A Scientist Who Writes Comics About the Secrets of Insect LifeS

Centuries ago, scientists relied on paintings and illustrations of animals to learn more about their anatomy. Today, that biology-art bond is as strong as ever. This is Carly Tribull, a PhD student studying the evolution of parasitic wasps, who uses her scientific knowledge and artistic talent to create fun comics that invite children and adults into the fascinating world of insects.

Learning to Love Bugs

A Scientist Who Writes Comics About the Secrets of Insect LifeS

Growing up in Florida near the Everglades National Park, Tribull learned early on how full of insects the world really is. And she absolutely hated it.

"I was really anti-insect," Tribull told io9. "I used to think, 'Oh god, they exist just to fly in my hair.'"

But she loved other animals, especially dinosaurs. Tribull's parents indulged her interest in dinosaurs, buying her books and toys to feed her imagination. Her father, an oral surgeon, especially helped her build her passion for animals — the pair would frequently watch nature shows on television together. "I think he secretly wanted to be a biologist," she said.

Throughout her childhood, Tribull was also very fond of drawing, and would often sketch animals, reinforcing her love of them. So, by the time she reached high school, she knew she wanted a career that involved animals. The only thing she had to figure out was what fashion that career would take. Did she want to help animals by becoming a veterinarian or a wildlife rehabilitator? Or would it be better to study them as a biologist, or even a paleontologist?

Whatever the future held, Tribull was certain about one thing: Insects were off the table. Or so she thought.

During her junior year of high school, Tribull took an advanced placement art class. One of the requirements of the course was to have a concentration — a topic, or theme, that would tie together all of the art she produced that year. "For me, since I was big biology nerd, I wanted my theme to be evolution," she said. "But I was open to interpretations."

Metamorphosis was the theme she eventually settled on. Throughout the year, she researched metamorphosis, and learned that it was a common phenomenon that numerous types of insects — including butterflies, beetles and wasps — go through. She became enthralled by the metamorphosis of cicadas, she explained. These insects go through an "incomplete" metamorphosis, which is marked by only three life stages (egg, nymph and adult) instead of the four stages (egg, larva, pupa and adult) of complete metamorphosis. Astoundingly, cicadas can spend up to 17 years underground developing as an immature nymph, before emerging from the ground as a winged adult. The more she learned about cicadas, the more she liked them.

"I stopped thinking about cicadas as these scary things," Tribull said. "And not just them, but other insects, too."

A Scientist Who Writes Comics About the Secrets of Insect Life

Biology or Art?

After high school, Tribull attended the University of California, Berkeley, which is a great school for vertebrate paleontology, she said. "By then, I was really gung-ho about that childhood dream of studying dinosaurs." But she was unwilling to give up drawing, so she double-majored in integrative biology and studio art. "I really fought to give equal space to both things."

Early on in her college career, Tribull figured out how to combine her two passions: She interned in a paleontology lab run by evolutionary biologist Kevin Padian, where she worked as a biological illustrator. When that position ended, she interned in biologist Marvalee Wake's lab, where she studied and illustrated the growth patterns of amphibians.

Then, a series of events brought insects — parasitic insects, in particular — back into her life. While taking a course on evolution, Tribull wrote a paper on parasitism — a topic that, she found, she loved researching. "So I started to think about how I could make the study of parasitism part of my post-college plans," she explained.

Around the same time, she was accepted into a summer research program at Sam Houston State University in Texas. During her time there, she use her illustrative abilities to help her advisor, entomologist Jerry Cook, describe a new genus and species of Strepsiptera — an order of parasitic insects. These insects, which are also called twisted-wing parasites, spend most of their lives parasitizing other insects, including cockroaches, bees and wasps.

"So I did that, and it kind of opened the door for insects," Tribull said. "That really won me over from paleontology." Though her summer work was on twisted-wing parasites, parasitoid wasps also fascinated her. These insects, she said, have the potential to become biological control agents, or insects that help control the populations of agricultural pests and invasive insects.

Unraveling the Evolutionary History of Wasps

Upon graduating from UC Berkeley, Tribull went straight into graduate school — she is now studying at the Richard Gilder Graduate School at the American Museum of Natural History (AMNH) in New York City, and working toward her PhD in entomology. "People often think it's this old museum filled with a lot of dead stuff, but we also have state-of-the-art labs," Tribull said.

Tribull's thesis is broadly focused on the evolutionary history of parasitoid wasps. She is currently studying two families of wasps: Bethylidae and Dryinidae. On the Bethylidae side of things, she is looking at the genus Epyris, which, like other bethylid genus, are parasites of caterpillars and beetle larvae. What's especially interesting about Epyris, Tribull said, is that its "taxonomy is all over the place." Scientists don't completely understand how Epyris fits in with, and is related to, other bethylid wasps. "I am using molecular sequences to sort out what the actual phylogeny is, and what the family is like."

