut microbes, which can turn amino acids into proteins. “It’s super cool,” Moreau says. (For acacia ants, sipping nectar from the tree exposes them to an enzyme that compels the ant to guard the tree.)

Bridging Gaps

It’s lunchtime on the first Monday of the month, which means the Field Museum Women in Science are meeting.

In a closed-off room on the museum’s busy ground floor, Heather Snyder is telling the audience of 50 or so—mostly women, but some men as well—about the latest advances in Alzheimer’s research. When she’s done, Moreau kicks off a Q&A, delving deeper into highlights of the presentation.

Moreau founded this group seven years ago with zero funding or resources—not even a website. Through a canny mix of fundraising, partnerships, institutional buy-in, and inclusion, she willed it into being. Today it has over 500 members from Chicago and beyond.

“I recognized early on that I couldn't do it alone,” Moreau says, so she reached out to people like Emily Graslie, the Field Museum’s chief curiosity correspondent. Graslie’s educational YouTube channel, “The Brain Scoop,” had caught Moreau’s eye a few years earlier, prompting Moreau to bring her into the Field Museum’s fold.

“Corrie saw a lot of potential in what I was doing,” says Graslie, a member of the Women in Science steering committee. “She’s also invested in me as a leader—as a woman in media, doing novel things in the world of natural history.”

When the two collaborated on a video in which Moreau shows viewers how to coax venom from bullet ants, it tallied over two million views—the most popular “Brain Scoop” ever.

But recruiting passionate volunteers was just the start. Moreau knew that funding would also be crucial for the group to thrive. Many of the girls she hoped to reach had financial constraints that wouldn’t allow them to take volunteer positions.

“Even if they're interested in science at a young age, they don't have the résumé to be competitive for science jobs,” says Moreau. “They end up working at a fast-food joint for the summer; they have to contribute to their families. So we have to create equity, both in terms of opportunity and compensation.”

The STEM gender gap in this country has shrunk over time, but progress has been stymied for years. According to U.S. Census Bureau statistics, women in 1970 held just 7 percent of STEM jobs. By 1980 that figure had doubled. By 1990 it had climbed again, to 23 percent. But it has more or less flat-lined since. As of 2011 (the last year for which census data are available), the percentage of women in STEM positions was stuck at 26 percent.

While the number of female STEM undergrads continues to grow, the pipeline narrows as it rises. The winnowing effect results in a much smaller percentage of women in top STEM jobs than have STEM degrees.

“We want to encourage women not only to participate in the sciences, but also to persist,” Moreau says. “So we encourage young girls early. We go to local schools that are underserved, and we help those girls write résumés. We teach them how to apply for internships.”

Those summer internships have become highly competitive: Last year, 250 young women applied for 10 positions. One of those spots went to Destiny Reeves. A 23-year-old member of the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma, Reeves double majored in biological and geophysical sciences at the University of Chicago and was the first member of her family to go to college.

Working in the Moreau Lab, Reeves learned how to extract, prepare, sequence, and analyze DNA. “It sounds cliché,” she says, “but I learned more in a week there than I ever learned in a genetics class.”

<p>When a fire ant colony floods, they join together to form a raft.</p>

Fire Ant Life Raft

When a fire ant colony floods, they join together to form a raft.

Photograph courtesy David Hu and Nathan J. Mlot

When her internship ended, she was hired on as a research assistant in the Moreau Lab—a close-knit crew that Reeves likens to a family, “or an ant colony.” Reeves hopes to do more applied research in conservation biology and genetics, earn a doctorate, and “encourage other Native Americans to become naturalists and … to conserve organisms important to Native cultures.”

“I’ve discovered vocabulary and skills that I needed but wasn’t aware existed,” she says. If she hadn’t gotten the internship, “I can’t imagine where I would be.”

Marching Ahead

What’s next for Corrie Moreau?

Biomimetic research, for one thing. She recently won a grant to work with material scientists and organic chemists in search of stronger, more durable armor. The secret, she thinks, may be in the shells, or cuticles, of ants. (These “paramedic” ants are the first known to rescue and heal wounded comrades.)

And after 10 years in the Windy City, Moreau will soon be heading to upstate New York. Starting in January, she’ll serve as a professor of entomology, ecology, and evolutionary biology at Cornell University, where she’ll also curate the insect collections—and open a new front in her war on gender discrimination.

Moreau plans to set up research fellowships for female students and a mentoring program for young girls in local schools, giving them “real hands-on science experiences with a Cornell scientist. The data show that the earlier you encourage girls to be engaged in science, the more likely they are to pursue a science career.”

If that career is in myrmecology, so much the better.

“There are more ants than all the birds and mammals added together,” says Moreau. “But there's only a few hundred people in the world working on them, which isn’t enough.”

She pauses and laughs.

“That's going to be my tagline: ‘Looking for a future in biology? Study ants.’”

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