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For those tempted to dismiss the beetle as a lowly insect unworthy of a second thought, be advised: Ainsley Seago comes armed with a seemingly endless supply of impressive beetle facts.
“There is a beetle for everything, right?” says Seago, entomologist and new associate curator of invertebrate zoology at Carnegie Museum of Natural History. “Are you interested in organisms that make their own light? Well, guess what? We have fireflies. If you want a beetle with weaponry, there is the bombardier beetle, which shoots a boiling, caustic spray out of its butt. You want lightweight, flexible body armor? That’s the beetle’s whole shtick.”
The Tacoma, Washington, native loves beetles with such contagious enthusiasm that you’ll look with fresh eyes the next time you find one of the winged wonders fluttering around your porch light. Overseeing the museum’s world-famous collection of 13 million insects, the bulk of which are pinned Lepidoptera (moths and butterflies) and Coleoptera (beetles), is a dream job for Seago. “It’s like I won the lottery.”
Seago is one of seven new researchers to join the museum’s science staff in the past 14 months, and, while their areas of expertise vary, they share an interdisciplinary approach to science and great love of nature. All but one of them are women. Two are Earth system scientists studying human-caused change on whole Earth systems such as watersheds, ecosystems, and the atmosphere. And one—Asia Ward—isn’t a scientist; rather, she’s an artist and science communicator.
To get a glimpse at some of the new explorations and collaborations underway, three of these experts and their seasoned leader, Rose-Marie Muzika, a forest ecologist and head of science and research at the museum, share their stories.
Ainsley Seago spreads insect wisdom on Twitter, in scholarly papers, and in person. She loves when people bring her a bug in a jar and ask her to help identify it. It’s these kinds of interactions she misses most during the pandemic.
Among her priorities is the organization of parts of the museum’s vast insect collection that remain to be “discovered” and formally databased. Among the astonishing diversity of insects, Seago finds beetles the most fascinating, and she focuses her research on the evolutionary relationships between them. She notes that these plentiful bioindicators of environmental change are protected by hardened front wings called elytra, and they go places that other winged insects like flies can’t go. The earth-boring scarab beetle, for example, hides its young in a burrow up to six feet underground. Others hang out in caves (“look ma, no eyes”) or navigate vast deserts by orienting to the night sky.
“The best part of my job is sharing incredibly cool bugs with people. I spout beetle facts in all directions and tell people things they didn’t know they wanted to know.” -Entomologist Ainsley Seago
New to Pittsburgh as of August 2020, Seago hopes to collaborate with engineers from neighboring universities on the biomechanics of insect movements and how they might apply to humans. For example, one variety of desert beetle has a special body surface mechanism that allows it to suck water from the air. She envisions a similar innovation leading to water-saving technology for humans—perhaps a water-collecting roofing material.
Seago has always loved the outdoors. As an undergraduate at Cornell University, she flirted with the idea of studying birds, but it was hard to observe something that always flew away. “You can’t trust birds,” she quips. Seago switched to entomology when she learned that instead of writing a final paper she could turn in a collection of bugs.
After earning her doctorate at the University of California, Berkeley, Seago spent 12 years in Australia, a great place for bug research, she notes—first with the Australian National Insect Collection and then as insect collection manager for the New South Wales Department of Primary Industries Biosecurity Collection. When the job opened at Carnegie Museum, she applied, believing it was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.
“The best part of my job is sharing incredibly cool bugs with people,” says Seago. “I spout beetle facts in all directions and tell people things they didn’t know they wanted to know.”
Bringing an ancient world to life
For Egyptologist Lisa Haney, it’s not just history-making finds that make fieldwork a rush. It’s piecing together the fragments of an ancient world through the contributions of its people. Like discovering a baby’s footprints preserved in a mud-plastered floor, or the remnants of the first known seal of a female mayor of Abydos, as Haney and her colleagues did during excavations led by Egyptologist Josef Wegner at Abydos, one of the oldest cities of ancient Egypt.
Haney and a team of archaeologists from the University of Pennsylvania unearthed a building that would have held a large boat in the South Abydos funerary complex of the 12th Dynasty Pharaoh Senwosret III—the same king who owned the now famous funerary boat in the care of Carnegie Museum of Natural History, the centerpiece of its popular Walton Hall of Ancient Egypt. Unlike most kings, Senwosret III had two funerary complexes—the boat on view at the museum comes from his first funerary complex, located farther north at Dahshur.
“It’s fascinating to think about how we got to the place we are now and to bring people along on that journey.” – Egyptologist Lisa Haney
“There were fragments of wood left” of the near-empty funerary boat building in Abydos, says Haney, who identifies herself as a Senwosret III super fan on Twitter. “The coolest thing about it is that all of the plaster on the walls had sketches of boats.”
It’s that kind of real-world experience that the Kansas City, Missouri, native brings to her grant-funded role of reimagining the museum’s Egypt Hall. Haney, who earned her doctorate in Egyptian art and archaeology at Penn, has also held positions at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and the Brooklyn Museum. She focuses her research on the archaeology and material culture of Egypt’s Middle Kingdom (ca. 2030–1650 BCE), a period that is well-represented at Carnegie Museum of Natural History.
