The Scientists - Dr. Michelle Trautwein

The Scientists - Dr. Michelle Trautwein on Violet Book Online (en-GB)
Photograph courtesy of Dr. Michelle Trautwein
The Scientists - Dr. Michelle Trautwein on Violet Book Online (en-GB)
How do we know what’s true? How do we solve seemingly impossible problems? How do we make real magic? From Covid-19 to the climate crisis, every aspect of public and private life right now reveals our relationship with science and nature. Author Sasha Sagan speaks to female scientists, in different disciplines, born on different continents, about their work, their philosophy, and how they navigate the old boys' club of the lab in the Violet Online series, The Scientists.
Sasha Sagan
Interview  Sasha Sagan

Dr. Michelle Trautwein originally set out to become an artist but one class on entomology changed her life and today she is an evolutionary biologist and the curator of flies at the California Academy of Sciences. She focuses on understanding how arthropods evolved and what characteristics they share with humans. Today she researches the fly tree of life, reveals the global diversity of human face mites, examines biodiversity in houses and cities, and engages the public in the process of doing science.

Sasha Sagan: How would you describe what you actually do day-to-day?

Dr. Michelle Trautwein: My job is super exciting, but it doesn’t always look like it since I spend a lot of time in front of the computer reading studies, writing, and dealing with data. But I also get to spend time working with students and postdocs, doing science outreach here at the museum, drinking coffee with my co-workers, and travelling to interesting places around the world for field work. And just 10 minutes ago I was pulling hairs out of whale skin to look for mites! Though some days are ordinary, many are spontaneous, bizarre, and centred around investigating the wonders of life on Earth. I love it.

Why bugs in particular? What separates them, for you, from all the other creatures on Earth?

Insects are amazing. They make up most of known life on Earth and completely dominate landscapes all over the world. Nearly 500 million years ago, they were the first creatures to take flight—well before birds. They can be so beautiful and come in every colour and shape imaginable. Also, they live and eat in more ways and in weirder ways than we could ever conjure up ourselves. From the perspective of an evolutionary biologist, they serve as a great study system to learn more about how life and species change over time on our planet.

Describe the moment that set you on the path to studying insects.

My moment was a bit later than many of my bug nerd colleagues in entomology. I spent several years in college as a studio art major and eventually took an entomology because I was drawn to the aesthetic beauty of insects. It was in that class, led by a charismatic professor, that I first really learned about evolution and the tree of life, as well as the enormous realm of insect diversity. After that, I spent a summer as a field assistant in a Costa Rican rainforest, and then, inspired by tropical diversity and field biologists, I fully converted to a science major.

Which scientists, especially female scientists, inspired you? Who did you look up to as a kid?

When I was a kid I never imagined that I would be a scientist, so I didn’t have science role models per se, but I loved reading National Geographic and books about field biologists studying lions in the Kalahari or wolves in the Canadian wilderness. Somehow, I didn’t recognise that kind of life adventure as science. Now, as a working scientist, I’ve been privileged to have women scientists as mentors, colleagues and friends and I value that very, very much.

You must encounter some people who are totally freaked out by your work. How do you handle that?

Yes, people can be freaked out about my work. My hope is that my research can help normalise some of the perceived creepiness of bugs, because it highlights their ubiquity in our lives. It is a universal truth that we all live with bugs in our houses and we all have mites on our faces. Most of the time those species have no negative effect on our lives. Being a human on Earth means having a lot of close interactions with bugs—and the vast majority of those species and those interactions are harmless.

How has your own attitude toward the creepy-crawly nature of what you do evolved over time?

Haha! Yes, even I can get a little creeped out by my subjects. Even though I have been researching face mites for several years, I can never get over the fact that we all have arachnids living on our bodies. It is too bizarre! But I love the thrill of glimpsing into these very otherly, unseen worlds of arthropod life. Also, I still screech when I am surprised by large, unexpected flying insects or spiders, so in that sense I am pretty typical, in spite of my line of work.

You’ve talked about how we humans, particularly in the West, see ourselves as separate from the species of Earth. What are the larger ramifications of this mentality?

The ramifications exist at so many levels and can be so harmful. The large-scale degradation of the ecosystems that keep the Earth’s processes in motion have happened in large part because we don’t see our connectedness to the natural world. Our disconnection allows us to act as though the planet is here for our exploitation, instead of seeing ourselves as simply a part of a complex system. We lack empathy for the many other species with whom we share the Earth and instead use them and their habitat as we like. Beyond that, our deliberate physical isolation from nature has even led to our underexposure to microbial diversity in a way that likely contributes to modern allergic conditions and autoimmune diseases.

