The story of Corrie Moreau

I had the opportunity to attend a dinner with one of my academic crushes last week…E.O. Wilson!  I’ve met him once before and although he did not remember me (nor did I expect him to), both experiences were very pleasant.  E.O. Wilson is a story teller, as I also consider myself to be, and I enjoy hearing his tales.  He and I share many experiences, including close encounters with fire ants (and other stinging creatures) and a fascination with biodiversity.

Both times I met him, he has told one of his favourite stories: the story of Corrie Moreau.  His eyes just twinkle when he tells this story. “I just love Corrie Moreau,” he says sincerely.  So I thought I’d tell a second hand story today, from E.O. Wilson to my ear, to this blog…does that count as two degrees of separation?

Corrie Moreau was a graduate student that came to Harvard after Dr. Wilson’s retirement.  The graduate recruitment committee came to Dr. Wilson and said, “There’s a young lady, a prospective graduate student, who wants to study ants.  She’s very keen.  Would you consider being her sponsor in addition to a current faculty member?  You would help to advise her in her research.”  After a moment, they added, “Her arms are covered in intricate and accurate ant tattoos of the genus Atta.”

“Bring her!” E.O. Wilson declared.

So she went to Harvard and decided she’d like to be a part of a group of scientists that were trying to resolve the full ant phylogeny.  This group spanned three institutions and had a multi-million dollar grant to perform the research.  But they told Corrie no…they had no need for a beginning graduate student to help them.

Dr. Wilson told Corrie to find a different project, but, after a brief interval, she came back and told him, “I think I can do it myself.”  Dr. Wilson was surprised, but she explained that they had all the specimens they needed in his collection and that she had a post doctoral researcher in mind who would help her if she could get him funding.

Dr. Wilson said, “Yes!”  So Corrie went for it.  She hired the post doc and a statistician to help with the data analysis, and she flew through samples and… she beat them to it!  In fact, she was the first to publish the phylogeny of the ants…as a graduate student…in the journal Science.

And this group of scientists saw her publication and rushed to finish their own work, publishing it soon after she did.  Dr. Wilson says, “You can imagine my anxiety as we waited…what if the two phylogenies didn’t match?”

But they did match, exactly, except for one archaic group of ants.  “Later we found out Corrie had been right about that group,” Dr. Wilson adds with a chuckle.

Dr. Moreau now works as a curator for the field museum.  There’s even a graphic novel about her, but the link is broken. 😦

(I’ve heard that same story from the opposite perspective…you can imagine the chagrin of that consortium of scientists who got scooped by a grad student.)


10 thoughts on “The story of Corrie Moreau

  1. Great story. And from a story telling perspective, her name is a gift: poetic, almost rhyming, slightly exotic. Would the story have been so frequently re-told if her name had been, say, Alison Blenkinsop or Elizabeth Brown?

      • You really should have! I’ve long felt that good science communication is a process of story telling, engaging the reader or listener and developing the plot as you go along. Having a charismatic name/species/study system makes that process easier (which is not to say that those should be the main criteria for choosing them).

      • It’s true! Some of my favourite scientists are also amazing story tellers. We should all change our names to something fantastic. My old advisor used to say things like, “When I was having tea with Lord May of Oxford…” and I thought it made a wonderful beginning to a story.

      • and i love that ‘moreau’ is generally translated as “dark skinned” or “little dark.” perfectly describes ants!

        then there’s the name association with the amazing actress jeanne moreau, or artist gustave moreau, or the mysterious ‘island of dr moreau’…


  2. My wife loves E.O. Wilson. She has read all his books. Every science book she’s tempted to buy, she always first looks in the back to see if there are any references to him. She even named our cat “Eddy O.” How lucky you were to meet him in person. I’m going to relate this Corrie Moreau story to her. Thanks for writing about it.

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