Darwin’s Legacy: Keeping Order

It’s hard to keep up with Erica McAlister as she darts through the labyrinth comprising the entomology department at London’s Natural History Museum. She’s eager to show off its treasures: iridescent beetles from South America, bugs with plantlike bodies, damselflies and dragonflies from around the world. “I was bitten by that, showing off,” she says, pointing to a wasp spider (Argiope bruennichi) in a case displaying preserved arachnids. She was at a party, trying to impress the guests by determining the spider’s sex, when it bit her. “I could probably give you a tour of things that have bitten me,” she says.

“I get to meet thousands of people. You wouldn’t meet them [working in a] university because they come here to use the collections, so you’re permanently being stimulated.” –Erica McAlister

: Erica McAlister explains her mosquito-collecting project to local villagers in northern Thailand. (Courtesy, Erica McAlister)

Instead, the current tour reaches its climax at the end of the corridor. “This is my room,” she says, pushing through a door to a corner room filled with several rows of 5-foot-tall green metal cabinets, stacked two high. The cabinets house the museum’s collection of insects from the order Diptera–the true flies, which include gnats, midges, and mosquitoes. McAlister, 35, is one of three Diptera curators among the entomology department’s curatorial staff of about two dozen.

Working as a museum curator is a demanding job with many different responsibilities–and, like most jobs, some of those duties are better than others. Among the advantages: interacting with experts from around the world and showing off the world’s most comprehensive collection of insects. Another is the opportunity to see Charles Darwin’s legacy up close. In a drawer of neatly pinned, mounted, and labeled specimens, McAlister points to an old, yellowed specimen of Melanothereva that’s missing a wing and some of its legs: It’s one that Darwin collected in Valparaíso, Chile. “Darwin is everyone’s inspiration,” she says.

Early years

One of Charles Darwin’s specimens in the Diptera collection at the Natural History Museum. (Photo: Kate Travis)

McAlister’s interest in entomology turned serious during an environmental biology field course she took while an undergraduate at the University of Manchester, she recalls. Richard Askew, a retired entomologist who specialized in parasitic insects, was one of the instructors of the course, held in the south of France. “He’d scoop up this pile of insects and go, ‘Right, Erica, see that one? That one’s killing that one, and that one’s eating that one, and that one’s parasitizing that one, and that one lives there.’ I was like, ‘Wow. That’s really cool.’ ”

McAlister honed her interest by doing fieldwork during her undergraduate years: She spent several months working at the now-defunct Institute of Terrestrial Ecology in Dorset, where she studied the effects of climate change on heather beetles. Then she went to the University of Adelaide in Australia for a project on the effects of grazing on ants. Unearthing those opportunities required determination and perseverance. “For both those placements, I wrote off to about 50 companies and 50 universities around the world,” she says.

After taking a year off to travel South and Central America, McAlister returned to London in 2003 and pieced together a career lecturing at Roehampton and volunteering with the Coleoptera (beetle) collection at the Natural History Museum. Volunteer work didn’t pay the bills, though, so she worked at restaurants and bars in the evenings. “It was long days, but it did pay off in the end,” she says: The volunteer work led to contract work, and she later stepped in for a curator who went on maternity leave. In September 2006, she started her current position as a curator of Diptera.

“We needed someone who was enthusiastic, interested, willing to learn, wants to be part of a team, and who’s prepared to go off on trips,” says Theresa Howard, Diptera collections manager at the museum. “Erica fit the bill magnificently.”

Museum curation

Careers celebrates Darwin’s birthday with two articles on scientists working in natural history museums–this one and a companion piece from Siri Carpenter, , which includes interviews with several scientists working at natural history museums. We’ve also put together a , and our colleagues atmagazine have a specialas well.

There are about 120,000 described species of fly, McAlister says, 60,000 of which the museum has in its collection. McAlister oversees the curation of Nematocera–mosquitoes and crane flies, for example–and orthorrhaphous Brachycera–bee flies and robber flies, among others. “It’s a lot of the primitive flies–all the bity, sucky, piercy, maiming flies,” she says. “A lot of the medically important flies are all under my jurisdiction.”

Visitors come to the museum from all around the world to study the collection. If a visitor is interested in specimens that are under McAlister’s charge, she’ll gather the parts of the collection the visitor needs, along with any relevant literature, slide material, and so on. “I get to meet thousands of people,” she says. “You wouldn’t meet them [working in a] university because they come here to use the collections. So you’re permanently being stimulated.”

She also handles loans to other museums and researchers and gives tours of the collection to anyone who wants them, from schoolchildren to scientists, and occasional talks to the public and to her department. She’s also on a team at the museum that’s planning and designing a new biodiversity gallery–which, she jokes, should have one bird, one mammal, and all insects.

In short, working as a curator involves the best features of her previous jobs, McAlister says: “All the bits I did like, like showing off the insects, I still get to do. And all the bits I didn’t like, I don’t have to do.”

On-the-job learning

Erica McAlister shows some of the recently recurated bee flies–Bombyliidae–in the Diptera collection at the Natural History Museum. (Photo: Kate Travis)

Their intense work with the collections means that the curators often know the collections better than the researchers who study them. After 2 years in her current job, McAlister says, she’s still learning her slice of the collection. “I’m quite new and I’m a bit tentative about which area I want to go into. I get too excited,” she says. “At the moment I’m just trying to get myself comfortable with the 60,000 species I should know.”

“[Erica] is quite open and will say [to visiting scientists], ‘I don’t know anything about this. Do you? Can you show me?’ ” Howard says. “She’s genuinely interested, and she appreciates that they are the only people who can tell her.”

That experience has meant more opportunities for her to do fieldwork in her current job. Last August, she traveled to Vietnam and Thailand, together with a postdoc in the entomology department, to collect mosquitoes to study the viruses they harbor. This year, she and a team of colleagues will survey the mosquito population across the United Kingdom.

Although she loves the field research, it has its drawbacks, she notes. “In Vietnam, we had to wear leech socks. I got food poisoning in Thailand. We were traveling through the jungle carrying blocks of dry ice. Yeah, it’s not so glamorous.” Also, working with flies means collecting them where they’re easily found–around decaying plants, animals, and feces. “My career so far, every single part of it, has been around poo,” she quips. “When you’re thinking about entomology, these are some of the factors you’ve got to weigh up.”

The best part of the job, she says, is the insects. “You think you’ve seen everything and then you open up a drawer and you’re like, ‘That’s ridiculous. What is going on there? What is the evolutionary pressure there?’ ” she says. Elsewhere in the collection, there’s a drawer that contains more of Darwin’s specimens and, alongside them, specimens collected by Askew, her former instructor and mentor. “Now, there’s a sign,” she says. “I’m meant to be here.”

Location, Location, Location …

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