Duckett, Catherine

Adjunct Associate Professor
Areas of Interest: 
Insect Anatomy, Leaf beetle systematics, Women in Science.
My Story: 

My mother dreamed that I finished my Ph.D before my father, who at the time was writing his dissertation; I was two. Given that I have been hearing this story since I was very small and my dad is a physicist and an amateur zoologist, it isn’t surprising that I got a doctorate, nor that I went into science.

As with most people my first influences were within the family, we went ‘crittering’ in the California desert looking for snakes and other scaly stuff, we fished and Dad explained why the fish were different, and I gathered eggs on the farm in Ithaca. My dad was in a lab at Cornell when I was born, but in order to support his family he took summer work at NASA in Los Angeles during the summers, so my siblings and I had crossed the country too many times before the dissertation was done, but we got to see foxes in Big Sur and at the Sonora desert museum, tarantulas in Death Valley, bats in Carlsbad caverns and all manner of other exciting stuff along the way (think porcupine road-kill in Alabama and a plague of frogs in Tallahasse).

Duckett, Catherine N.
Catherine (r) and Elizabeth Farnsworth taking a break from watching spider foraging, 1982. (E. Farnsworth photo).

We moved permanently to New Jersey from California on the day before my eighth birthday, which didn’t seem right at the time, but is pretty good now. New Jersey impressed me not so much biologically as culturally. I had seen girls in pants before, but never in school! However, our town, Roosevelt, a tiny, rural town had a great science teacher, Elizabeth Zingg. Ms. Zingg was six feet tall, a black belt in Karate and dedicated to inquiry based science instruction. It was Ms. Zingg and the science program at Roosevelt Public school that convinced me that I wanted to be a biologist. We did all kinds of cool practical things in her class, where we could answer our own questions. We made a Secchi disk to measure turbidity in the Assinpink Lake as well as taking other measures of ecological health like counting the algae and other microorganisms in the water. We really learned to use the available equipment including our microscopes; a skill I use in my present scientific career as an entomologist. 

I got to be an entomologist the hard way, or maybe I just took the scenic route. My parents were divorcing when I went to college and there was concomitant economic scarcity, so I decided that becoming a physician would be a practical choice. I was miserable. I didn’t like the pre-med grade grubbers, but I loved the subjects. Histology, the study of tissues was fascinating (have you ever thought about how the muscles in the uterus would be arranged?), but I came into my own in comparative vertebrate anatomy class. The class was taught by a paleontologist, Kathy Bossy, who wanted us to understand form and function, and also the evolutionary basis of the anatomy. I was hooked worse than a fish, and I became an evolutionary biologist.

In order to support myself in this rarefied endeavor I got a summer job watching crab spider foraging with one of the new professors in the Ecology department, Doug Morse. This was also a formative experience, and not only because of the tan we got while sitting out in the meadow (see picture). Doug was one of the professors who would ask his student about what they saw and what they thought. He always gave you the benefit of the doubt. Somedays he would come back the next day and say ‘yah know, I thought it over carefully and I think you were wrong yesterday for X, y, z reasons’…. I was really impressed that this famous 45 year old scientist was BOTHERING to think about what his assistants said. I did an honors thesis in that meadow, on orchid pollination, and thought to go off to University of Texas at Austin, where there were some great pollination biologists.


Duckett, Catherine N.
Catherine with Ruben Canet, Larry Gilbert and Nancy Grieg in Corcovado National Park, Costa Rica, 1985.

I started my Ph.D. program at UT Austin with a tropical ecology course given by a very charismatic professor, Larry E. Gilbert, an expert in butterfly ecology. In order to pay the bill for this 8 week course in Costa Rica (see bottom photo), I had to do some observations for his research program on butterfly egg-laying. I saw some flea beetles that were the same bright orange as the egg masses of these butterflies and used as I was to speaking freely in the field I said that I thought that the beetles might be competing with the butterflies for resources and possibly influencing how the eggs are laid and how well the caterpillars survived. Larry said tersely ‘I don’t think so’; contrary-wise my research project was born. This beetle also turned out to be a species new to science. I have had the privilege of describing this species, choosing its’ name and placing it in a classification. 

I was right about the beetles, but Larry was right about me. While I was organizing the legions of little beetles I had found eating the one species of passionflower that I studied, he used to go around muttering, "Catherine you think like a taxonomist, you think like a taxonomist". Taxonomy is the science of classification and nomenclature. I am now an insect taxonomist and I love it. It combines evolutionary biology and anatomy, modern taxonomists make evolutionary classifications based on study of features and most of the features that I use are anatomical. Taxonomy doesn’t seem creative, but it can be. I have found several new anatomical features that I have used to create new hypotheses of evolutionary relationship (family trees) and new classifications.

Larry and I agreed that I should get a Masters and I went on to Cornell for my Ph.D. in Entomology. Since then I have been a Fulbright fellow in Venezuela, a post-doctoral fellow in Japan, a Smithsonian fellow and a professor at University of Puerto Rico in Rio Piedras, before I came to Rutgers. At UPR when I was a newly minted faculty member I have to say that on a few occasions I had to pinch myself to be sure it was real and Mom hadn’t just dreamed of me finishing my dissertation again. 

Now I am primarily a university administrator and entomology is a secondary endeavor, however, my experience in science and as a faculty member make me a much better administrator and I have been surprised at how much I enjoy the problem solving of administrative work. The Office of Promotion of Women in Science, Engineering and Math is primarily that, a promotional organ; I can be creative in looking for good ways to make our scientists look better publicly feel better about their work and working environment, as well as to interact more productively. I relish that creativity.