How has studying our relationship with insects and arthropods, especially the ones that live inside us, like mites, changed your own perspective? What does it reveal about our species?

One of the things I love most about studying entomology is immersing myself in the alternate realities that tiny arthropods live in. The perspective, for example, that the human body is really an ecosystem. From an arthropod’s viewpoint, we are simply an extension of the surrounding landscape. Bugs can really provide context about our place in the world.

On the other hand, studying the bugs on us and around us also reveals how unusual our species is in the scheme of things and how that uniqueness affects the other species that are associated with us. For example, relatively few animal species are globally distributed, but most of those that are got that way because of their association with humans—our bodies, our houses or our food sources. Our “travelling ecosystem” has a big impact on the tiny life around us.

"The scientific method allows me to ask questions and understand intricate aspects of nature, in all its magnificence, and how it came to be. Uncovering these small truths about the natural world increasingly inspires a sense of wonder in me.​" - Dr. Michelle Trautwein

How does strict adherence to the scientific method at work colour other aspects of your life, for example, your views on spirituality and politics?

I hope that my practice of the scientific method makes me more non-partial, open to possibility and change, and yet reliant on evidence. And though it is quite different from the practice of science, it has been my experience that spirituality and science have an interconnectedness. The scientific method allows me to ask questions and understand intricate aspects of nature, in all its magnificence, and how it came to be. Uncovering these small truths about the natural world increasingly inspires a sense of wonder in me.

How would society be different if the population was more scientifically literate?

Learning about science cultivates critical thinking skills and discernment. The benefits of critical thinking extend well beyond scientific literacy and could probably prevent many of the political crises we find ourselves in these days.

Is your professional world still an “old boys’ club”? Do you experience institutional or overt sexism?

Yes, of course, science has many features of an “old boys’ club.” For example, I never had a science professor that was a woman in all my years of education— and I finished grad school in 2009, so I’m not talking about ancient history!

I think sexism in science and society is so institutionally ingrained that sometimes it can be hard to recognise it—even in ourselves. That is why I wasn’t surprised by the fact that 53% of white women voted for Donald Trump, as disappointing as that is. Sexism can be so unconscious and insidious.

I’ve been fortunate to have been mentored by both men and women in science. I’ve been allowed into certain old boys’ clubs, so now, it is a priority for me to provide mentorship to women and other underrepresented groups in science, to work to make the club more inclusive, which will benefit science and society as a whole.

What would you tell young women and girls who are planning to become scientists?

I’d tell them it is so fun to be a scientist. It is creative, exciting, and not at all like science classes in middle school and high school. There is nothing like the thrill of scientific discovery! I’d also tell them to seek out role models along the way.

What do you wish the average layperson understood about evolutionary biology, or entomology for that matter?

Evolutionary biology and entomology provide an incredible context about our place in the world. Evolution in terms of time, and entomology in terms of diversity. We are relative newcomers to the planet, and we are seriously outnumbered. That perspective shift seems parallel to the realisation that the earth isn’t the centre of the universe.

What’s been the most thrilling advancement in your field of the last decade? How has it changed our understanding?

For the kind of evolutionary biology that I do, the advancements in the past decade in genomics and DNA sequencing, have been unparalleled. Believe it or not, there are still very basic questions that have yet to be answered about evolution and who goes where in the tree of life, but the explosion of newly available genetic data is getting us closer and closer to figuring it all out.

What mystery about your field keeps you up at night? What would you most like to understand about evolutionary biology that you don’t yet?

Some of the fundamental questions I think about are: Can we discover and describe most of life on Earth before it disappears? How many species are there? How and when did they get here? How and why did their genomes evolve the way they did, and how can we best use genomes to understand the evolutionary relationships between species?

But I also enjoy smaller mysteries surrounding organisms that I love, for example— are those three flies from Madagascar that are sitting on my desk new to science? Or why are face mites on Asians, Africans, and Europeans distinct from each other, and what is it about human skin that different mite lineages prefer? And for that matter, do whales have face mites?!

Of course, I have many more questions of similar magnitude. Questions that won’t change the world but that simply illuminate a small piece of it that previously went unseen. Ultimately, these small discoveries cumulatively act as building blocks towards understanding how life evolves on Earth.

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