A Scientist Who Writes Comics About the Secrets of Insect Life

Dryinid wasps, on the other hand, are captivating because of their really strange morphology, or physical features. Female dryinids are often wingless and resemble ants, but have odd pincer-like front claws (above), which allow them to grasp the leafhoppers and planthoppers they parasitize. After a dryinid wasp lays its eggs inside of a host, the eggs hatch and start developing inside its surrogate. But once the larvae get too big to continue growing inside their host's body, large sacks called thylaciums develop in the exoskeleton to house the parasites (below). Eventually, the larvae burst out.

A Scientist Who Writes Comics About the Secrets of Insect Life

To learn about the phylogeny (evolutionary development and history) of these parasitic wasps, Tribull and her colleagues aren't looking at molecular sequences; instead, they're concentrating on the insects' morphology. But they're not simply looking at the wasps' morphological characters and comparing them to other wasps, as you'd expect. They are using an advanced technique called landmark-based geometric morphometrics, which involves analyzing shapes using "landmarks" that are coded with Cartesian coordinates.

These projects will help scientists better understand the evolutionary tree of parasitoid wasps. "It's my hope that once we produce a good enough tree, we can look at that tree and maybe do some applied entomology," Tribull said. Specifically, researchers could use the information to selectively control agricultural pests and invasive insects by targeting them with specific parasitoid wasps. "In general, we are on the hunt for non-pesticide controls."

Educating Through Comics

Given Tribull's background, you'd expect that robust laboratories and cool insect research weren't the only things that drew her to AMNH. This is exactly the case — she also loves the museum's graduate school because of its lack of undergraduates. That is, rather than being a teaching assistant for undergraduate classes, Tribull's TAship is outreach oriented. Her approach to outreach: Comics.

As part of her TA requirements, Tribull illustrated and helped design "You Are the Queen," an educational, digital game about hornets. She is also producing an educational comic series called "Carly's Adventures in Wasp Land," in which her comic-self teaches her audience about wasps. "It came about because my advisor got involved with a grant to study different wasps," she said. "But part of the grant required some sort of public, educational aspect to the work."

A Scientist Who Writes Comics About the Secrets of Insect LifeS

So far, Tribull has produced three issues of "Carly's Adventures." The first issue detailed how she became an entomologist. In the second issue, comic Tribull conducts an interview with a solitary wasp. In her most recent issue, she gets a tour of a social wasp hive. Tribull's next and final issue, which she is currently working on, will be about parasitic wasps.

To keep the comics engaging, Tribull uses humor and anthropomorphizes her wasps. "It works really well," she said. "Making the comics is something I enjoy doing and something I want to continue doing."

The comics have been well received, so much so that they led her to getting involved with another comic project called Myrmex. Tribull worked with a team of scientists, educators, and illustrators from AMNH, Columbia University and elsewhere to produce a hefty comic about ants for libraries and schools in NYC. The group is also working to produce lesson plans tied to the comic, which will help teachers use the comic in their classrooms.

A Tough Choice

At this point, Tribull doesn't know what path awaits her after she graduates. "I love doing systematics, studying genetics and morphologies and thinking about bigger biological ideas," she said. At the same time, she enjoys making comics and interacting with educators and other scientists and illustrators. "It's the big issue for me: I don't want to bend in art, but I don't want to bend in science."

Science and post-doctoral research holds its own allure. Tribull's adoration of parasitic insects is as strong as ever, and she would love to continue studying parasitic wasps or other insects. Where she would continue on as a post-doc and what research projects she would be involved with depends on grants, which she hasn't begun seriously thinking about just yet.

Another possibility would be to continue her illustrative work with AMNH, and create comics for other departments. "I've talked to them about finding versions of me in the other departments," Tribull said. Art and illustration has had a long history of involvement with the sciences, particularly biology. In fact, one of Tribull's heroes is Maria Sibylla Merian, a 17th century naturalist and science illustrator, who was one of the first people to document metamorphosis — the very topic that got Tribull interested in insects in the first place.

Tribull's educational comics could help rear the next generation of scientists. "I think comics are a fabulous way to teach kids and engage them," she said. "If you are a 12-year-old girl like I was, and see that someone hated insects and got past it, it shows that you can be a biologist, too."

Images via Carly Tribull. Comic strips courtesy of Carly Tribull/AMNH.

Check out our previous profile on Charissa de Bekker, who studies zombie ants.