2015 Ph.D. Graduate Profile: Carly Tribull

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On October 5, 2015, the latest cohort of graduates from the Museum’s Richard Gilder Graduate School—the first Ph.D.-degree-granting program for any museum in the Western Hemisphere—will receive Doctor of Philosophy degrees in Comparative Biology at a commencement ceremony in the Milstein Hall of Ocean Life. We're profiling the soon-to-be minted Ph.D.s this week.

During her four years at the Richard Gilder Graduate School (RGGS), Carly Tribull traveled the world. She flew to Gujarat, India; drove up the west coast of the United States from San Diego to Seattle; spent time at the Museum’s Southwestern Research Station in Arizona; camped her way down the east coast of Australia; and visited museums from Brazil to Paris.

Tribull Field
Tribull's field work during the course of her studies took her all over the world.

Tribull wasn’t on a grand tour, though. Her many road trips were all fieldwork to collect and study wasp specimens. Tribull’s aim while at RGGS was to map the evolutionary relationships within two families of wasps—the Dryinidae and Bethylidae. These solitary wasps are “parasitoids,” meaning the females lay eggs in or on other insects. These eggs then hatch into larvae that feed on the living host, killing it. This quality makes these wasps essential parts of ecosystems and means they serve as biological controls on many agricultural pests. While older evolutionary “trees” of these families were based on shared physical characteristics, Tribull wanted to add molecular genetic evidence, and test whether those traditional relationships held up under more comprehensive analyses.

To do that, Tribull collected numerous wasps during her many expeditions, using so-called Malaise traps (named for the man who developed them, not for a state of emotional ennui), which have a tent-like shape that funnels insects into a collecting vessel. Tribull brought those specimens back to the Museum to perform advanced DNA sequencing, and found that the relationships proposed on purely physical traits did not match her new results. 

“When you consider molecular data,” Tribull found, “you don’t get the same findings as the older classifications.”

Tribull Wasp
Tribull proposed a new evolutionary history for parasitoid wasps like this one.

Tribull used the data she gathered to create new phylogenies for these wasp groups. These trees of evolutionary relationships form the foundation of her Ph.D. dissertation, which she defended in May 2015, advised by James Carpenter. While at the Museum, Tribull also taught Columbia University graduate students how to discover, collect, and identify insects alongside her co-advisor David Grimaldi; and wrote, illustrated, and published a four-part comic series about the lives of a variety of wasps.

A highlight of her time at the Museum, though, was spending time among the millions of specimens housed in the collections of the Division of Invertebrate Zoology. While one might imagine that the collection, which hosts a vast library of ants, bees, wasps, and mollusks (along with other backbone-less animals), to be hushed or frequented only by scientists, Tribull also found it bustling with groups of students that were always visiting.

“The Museum is a great place if you’re interested in informal education,” she says. She relished opening drawers in the collections and sharing the giant katydids, the stickbugs, and more with visitors of all ages.

Recently, Tribull began a two-year visiting assistant professorship at Sam Houston State University, in Huntsville, Texas, where she is teaching zoology and contemporary biology, and continuing her scientific research on wasps. Once she settles in, Tribull plans to start taking students into the field where they’ll learn to identify and collect insects in the region. Hopefully, they too will catch the science bug.