Serious Science, Comic-Book Style
A myrmecological comic brings entomologist Corrie Moreau’s journey to life
The people who create museum exhibits strive to grab attention. That’s not so simple when budgets have slimmed, but visitors’ expectations have remained super-sized. At The Field Museum in Chicago, exhibition development director Matt Matcuk and his team recently found one way. While assembling the temporary exhibit The Romance of Ants, they stuck to some fundamentals: the universal love of story and people’s inherent interest in others. They also made it fresh by mixing media, including a comic-book style narrative and museum-grade photographs by University of Illinois biologist Alex Wild. A passion for science is conveyed through the real-life journey of Corrie Moreau, an entomologist and a museum assistant curator. Alexandra Westrich, an artist and aspiring entomologist working in Moreau’s laboratory, created the artwork. The exhibit, including the edited portion shown here, will be on view in Chicago through 2011. Moreau and Westrich described their backgrounds and this nontraditional project to American Scientist associate editor Catherine Clabby.
When I was first approached about the exhibit I was very interested in sharing my science. When I learned that the team planned to tell much of the story using a graphic novel format, I was caught a bit off guard. I am quite comfortable sharing my science, but initially felt a bit uncomfortable about the exhibit being about my journey. In the end it became as much about my journey as it was about highlighting the amazing insects I work on and my scientific research.
Growing up in an urban environment meant that there were not a lot of wild creatures around, outside of ants and other insects. I think that is part of the reason I was so drawn to them. You can find ants and insects anywhere. This being said, it is not all that “cool” for a teenage girl to like bugs and science. So I gave in to peer pressure and let those passions go underground (so to speak) for a few years.
During my junior high and high school years I became very interested in environmental issues and the idea of seeing new parts of the world. This led to me to move to California for college, where I chose San Francisco State University because it had a biology major that focused in entomology. It was the perfect fit. One of the reasons I enjoy science is that each discovery can take you in a new direction. For my Ph.D., I wanted to ask new questions about ant evolution. This led me to work with Edward O. Wilson and Naomi Pierce at Harvard University. The knowledge and inspiration I gained from them was amazing.
It wasn’t until the exhibit had been open for a few weeks that I realized the power of using a cartoon narrative. I started to get emails from public visitors, children and adults. If the display inspires others to consider a career in science or teaches them that natural history museums are active research institutions, then the exhibit has been a success in my book.
I’ve been a committed enthusiast of both nature and art since childhood. While a student at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, I favored science electives such as "The Insect World" and "Animal Behavior" over studio classes. This was when I started to seriously consider applying my artistic abilities to the sciences, first through very basic avenues such as scientific illustration, but gradually extending to alternative media (such as comics and “zines”) that could appeal to a wider audience.
I first met Corrie in 2009, when I started volunteering at The Field Museum. After a few months, Corrie offered me a position as a collection assistant. My work includes point mounting, documenting and imaging ants that she collects in the Florida Keys as part of a long-term survey of the diversity of ant communities (both native and exotic) unique to these islands.
For this project, Matt Matcuk conducted the initial interviews and wrote the actual narrative. Many of the highlights of Corrie’s biography (particularly her formative years in New Orleans) were new to me. I think some of the most powerful events in the narrative happen in the beginning, when Corrie’s fascination with the natural world first takes shape. The evolution of her interest in science—from rapt observations about ant behavior as a little girl to award-winning science projects—provides inspiring insight into the endurance of dreams and the small but purposeful steps that lead to their fulfillment.
I hope The Romance of Ants draws attention to the research and curation efforts of individuals such as Corrie who make up The Field Museum’s sizeable (if largely unseen) research and collections staff. I hope it also motivates younger visitors to take an interest in science. Corrie’s story is enormously inspirational and, with any luck, will mobilize kids to join the profession. (Honestly, the world can never have too many entomologists).
A fuller look at The Romance of Ants and its graphic narrative is available here: http://romanceofants.com. And the story can be viewed in its entirety in this slide show: http://amsci.org/romance-of-ants
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