For the reinstallation, she’s planning a more holistic view of life in ancient Egypt. She’ll incorporate animals and semiprecious stones from the museum’s collections to give visitors a richer vision of life along the Nile and how Ancient Egyptians interacted with the natural world.
Haney has been fascinated by ancient Egypt since her seventh-grade world history teacher purchased Cornish hens from the grocery store and had each student preserve one in salt and mummify it. “It was the coolest class,” she recalls.
All these years later, Haney wants to ground the public’s enduring interest in the ancient culture in not only the latest scholarship, but also in new and more inclusive stories. “It has been so interesting for me to think about how people figured out how to make pottery or utilize metal,” she says. “It’s fascinating to think about how we got to the place we are now and to bring people along on that journey.”
Science meets art
Artists and scientists often see the world in different ways. Asia Ward bridges the gap with sculptures and installations that explore scientific concepts in relatable and striking ways.
A social practice artist, Ward fabricates large-scale works, pairing her artmaking with community outreach to encourage public engagement with energy systems. In her grant-funded role as project manager and science communication fellow for Anthropocene studies, she’s helping the museum translate the urgent science of the Anthropocene, the current era defined by the profound global impact that human activities are making on Earth’s geology and ecosystems.
“It’s a tough topic because it involves everything from deep time to future thinking, climate change, human stewardship, politics, ethics, morals, and culture,” Ward says. “So, how do you bring that to the public in a way that is compelling and sparks more interest?”
Part of the answer, she hopes, is speaking to visitors’ values. Ward is planning a collective art installation in which visitors are given a prompt, such as, “What will you do to steward something in nature that you would like to last?”
“We want to create experiences that really stick with people.” – Artist and science communicator Asia Ward
To hold slips of paper containing visitor responses, she’s making figures that look like giant tardigrades, near-microscopic creatures that can survive extreme temperatures, years of no water or food, and even the vacuum of outer space. “They’re weirdly cute,” says Ward, “and they’re the perfect symbol of adaptability and resilience.”
Even as a little girl growing up in rural Hampshire, Illinois, Ward created art that was grounded in science. Her small school didn’t offer art classes, so she taught herself, making dioramas for her toys that included working elevators and functional sinks and showers. “I was learning basic circuitry at age 8,” recalls Ward. “I was learning about systems, building and understanding them in my imaginary world.”
She earned an art degree at Colorado State University but also had an interest and aptitude in the sciences. Out of college, she was hired by nonprofits to bridge the two in programs for kids. She went on to become an artist in residence at the Science Museum of Minnesota, formed and led a renewable energy education company, and recently graduated from the University of Minnesota with a master’s degree in interdisciplinary art and social practice.
Ward’s process involves listening—really listening—to what makes scientists steadfast about their research. She then helps connect them and the real-world applications of their work with other science translators—museum educators, exhibitions staff, and community groups— all in service of the public.
“We want to create experiences that really stick with people,” says Ward. “Can we create activities or highlight new stories that will help people think about and even inform their behavior?”
Seeing the forest through the trees
Several days a week, Rose-Marie Muzika walks the mile from her home to her office at Powdermill Nature Reserve, taking in the Laurel Highlands woods that ignited her interest in forest ecology back when she was a college student.
Even during her decadeslong career as a forestry professor at the University of Missouri, she traveled back to Powdermill as a research associate. At Carnegie Museum of Natural History’s 2,200-acre environmental field station, she studied its trees, looking for structural changes that could be tied to the changing environment.
“The science of nature has become more and more challenging to predict, and that’s why the museum’s collections are so important in a contemporary sense, to help us understand what’s going on over decades and centuries.” – Rose-Marie Muzika, director of science and research
For Muzika, it’s been a sweet homecoming moving back to western Pennsylvania, first as a curator of ecology based at Powdermill and now as director of science and research at its parent museum in Pittsburgh. Having office space at both locations, she hopes, will help strengthen the connection between the museum and its field station.
Even when Muzika became associate director of the School of Natural Resources at Missouri, she continued teaching and taking students outdoors. “My real passion is teaching people outside in the forest and using the forest as an opportunity to investigate other things—how the climate may have changed over time by looking at tree ring data, or looking back hundreds of years to see the population dynamics of insects.”
Muzika grew up in rural Fayette County, the fifth of 10 children. “Big family. Small house. I was always outside,” she says. As an avid reader of National Geographic in her youth, she often envisioned herself appearing in its pages as she tromped through the Appalachian forest that helped form her as a scientist.
Now about a year and a half into her new role, she’s still discovering something new each day—whether it’s a bird on view at the museum or a tree trunk at Powdermill. “I’m supervising a science staff from about 15 different disciplines with so much richness and depth. The science of nature has become more and more challenging to predict, and that’s why the museum’s collections are so important in a contemporary sense, to help us understand what’s going on over decades and centuries.”
She’s perhaps most excited to be at a museum with an urgent emphasis on science education. Doing the research is not enough, says Muzika. “We have to help people understand and connect complex scientific concepts like the Anthropocene to their daily lives.”
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